Corona-virus (COVID-19) in prisons:
Words from prisoners and a call to take healthcare for all inside and out seriously
15th of March 2020
In the light of the question whether prisons are taking enough precautions to safeguard their prisoners against the spread of COVID-19, I spoke with several prisoners in different states. I also contacted Marina Drummer of the Angola 3 Newsm who had some very informative links to share.
During a phonecall with our Brother Kenny Zulu Whitmore, who is incarcerated since 1975 and who is in a dormitory in LA State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, we talked about the situation inside during this COVID-19-pandemic. Zulu is still waiting for his court date, which will hopefully be soon, this March or April.
Zulu said that the prisoners were ‘locked in’, which basically means no visitors could come inside to visit the prisoners. I asked him if they had been given soap, handsantizer, and instructions what to do and how to keep “social distancing” while inside. If they received more “yard-time” outside as it is probably healthier in the outside air than inside with hundreds if not thousands of fellow prisoners and guards in the same rooms, close to each other. He had not seen any of these things yet.
Our Brother Joseph in WA State added the following:
“Here in the Washington prison system we’re in the early stages of this crisis and a quarantined area has been designated for those who may test positive. So far, no additional soap or other products are being provided, but all pecautionary measures are being taken. A concentrated emphasis is being placed on cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces. Since visits have been suspended were relying heavily on jpay services.
We salute our brothers, sisters, and loved ones across the nation to hold firm and trust in the power of due dilligence and faith.”
– Joseph “Broadway” Kennedy, Wash. State.
The prisoners and their loved ones have not been inactive in these times.
In California a letter, signed by many organizations (the ACLU and UCL among others), was sent to Governor Newsome on March 13th asking to protect the lives of the people impacted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), including people in custody, staff at CDCR, and the family members and communities of staff and those who are incarcerated.
The letter (see attached PDF) first of all asks to release all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 to parole supervision. Secondly, to release all people who have an anticipated release date in 2020 and 2021 to parole supervision. Thirdly, to expedite all review processes for people already found suitable for release, lift holds, and expedite the commutation process. Also: to immediately suspend all unnecessary parole meetings. Finally, to eliminate parole revocations for technical violations.
We are here further adding a few links we gathered and received from Marina Drummer (Angola3News) to help and to demand to authorities:
The Justice Collaborative (TJC) anchored a powerful webinar about the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people in prisons, jails and detention centers around the U.S.
You can watch the full recording at: https://youtu.be/ZQ7CMKwB-Ng
Below are important resources for understanding the impact on people inside and demands to make on public officials:
TJC also has factsheets out based on the initial ideas offered by the Prison Policy Initiative (see below):
Here is a link to the PPI report upon which many of these ideas are drawn.
- Explainer: Prisons and Jails are Particularly Vulnerable to COVID-19 Outbreaks — It is not a matter of if but when the coronavirus will enter prisons and jails, according to health experts. The consequences of that eventuality could be devastating. COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails will spread “like wildfire” due to close quarters, unsanitary conditions, a population that is more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the large number of people that cycle through the criminal justice system.
- Fact Sheet: Practices to Avoid in Jails and Prisons
- Fact Sheet: Practices for Law Enforcement
- How Practitioners Can Address COVID-19 in Asking for Release — This document summarizes what criminal court practitioners can do to try and address these risks with courts and minimize the risk of clients being confined.
Emergency Response Demand Lists
- COVID-19 Emergency Response: State & Federal Prisons
- COVID-19 Emergency Response: Local Jails
- COVID-19 Emergency Response: Courts
- COVID-19 Emergency Response: Prosecutors
- COVID-19 Emergency Response: Law Enforcement
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) on March 6th wrote the initial article which was referred to above with 5 powerful and very useful suggestions for politicians in these times of the pandemic. The letter to the California governor was also based on the suggestions of the PPI. It would be good if all other states followed the example of the California groups writing to Governor Newsome.
The title of the article in PPI is: No need to wait for pandemics: The public health case for criminal justice reform, by Peter Wagner and Emily Widra.
The PPI offer “five examples of common sense policies that could slow the spread of the virus. This is not an exhaustive list, but a first step for governors and other state-level leaders to engage today, to be followed by further much-needed changes tomorrow”:
Here are five places to start:
1) Release medically fragile and older adults.
Jails and prisons house large numbers of people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs, who are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and requiring more medical care with COVID-19. And the growing number of older adults in prisons are at higher risk for serious complications from a viral infection like COVID-19.
Releasing these vulnerable groups from prison and jail will reduce the need to provide complex medical care or transfers to hospitals when staff will be stretched thin. (In Iran, where the virus has been spreading for several weeks longer than in the U.S., the government just gave temporary release to almost a quarter of their total prison population.)
2) Stop charging medical co-pays in prison.
Most prison systems have a short-sighted policy that discourages sick people from seeking care: charging the free-world equivalent of hundreds of dollars in copays to see a doctor. In the context of COVID-19, not receiving immediate, appropriate medical care means allowing the virus to spread across a large number of people in a very confined space. These policies should all be repealed, but at a minimum should be immediately suspended until the threat of pandemic is over. (This will also reduce the administrative burden of processing and collecting these fees.)
3) Lower jail admissions to reduce “jail churn.”
About one-third of the people behind bars are in local jails, but because of the shorter length of stay in jails, more people churn through jails in a day than are admitted or released from state and federal prisons in 2 weeks. In Florida alone, more than 2,000 people are admitted and nearly as many are released from county jails each day.
As we explained in a 2017 report, there are many ways for state leaders to reduce churn in local jails; for example, by: reclassifying misdemeanor offenses that do not threaten public safety into non-jailable offenses; using citations instead of arrests for all low-level crimes; and diverting as many people as possible people to community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment.
State leaders should never forget that local jails are even less equipped to handle pandemics than state prisons, so it is even more important reduce the burden of a potential pandemic on jails.
4) Reduce unnecessary parole and probation meetings.
People deemed “low risk” should not be required to spend hours traveling to, traveling from, and waiting in administrative buildings for brief meetings with their parole or probation officers. Consider discharging people who no longer need supervision from the supervision rolls and allow as many people as possible to check in by telephone.
5) Eliminate parole and probation revocations for technical violations.
In 2016, approximately 60,000 people were returned to state prison (and a larger number were arrested), not because they were convicted of a new criminal offense, but because of a technical violation of probation and parole rules, such as breaking curfew or failing a drug test. States should cease locking people up for behaviors that, for people not on parole or probation, would not warrant incarceration. Reducing these unnecessary incarcerations would reduce the risk of transmitting a virus between the facilities and the community, and vice versa.”