‘Much worse than a cruise ship’: Prisoners’ lives at risk from COVID-19

The Southern Poverty Law Center is suing Florida prison authorities to get records it believes are public related to COVID-19 in state prisons. Photo: luoman/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. That’s more people than there are living in major U.S. cities like Phoenix and Philadelphia or the combined total population of Florida’s four largest cities.

They’re particularly vulnerable to health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. They live in close quarters. Many are elderly; some are pregnant. Many have preexisting medical conditions that put them at higher risk for serious complications from the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus.

Prison reform advocates are pushing for swift actions to protect inmates and employees. They want officials to take urgent steps, like releasing elderly and otherwise vulnerable prisoners, ensuring that sanitation supplies are available and eliminating medical co-pays for prisoners.

“We locked these folks up and it’s our job not to let anything bad happen to them,” said Emily Galvin-Almanza, executive director of Partners for Justice.

Some actions to safeguard inmates and prison employees have been taken by federal, state and local officials, but advocates are warning the moves aren’t sufficient. And they fear that officials won’t act swiftly enough to save lives.

“It’s difficult to have an issue like this gain public traction when everybody is affected by this pandemic,” said Ed Chung, vice president of criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress. “That’s the enduring challenge of criminal justice reform issues like this, to get the public not to look at people who are incarcerated as those who should be dealt with last.”

Galvin-Almanza and David Mills, a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School, wrote an op-ed in Business Insider warning that as many as 100,000 people who pass through U.S. jails and prisons could die from COVID-19.

Incarcerated people “face a much higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 than they would on the outside — and behind bars, infection is more likely to be a death sentence,” they wrote.

‘This is life or death’ 

Members of Congress are pushing the Trump administration to do more to limit the pandemic’s spread in prisons.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chairwoman of a Judiciary subcommittee, sent Attorney General William Barr a letter on March 30 asking the Justice Department to “use every tool at your disposal to release as many prisoners as possible, to protect them from COVID-19.”

A bipartisan group of senators also asked Barr and the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons to consider using their authority to quickly transfer non-violent offenders facing significant medical risks to home confinement.

Barr issued a memo in late March urging the Bureau of Prisons to reduce the populations by sending some prisoners home, but said many prisoners would be safer in federal facilities, Politico reported.

“It was very tempting to get excited” when Barr issued that memo, said Galvin-Almanza. But the process laid out by the Justice Department for releasing inmates would “render any benefit completely impossible,” she added. It lays out burdensome requirements for prisoners, she said, and requires a 14-day quarantine period before anyone can be transferred to home confinement.

“We need an expedited process in a pandemic,” Galvin-Almanza said. “This is life or death.”

On Sunday, the Bureau of Prisons announced that it had increased the number of prisoners in home confinement by more than 40 percent since March and is continuing to aggressively screen all potential inmates for suitability for home confinement. In raw numbers, 3,419 inmates qualified.

The Bureau of Prisons announced that, beginning April 1, inmates in every federal prison would be quarantined in their assigned cells or quarters to combat the spread of the virus and that facilities would allow “limited group gathering.”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment about how many prisoners had been transferred to home confinement since the order was issued.

As of Monday evening, there were eight deaths at two federal prisons in Ohio and Louisiana. As of confirmed infections, 195 inmates and 63 staff have been infected.

Barr issued a memo on Friday directing the Bureau of Prisons to expand early release programs at some federal prisons, including the Louisiana prison and others in Danbury, Conn.; and Lisbon, Ohio, CNN reported. Two prisoners had died at the Ohio facility.

Kate Chatfield, senior advisor for legislation and policy at the Justice Collaborative, stressed that prisons are not contained, and outbreaks will inevitably spread to local communities.

“It’s much worse than a cruise ship” in that way, she said. People are in tighter quarters and employees are cycling in and out, she said. “Just because people are locked up doesn’t mean that it’s going to be contained in that facility.”

State responses

Federal prisons account for only a small amount of the population incarcerated in the United States.

A March report from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the vast majority of U.S. prisoners — about 1.3 million people — are held in state prisons. Another 631,000 are in local jails; federal prisons and jails hold 226,000 people.

Still, the federal government’s actions during the pandemic could significantly influence state and local policies, advocates say.

“Any big, visible system has the opportunity to show leadership in terms of dramatic moves,” said Galvin-Almanza.

Prison reform advocates hope the crisis will lead to broad changes.

“We’re seeing the fault lines in our system and the flaws,” said Chatfield of the Justice Collaborative. She said those flaws go beyond the risks posed to prison populations and pointed to the vulnerability of homeless people and the broader needs for adequate health care.

“My hope and my fear are completely entangled right now,” said Galvin-Almanza. “My hope would be this would be the moment we as a society realize that we need a better system.”

Her fear, she added, is that for that to happen, “the worst predictions about death in custody will have to come true.”

Florida Phoenix reporter Laura Cassels contributed to this report.