Health and Medicine Law and Politics

Researcher: Prisons, jails, need to curtail the spread of COVID-19

More measures are needed to reduce mass incarceration rates and mitigate the spread of the virus, according to a University of Miami sociology professor.
A woman holds a sign during a protest outside the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Friday, April 10, 2020, calling for the release of prisoners from the jail. A federal judge ordered Cook County Jail to take prompt action to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including by making sure that the more than 4,000 detainees have access to adequate soap and sanitizer. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
A protestor holds a sign outside the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Friday, April 10, 2020, calling for the release of prisoners from the jail. A federal judge ordered Cook County Jail to take prompt action to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Associated Press

Painted on some of the windows of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, the messages were a desperate cry for help. 

“Save us,” read one. 

“We Matter 2,” read another. 

In just one week, nearly 300 inmates at the facility had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, causing several detainees to react in fear and express their concerns in one of the few ways available to them. 

But it is not only the Cook County Jail that is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19. Jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers all over the country are reporting cases, prompting civil rights groups to call for the release of certain inmates to reduce incarceration rates and, in turn, mitigate the spread of the virus behind bars. 

“Many states already have mechanisms in place to decrease prison populations, such as the compassionate release of inmates who are elderly or ill,” said Kathryn Nowotny, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, whose research focuses on the health care of justice-impacted populations. 

“To curtail the spread of the virus in our overcrowded prisons, we need to implement those mechanisms to a greater extent as well as explore other avenues,” she said, citing the early release of nonviolent inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences. 

Some states have already started to enact such measures. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, for example, recently signed an executive order granting early release to hundreds of inmates who are set to be paroled soon and are at high risk of contracting the virus. 

Another strategy: releasing low-risk detainees from overcrowded jails, where many of those in confinement haven’t been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial. 

Instituting such policies, even though they may be short-term, is not without its obstacles, Nowotny warned. 

“It takes broad coordination among states, district attorneys, public defenders, and a host of other criminal-justice actors,” she said. “And, then there is also the challenge of making sure we aren’t just sending people to the streets without plans in place to quarantine them before they go back to their families. It’s not an easy task.” 

Still, said Nowotny, it is critical that measures be taken to stem COVID-19 transmission rates within prisons and jails, where it is not uncommon for detainees to live in tight, confined spaces; share cells; and pack into bathhouse-style showers, making such environments ideal incubators for the coronavirus. 

It is nearly impossible for inmates living in such overcrowded conditions to follow guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of practicing social distancing, washing hands frequently, and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces to help stop the spread of COVID-19. “Soap can be in short supply and hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol, isn’t offered to them because of concerns they will abuse it,” Nowotny said. 

Making matters worse, many inmates enter the prison system already immunocompromised, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, respiratory disorders, HIV, and other underlying health conditions that put them especially at risk of contracting the virus. 

“The non-communicable diseases we see in society are amplified in prisons,” Nowotny explained, “and incarceration only exacerbates those conditions because it’s a very stressful environment.” 

Prisons, she said, are not “islands set off from the rest of society. Hundreds of people—guards, administrative staff, medical personnel—can cycle through a prison in just one day, and they’re all at risk. We’re seeing some scary outbreaks.” 

Approximately 197 inmates and 126 staff members at Florida’s 145 correctional institutions had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 27, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website. A total of 3,829 inmates are under medical quarantine, with 20 under medical isolation. Five inmates have died. 

Recently, more than 2,000 inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio tested positive for COVID-19, making the site the largest reported source of virus infections. 

Personal protective equipment for medical staff working inside prisons can be in short supply, Nowotny noted. While prisons and jails have medical facilities, they are limited in the extent to which they can provide health care for detainees, often relying on public hospitals and emergency departments that are already overwhelmed in caring for COVID-19 patients. 

Recent measures taken by various states to decrease prison populations and mitigate the spread of the virus are an opportunity to revisit criminal justice reform, Nowotny stated. 

“Why is it that 75 percent of people in our jails haven’t been convicted of any crimes, and what can we do to mitigate the health harms that mass incarceration causes?” she asked. “Why is it that 24 percent of the prison population in Florida is elderly? Is this something we can change? I’m hoping this will be a moment where these short-term progressive policy reforms can continue into the future,” she added. 

Nowotny is an investigator on the COVID Prison Project, which tracks the number of coronavirus cases in correctional institutions across the nation and analyzes how the incarcerated are being impacted by the pandemic. As of April 28, a total of 11,926 inmates across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the project’s website. Some 154 have died.

Detainees housed at immigration detention centers live in similar overcrowded conditions, facing risks of contracting the coronavirus that are as equally high as those encountered by inmates in prisons and jails. 

Last week, on April 22, the University of Miami School of Law’s Immigration Clinic scored a partial victory in federal court when a magistrate judge recommended that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials substantially lower the populations at three South Florida immigration detention centers because of the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19. 

The clinic and its partners had filed a lawsuit against U.S. immigration authorities on April 13, accusing them of ignoring CDC protocols to prevent the spread of the virus at the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami-Dade, the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, and the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven. The lawsuit asked for the release of detainees at those facilities. 

In his 69-page ruling last week, Magistrate Judge Jonathan Goodman said he did not have the authority to order the blanket release of detainees at the three detention centers, but he recommended that ICE, in twice-weekly reports, should be required to show that it is “substantially” reducing the population of non-criminal detainees at the facilities as a way to halt the spread of COVID-19. 

Over the weekend, however, ICE attorneys objected to Goodman’s recommendation, arguing that filing twice-weekly reports would be “unduly burdensome.” U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke is expected to rule on Goodman’s recommendations this week.

“Judge Goodman correctly recognized that the threat faced by men and woman at the detention centers is ‘bone-chilling’ and ‘horrific,’ ” said Rebecca Sharpless, professor of law and director of the Immigration Clinic. “The situation inside all three facilities is dire. It is impossible to social distance, as bunks, chairs, and tables are a few feet away from each other. People who have been exposed are being herded together not separated, and ICE continues to move new people into the facilities without quarantining them.” 

Meredith Hoffman, a second-year Miami law student in the Immigration Clinic, echoed Sharpless’ description of the horrid conditions inside the detention centers, noting that in her Skype conversations with detainees at the facilities, one inmate described being housed in a room with close to 50 others. 

“A few of the men spoke to me about how they witnessed a bunkmate getting very sick,” recalled Hoffman. “One of them even spoke to me about a bunkmate who developed such a bad fever that he was removed from the room in the middle of the night.” 

“The case continues," said Sharpless, "and, if Judge Cooke adopts Judge Goodman’s oversight measures, our clinic and its litigation partners will help to ensure that the government follows the court’s ruling.”