Prisons and the COVID-19 Pandemic: What Must Be Done NOW to Prevent Catastrophe

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Back in January, before most mere mortals had heard about COVID-19, I attended the wedding in Hong Kong of Dr. Sarah Borwein, an old Oxford friend and travel companion.

That led to this post, A Tale of Two Cities: How Hong Kong Has Controlled its Coronavirus Outbreak, While New York City Scrambles. Sarah’s a Canadian-trained doctor who has practiced medicine in Hong Kong for more than 15 years. She has an extensive professional history of dealing with infectious diseases in Asia. Prior to commencing her practice in Hong Kong, she successfully ran the Infection Control program for the only expatriate hospital in Beijing during the SARS period, also serving as liaison with the World Health Organization.

Also attending the wedding was Michele Deitch, another friend from Oxford, whom I hadn’t seen since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. We spent a pleasant weekend celebrating Sarah and Finn’s nuptials and filling each other in on what had happened in our lives during the past decades in a Hong Kong empty of tourists, scared away by their fear of ongoing political protests.

Michele was interested in prisoners when I first met her, and studied prison conditions as part of her research for an M. Sc. in Psychology  at Oxford University. I remember well some of her stories about her encounters with prisoners – a world far removed from the day-to-day experience of many of her fellow students. Her empathy was obvious, and it’s a quality she’s retained, as you can see in the following interview, at a time when empathy is in rather short supply – particularly for prisoners.

She is also a graduate of  Harvard Law School and of Amherst College.

Today, Michele is an attorney and teaches criminal justice policy at the University of Texas at Austin, where she holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and at the School of Law. Her areas of specialty include independent oversight of correctional institutions and prison and jail conditions. She works closely with policymakers, jail officials, and advocates on a wide range of reform efforts. Prior to entering academia, Michele served as a federal court-appointed monitor of conditions in the Texas prison system, the policy director of Texas’s sentencing commission, General Counsel to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and an independent consultant to justice system agencies around the country. (See more here.)

Earlier this week, I noticed a Facebook post of Michele’s on the ongoing COVID-19 crisis for prisons, and reached out to her to share her thoughts with you, dear readers. Over the last couple of days, we’ve been discussing the situation, on telephone calls and emails back and forth.

*****

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Could you summarize some of the prison conditions that facilitate COVID-19 spread?

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are so densely populated, and it is impossible for people in custody to keep a social distance from each other. There are usually two or more people in a small, shared cell and oftentimes there are large dormitories. There are shared open toilets and sinks, often part of a single fixture, and often located adjacent to the bunkbeds. The chow hall has shared tables and long lines, with food doled out cafeteria-style by incarcerated workers.  Lines are everywhere inside a facility: the pill line; the commissary line; the line for showers. Work assignments involve close contact with fellow workers. There are lots of group activities: school, vocational training, programs, recreation. In short, unless you are in solitary confinement (which is incredibly harsh and definitely something to be avoided), you are in constant close proximity to lots of other people.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: More than 2 million prisoners are incarcerated in the US. Yet prisoners are not the only potential victims of prison spread. COVID-19 will also hurt prison staff, who will further spread infections back into their wider communities. What can you tell us about these risks?

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are already facing lots of staffing challenges, with many facilities severely understaffed and with high turnover rates. Staff are usually poorly paid, and many have difficult working conditions.

Of course, COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate between staff and prisoners, and once the virus is in the facility, it will affect everyone regardless of their position.

With this new challenge, we need to make sure that staff are protected as well as people in custody.  And we certainly need to make sure that they are not coming to work if they are sick, because the consequences could be disastrous.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: I understand that reducing the prison population is one policy that can mitigate potential COVID-19 consequences, both keeping people from entering the system, and accelerating release of existing prisoners. Please tell me a bit more about this.

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are at especially high risk for the spread of COVID-19, because they are so densely populated and there is little ability to implement social distancing strategies. When (not if) the virus hits these facilities, it will spread like wildfire, with disastrous consequences.Thus it is urgent for all places of detention to immediately reduce the number of people who are incarcerated, both to make social distancing a bit easier and also so that incarceration doesn’t mean a death sentence for people in custody who have little ability to protect themselves in these circumstances.

There are two ways to reduce the population. Think of these institutions as bathtubs. First, we have to turn off the spigot, to reduce the number of people entering the facilities; and second, we have to open the drain, to accelerate releases of people who are already incarcerated.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: What is being done across the country to reduce the number of people entering the prison system? I know some jurisdictions are increasing pre-trial release, particularly for non-violent offenses and other low-risk prisoners, and Fox reports that Philadelphia is now delaying arrests, Philadelphia police to delay arrests for certain non-violent crimes.

MICHELE DEITCH: Experts and advocates around the country are correctly urging law enforcement officials to limit the number of arrests, and wherever possible, issue citations in lieu of arrest. No one who is medically vulnerable or pregnant should be brought to the jail. People charged with non-violent felonies and misdemeanors should not be brought to the jail’s booking area unless they present a serious risk to public safety. Each person who comes into the jail is a potential vector for transmission of the virus. Beyond that, warrants for minor offenses should be suspended. Probation and parole should not be revoked for technical violations of conditions. And anyone charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies, and those presenting little risk to the community, should be released on personal bonds. All people sitting in the jail because they can’t raise money for bond should have their cases reviewed immediately.

A number of jurisdictions, from San Francisco to San Antonio, have recognized that these steps are critically important as public health measures and have started to implement them.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: What about on the back end – parole and compassionate release? This would seem to me to be important, especially since much of the older prison population has co-morbidities, and are not at great risk for recidivism. 

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons are full of medically vulnerable and elderly people and they are at incredibly high risk of falling prey to this virus. Plus, they represent a huge demand on correctional medical services. Parole boards need to immediately implement compassionate release programs that allow for the release of as many of these individuals as possible in order to reduce their risk of dying and to free up medical care for dealing the COVID-19 situation. And that can be done at little risk to public safety, since they are so unlikely to recidivate.

At the same time, parole boards should be speeding up parole consideration for people eligible for parole release.  Maybe that means holding additional hearings, not delaying someone’s release until they complete one additional program if they are otherwise eligible for release, or adding some extra good time in appropriate cases to make someone eligible for release a month or two ahead of schedule.  None of that will affect public safety but it may give someone a chance of surviving this virus.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: The United States is known for its massive, brutal prison system.  Other countries have made mistakes with their COVID-19 prison policies, and these have caused unnecessary deaths. What should US officials learn from these mistakes?

MICHELE DEITCH: Italy abruptly restricted visitation, apparently not replacing it with any alternative means of communication, and that led to riots with a number of deaths and escapes.  There are lots of lessons here, including that all restrictive measures, however appropriate, should be accompanied by mitigation strategies to reduce the harm caused to people in custody.  Corrections officials need to be cognizant of their obligations to prevent violence and tension in the facilities, at the same time as they seek to address the public health challenge.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Beyond reducing the prison population  at both front and back ends, what is being done to limit COVID-19 spread?

MICHELE DEITCH: Depends on the facility. Most facilities are woefully underprepared, and many others seem oblivious to the seriousness of the risks they are facing. Some administrators, though, are showing leadership in their efforts to reduce the population and minimize the risk of spread. Most facilities, at this point, have restricted visitation.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: What should be done? Could you please outline key steps that can be taken, right now, to reduce prisoner and worker exposure to COVID-19, and limit its spread, reduce its severity, and minimize fatalities?

MICHELE DEITCH: There’s a very long list of steps that could be taken. Among the most critical are: reducing the number of people incarcerated, as discussed above; reducing the potential for transmission from the community to inside the facility, by limiting the number of people coming in from the outside and by carefully screening anyone coming into the facility; providing people in custody with free and readily available soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies for their living areas, and not treating this as contraband; providing people in custody with thorough and constantly updated information about the seriousness of this virus and how they can protect themselves; reducing congregate activities; eliminating medical co-pays, so someone who is sick has no disincentive to be treated; providing free testing to both staff and people in custody; and having a plan to treat and house separately anyone with symptoms of COVID-19.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: The Marshall Project reports in As COVID-19 Measures Grow, Prison Oversight Falls that prison oversight is plummeting, with entry of monitors limited, ostensibly to limit COVID-19 spread. Also, I note that visits by outsiders are also being limited, for similar reasons. What should be done to counteract these trend, and make sure that prisoners are protected?

MICHELE DEITCH: Prisons and jails are the most closed institutions in our society, and even before this crisis, we had little knowledge of what is happening behind the walls. In a handful of states, there are independent oversight bodies providing routine monitoring of conditions of confinement, and helping make those conditions transparent through their public reporting of their findings and recommendations. Some of these oversight bodies also provide investigation of complaints by prisoners or their loved ones.  There are also some state government entities that regulate county jails by monitoring their compliance with minimum standards. But now, few monitors are able to go onsite to the facilities, meaning that oversight is severely limited The risks of abuse, neglect, poor conditions, and failure to comply with standards are obviously increased, without that external scrutiny. That’s why it is so critical for oversight bodies to be collecting and reporting data about key indicators of safety and health inside the facilities.  Corrections officials should also establish a hotline so people in custody can call these independent entities. And corrections officials can conduct daily briefings for the press and for other public officials about what is happening inside, especially with regard to spread of the virus and how these challenges are being handled.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD:  Could you elaborate on what policies prisons need to enact to mitigate harms caused by measures intended to limit COVID-19 spread? What do prison officials need to do to reduce inevitable tensions? Counteract enforced idleness?  

MICHELE DEITCH: It is critical that corrections officials be thinking not only about restrictions, but about ways to mitigate the harms caused by those restrictions. For example, to counter the harms caused by restricting visitation, officials need to increase access to free phone calls and video visitation. If educational programs get cut back, then look for ways to deliver content through tablets. Avoid locking down individual cells, and try to allow continued activity within a cellblock, once it is determined that no one there is sick. And recognize that enforced idleness and prolonged cell confinement can lead to tension and violence, both of which need to be prevented through mitigation strategies. Corrections officers really need to work on their de-escalation skills at this time to reduce those tensions and to avoid the need for hands-on contact and use of force.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has set prisoners to making hand sanitizer. Is this sensible? Will the sanitizer be sanitary? And isn’t there a certain irony in that in many prisons, hand sanitizer is contraband (according to this recent Marshall Project article, When Purell is Contraband, How Do You Contain Coronavirus?).

MICHELE DEITCH: There are definitely multiple ironies around the fact that people in custody are making hand sanitizer. First of all, it shows how dependent we’ve become on the prison industrial complex to meet the commercial needs of our society, and reveals that the public’s health may depend in part on what happens inside prisons. Second, prisoners are allowed to make hand sanitizer, but they can’t use it – it is actually contraband behind the walls. So they can help keep everyone else safe, but can’t keep safe themselves. And third, we need to remember that prisoners are making pennies per hour to produce these essential goods. I guess it is naked capitalism in its purest form.

JERRI-LYNN SCOFIELD: Any question (s) I should have asked but didn’t?

MICHELE DEITCH: That’s a lot already!

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18 comments

  1. MLTPB

    I read that here in CA of plans to house the homeless in buildings they are trying to either get, or to put to use (empty currently).

    One concern is to crowd hundreds into each building runs counter to isolation, I would think.

    Reply
  2. Knifecatcher

    This would be an excellent time to nationalize the morally repugnant cartels who profit off the incarcerated. If you want to send an inmate money to make phone calls, video chat, or buy anything from the commissary that money has to go through a private vendor in many (most?) cases.

    I recently had a family member spend time in jail – he’s on parole now, thankfully – and the fee to send him money while there was a flat $8.95, no matter how much you send. The maximum you could send at one time was $150, so best case scenario it was a 6% fee to this private vendor (inmatecanteen.com) for use of a web interface that looks to have been designed in 2004.

    Burn the prison-industrial complex to the ground.

    Reply
    1. MLTPB

      Profiting.

      Taiwan, people say a model for the world, uses inmates to make masks.

      (SCMP, Bangkok Post, etc).

      They volunteered, according to Gulf News.

      Reply
  3. The Historian

    I agree with everything this author has said. And I know most prisoners shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Prisons have been society’s way of dealing with drugs and the mentally ill who really should have been in treatment, not in prisons.

    But I’ve had a long conversation with my daughter who works for the corrections system in another state. She obviously wants the prisons emptied too, but her concern is that prisons will just dump people out the door. Case workers already have a hard time trying to find housing for released prisoners – what will happen to those prisoners who can’t find housing and have no one that will take them in? Are we trying to alleviate one crisis by creating another? My daughter is especially worried about older prisoners – most of their ties to society are gone – how are they supposed to figure out how to manage in this society without help? Instead of just dumping prisoners, she would rather release prisoners that have families or friends to take them in and use case workers spending their time to at least find housing for those who don’t. She’d also like to see empty hotels and motels used as temporary housing until the crisis is over and better housing can be found – the states could mandate this if they wanted, so why are so few states doing this?

    Reply
    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Conservatives are inherently cruel and simply don’t care.

      Neoliberals are also cruel, but they like to be extraordinarily smug for no apparent reason and are now faced with decision making that goes beyond profit extraction. They simply have no idea how to do this. I actually think even if they arrived at a good idea, simply hearing a similar idea from someone who isn’t part of the meritocracy would lead them to nix the idea or make it so terrible to become useless altogether.

      Reply
    2. notabanktoadie

      Prisons have been society’s way of dealing with drugs and the mentally ill who really should have been in treatment, not in prisons.

      And if the only effective treatment is to end their poverty are you not implicitly blaming the victims of an inherently unjust society and, in the case of drug users, their means of ameliorating their misery?

      Proverbs 31:6-9

      Reply
  4. Frank Little

    Here are a couple reports from inside prisons in Wisconsin from the last few days:

    “my unit locked down because of 18 cases of influenza A…. The CDC recommends hand sanitizers, the DOC denies it…. I feel we need to ask before the storm hits so the families of the 1400 can prove deliberate indifference”

    “The Secretary Kevin A. Carr has issued an alert and memorandum explaining the upcoming procedures to be followed to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. So far, inmates’ personal visits have been cancelled indefinitely and other things of ours, including but not limited to movement, graduations and events, recreation, group activities and other things may be cancelled at a later date. While they specifically warn us about what not to do or to do, washing our hands, avoid touching our eyes, nose and mouth, avoid hand to hand contact such as handshakes, it does NOT tell us that any/all staff will be screened such as having their temperatures taken when entering the institution. Let’s be honest, the only way inmates will get it is by staff neglect/ignorance”

    “Workers show up every day, coughing, hacking, blowing their noses.”

    “Inmate transfers from Institution to Institution still happening all over the state!! All staff is still coming and going, carrying Covid-19 to a high concentration of people. What makes staff any less likely to carry and spread the virus that anybody else? Furthermore a high percentage of staff is above 45 years old. What sense does this make? Protocol for DOC in case of pandemic, quarantine! DOC does not have room at 140% operating capacity. Most institutions are old with poor to no ventilation and little chance of containment. Do the non violent offenders deserve such exposure?”

    Reply
      1. Frank Little

        Thanks for this link.

        One guard who agreed to speak with FOX6 News on the condition he remain anonymous noted Thursday there’s plenty of concern among his colleagues.

        “You can’t really put hand sanitizer out because the inmates will drink it,” he said.

        As always the sorry conditions in prison are blamed on the people with literally no say in how anything operates and demeaned in the press with no pushback. Only staff could bring the virus in to the facility, prisoners are made to buy their own cleaning products at absurdly high prices. Last year we compared the price of canteen products to the minimum wage in prison of $0.09/hr to the outside minimum wage to see how much the products would cost someone working the federal minimum wage. A bar of Irish Spring soap cost the equivalent of $68.

        Reply
  5. David

    The first French prisoner has died of Covid-19. He was a 73-year old man of North African origin, held on remand, accused of domestic violence. Four other prisoners have tested positive and there are about a hundred suspected cases. The prison of Fresnes, north of Paris, is notorious for its overcrowding – it’s currently 60% above its nominal capacity.
    In most countries, a prison would be the nightmare location for an outbreak. Prisons are dirty, overcrowded and forcibly put people in direct contact for long periods of time. Studies have shown that prisoners tend disproportionately to have learning difficulties, including dyslexia, have fewer years at school, are often functionally illiterate, frequently have psychiatric problems, and tend to be more psychopathic and anti-social than average. They also have less good health than average. In France, as everywhere, I think, prisoners are drawn disproportionately from immigrant groups. In France around 70% of inmates are reckoned to be from such communities, many from the organised gangs which prey on those communities in the suburbs of the big cities. Gang discipline seems to extend to within the prisons themselves, and prisoners have been able to use mobile phones to carry on their business from within the prison. The Prison Service is understaffed and suffers from low morale and even suicides. To add to the fun, a lot of radicalization goes on in prison, and many of the killers in the wave of jihadist violence of 2015-16 were radicalized in that way. It’s estimated that there are about 1000 jihadists in the system, out of about 70,000 prisoners.
    The consequences of all this don’t bear thinking about. Supposing there were a major outbreak, the number of prisoners affected would rapidly increase to a point where the system could not cope. There are about 900 severely ill patients on reanimation in the whole of France today: there are 2500 prisoners in Fresnes alone. What happens if there is a major riot? Do you let the inmates take over the prison? Do you send the police in in full protective gear? Et cetera.

    Reply
  6. Tom Stone

    David’s remarks match my observations of the jail population in Sonoma County, fortunately for me I stopped going into the jails when I started Chemotherapy in January ( After 15 years).
    I’m also acquainted with someone scheduled to be sentenced to the federal pen today, he has type 2 diabetes and heart problems, it’s likely a death sentence.

    Reply
  7. dbk

    Many thanks for highlighting this issue to both Jerri-Lynn and Prof. Deitch.

    Due to the Byzantine-style organization of the U.S. correctional system (local/county jails – state prisons – federal prisons – juvenile detention centers – ICE detention centers), it seems like a very severe challenge to develop a national policy – although clearly, one is needed.

    Note: In addition to jails/prisons, other highly-vulnerable populations include those in nursing homes (cf. Washington state and the recently-reported outbreak of COVID-19 in 19 long-term care facilities in Florida), and the homeless.

    I would kindly ask that fellow-readers and commenters link this post in their Twitter feeds (if they have one) +/or other social media which they regularly use.

    Reply
  8. MT_Bill

    So this is a clearly awful situation, and there is certainly no reason to believe it will get better anytime soon.

    The U.S. Covid-19 Response Plan is warning that this could last 18 months and involve multiple waves of illness. It also predicts that supply chain issues will worsen.

    With that outlook, what crimes are we considering “non-violent”? Is the author or are commentors above suggesting releasing individuals that have a history of theft?

    Under normal times that would be considered non-violent, but under shortages and rationing could be considered violence or life threatening.

    Reply
  9. jashley

    For all the reasons stated in the interview and more , the solution is exactly the opposite of total release.

    The last thing one SHOULD wish to see is an infected population released helter-skelter into the outside population and scattered to the four corners.

    There is little doubt that there are virus infected in the prison/jail populations.

    Handle them within the walls.
    You would not wish to release a cruise ship full of infected into the wide open would you?

    You fight the war one battle at a time , wrong time/wrong solution.

    Reply
  10. upstater

    In patient mental health facilities are probably even worse than the problem of prisons. They are locked down and are generally filthy and understaffed. How about bathrooms without TP or soap and towels? They have large staffs paid poorly to keep a lid on things, plus RNs, PAs, NPs; there are MDs – psychiatrists and GPs, all going to be drafted elsewhere. They are often physically adjacent to acute care hospitals.

    Speaking from familial experience.

    I can forsee mass discharges of mental health patients that cannot manage life in a normal world and certainly not now.

    In a month we’ll be saying we wish we lived in Italy.

    Reply
  11. JBird4049

    None of this is new. There have been people yelling about this for some decades.

    The combined prison/jail/homeless population just in California is roughly 350,000 people with the former often considered human waste and the latter surplus to need or is it the other way around? The many thousands of people who are sleeping in their vehicles and have had full time work are considered much the same. You can add the perhaps hundreds of thousands of desperate people surviving on maybe a thousand a month living in places like Paradise, Clearlake, Yreka or the many other Californian nowherevilles where there are no jobs, stores, banks or hospitals.

    It makes me think that some of our PMC and the Democratic and Republican politicians want the various diseases, of which COVID-19 is merely the latest, to thin the troublesome herd. Have some neo-Social Darwinistic cleansing and save on taxes as well.

    I am not joking. And yes, I am talking about California. That (hah) Golden State.

    Reply

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