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How U.S. Prisons Became Ground Zero for Covid-19

POLITICO logo POLITICO 6/25/2020 By Taylor Miller Thomas
Signs pleading for help hang in windows at Chicago's Cook County jail, the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections. © Scott Olson/Getty Images Signs pleading for help hang in windows at Chicago's Cook County jail, the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections.

Coronavirus outbreaks are hitting unevenly across the United States, with poor people, people of color and nursing homes all bearing the brunt of the disease. But in few places has the problem been worse than in prisons.

Eight of the top 10 coronavirus clusters in the country have been in jails and prisons, where inmates live in close quarters, sharing everything from cells to telephones. Some of the numbers have been astonishing: When Marion Correctional Institute in Ohio tested all inmates in April, for instance, it found that nearly 80 percent of inmates have or previously had the coronavirus. And even as the first wave of infections subsided in the rest of the country in early summer, cases and deaths continued to climb in detention facilities.

The prison crisis has already led to emergency policy reforms, such as releasing inmates who have little time left or paroling some inmates early, though some critics have worried it's too little, too late.

Fighting the prison Covid-19 crisis effectively requires having good data—but that effort is complicated by uneven information and reporting methods across states.To get a fuller picture, POLITICO Magazine has compiled some of what we know about the coronavirus outbreak inside U.S. jails and prisons.

Jails and prisons pose particular risks for spreading infectious diseases, said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an assistant professor and associate director at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine whose research includes prisons and jails.

“We have long known that prisons and jails are repositories for the spread of infectious diseases, from tuberculosis to other respiratory infections,” she said, “and this coronavirus is even more infectious, so it's no surprise at all.” She pointed to several reasons: a lack of space to practice social distancing, inability to follow proper hygiene protocols, contact from the surrounding community and limited containment options. Federal and state prisons alike have seen a surge in cases and deaths that has continued to grow in recent weeks.

As of June 20,1,327 inmates in federal prisons tested positive for the coronavirus, or about 0.9 percent of all federal inmates in federal Bureau of Prisons-managed and community-based facilities. These numbers, however, represent only a partial picture, because the federal agency is not mass-testing all inmates. That same day, the BOP reported that its facilities have completed 18,919 tests. As of the same day, 3,972 inmates had recovered, and 79 inmates at federal prisons had died from the virus.

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The latest increase, an upward trend of about 500 cases from the end of May to mid-June, is from clusters of cases at more facilities, even as the numbers at some of the prisons that were heavily affected at first have gone down.

Some federal prisons have begun testing every inmate, regardless of whether or not they show symptoms due to the high number of cases already present or due to the number of high-risk inmates incarcerated at the facility. For example, mass testing at Federal Correctional Institution, Lompoc in California in May and Fort Worth’s Federal Medical Center in April revealed a high number of cases at each institution.

Less information is available from individual states’ corrections departments, because not all of them regularly report infections and deaths. Without testing all inmates consistently, it's not possible to tell how widespread any given outbreak is.

Michigan and Arizona are examples of two different testing strategies. Each state has about 40,000 inmates in state custody, but only Michigan has used mass testing so far, while Arizona has tested a more limited number of inmates.

As of May 22, Michigan announced the state has tested every prisoner in the Department of Corrections system, while Arizona had tested 2.5 percent of inmates in its custody. A total of 3,263 Michigan inmates, or 8.6 percent of the population, had tested positive. One hundred seventy-two Arizona inmates tested positive, equal to 0.42 percent of the overall population and 66 percent of all inmates tested.

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Slideshow by photo services

“We’re working with the ADHS [Arizona Department of Health Services] to increase the testing among our population,” said a spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

This disparity between the two states suggests that in states with limited testing, the spread of Covid-19 is likely larger than their numbers of recorded cases suggest. Chris Gautz, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said his agency was aware that mass testing early could create the impression that Michigan prisons were uniquely hard-hit.

“We knew that people would point to us and say, 'Oh look at Michigan, it’s got a huge problem, look at all the Covid cases there,’” he said. “But I think if every state were to have done mass testing like we did, I think Michigan wouldn’t have stood out. I think every state is going to have cases, we just happen to know where ours are.”

Race and ethnicity have also complicated the spread of the coronavirus in prisons: Minorities, particularly Black people, are incarcerated at higher rates, and have also seen higher Covid-19 mortality rates. And inmates often have higher instances of chronic health problems than the general population.

“[Incarcerated people] are absolutely at higher risk of severe complications from Covid … and that is because so many incarcerated people already have chronic conditions that put them in these high-risk categories of developing more severe disease,” said Sufrin.

People with chronic illnesses, including cancer, high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, diabetes, have other conditions that compromise the immune system or that take medications that suppress the immune system, are all thought to be “most susceptible to serious complications” of Covid-19, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Incarcerated individuals are likelier than the general public to have many of these conditions.

The greatest risk of transmission between prisons and surrounding communities likely lies with staff who work in these facilities.

Michael Myers, director of the Douglas County Department of Corrections in Nebraska, explained how the risk guards posed to spread the coronavirus drove their decision to have all staff wear masks beginning in early April.

Once they established a process to prevent spread among inmates, “We acknowledged that it was the staff that were the greater risk, because you have about 500 staff who are coming in and out of the building several times each week,” Myers said. The department, Myers said, has provided masks for all inmates in their facilities, though not all inmates have chosen to wear masks.

Thus far, a total of four guards and three inmates in the Douglas County Department of Corrections have tested positive for the coronavirus (out of a total of approximately 200 staff and approximately 60 inmate tests). Based on contact tracing, Myers said they do not believe the guards transmitted the coronavirus to one another, and also said the inmates who tested positive came to the facility with the coronavirus—rather than contracting the virus on arrival.

Some state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons have begun releasing inmates to reduce prison populations and the spread of the coronavirus.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has released detailed data on the number of inmates released by facilities in response to the coronavirus. It has released inmates based on maximizing parole releases, furloughing parolees to home plans and reviewing inmates who are “beyond their minimum sentences.”

As of June 20, the overall state correctional institution population had shrunk by 587 inmates from the previous month, to 41,621 inmates. The community correctional center and facility population also fell by 231 inmates over the same period, to a population of 2,612. Despite a system-wide decline in inmates, seven state correctional institutions were still overcrowded.

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