“Prisons Are Known Incubators and Amplifiers of Disease,” Making It a High Risk Area for the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Danielle Silva

DAVIS – Multiple speakers at a Justice Collaborative webinar called for individuals to be released due to prisons being “known incubators and amplifiers of disease.”

The Justice Collaborative ran an emergency webinar titled “Emergency Call: COVID-19 and the Criminal Justice System” which gathered speakers across the United States to talk about how the coronavirus will affect individuals in the criminal justice system. During the emergency webinar, multiple speakers called for individuals to be released due to the fact that prisons do not meet minimum health standards, force individuals to be in close quarters with one another, and many elderly incarcerated persons risk being susceptible to the disease.

“We also know that all of us are being called upon to do our part in mitigating the harm of this virus and to protect the most vulnerable among us,” Kumar Rao, a Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School and worker at the Center for Popular Democracy. “Who really is more vulnerable than individuals being held against their will, held in confined spaces, sometimes literal cages with little to no access to basic hygiene products, running water, medical care, or physical separation from other people, some of whom may be ill.”

Rao noted that the Prison Policy Initiative reported that the US has a total of almost 2.3 million people in state prisons, federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, Indian country jails, military prisons, immigration facilities, civil commitment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the US territories.

“These staggering numbers reveal that we are already in a crisis of criminalization and incarceration in our country,” Rao said.

He explained this webinar was done to create greater awareness of those who could be negatively impacted by the virus in the criminal justice system. Speakers in this webinar would talk about potential ideas in which to protect and provide proper treatment to those who were still incarcerated.

Josie Duffy Rice, a lawyer, journalist, and president of The Appeal, would be moderating the conversation. She stated that some argue that pouring people into jails is to maintain safety and that the coronavirus spread is a stark realization of their argument is not true. Incarcerated individuals are all at risk and this situation is a reminder of our shared vulnerability.

Representative Ayanna Pressley, Representative for the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, stated that there should be no hierarchical response to the pandemic. She noted that the government can ensure the safety of immigrants and incarcerated people and communities can call the Bureau of Prisons to see what they’re doing to prevent the spread of the virus. She announced that a letter based on her line of question went out inquiring about the guidance the Bureau of Prisons is receiving in response to the virus.

Rep. Pressley noted that this webinar was a “testament to our collective vigilance in using every tool available.” She noted that Customs and Border Patrol and ICE barely meet the minimum health requirement to screen, diagnosis, and treat the virus and the health conditions of detainment have subpar conditions.

“I’m still reeling from the exploitation and the ironic contradiction that in New York that we would have incarcerated men and women producing hand sanitizer for 26 cents an hour that they cannot even access themselves,” Rep. Pressley said. “The sanitizer is 70% alcohol and hand sanitizer has been banned in prisons because of the presence of alcohol. The exploitative nature of this – that they would be producing something to keep everyone else safe but they cannot access it themselves.”

She also pressed for the compassionate release of elderly individuals in the prison system as they are at a high-risk age and are living in a high-risk environment, especially considering the overcrowding of elderly, pregnant women, and those with higher risk of infection detained by ICE and CBP.

Rep. Pressley also noted that 500,000 individuals are in jail waiting for hearing or are not convicted are also at risk. She stated “Trauma doesn’t treat trauma,” and called to reduce overcrowding to avoid the devastating spread of the virus.

A former medical officer for the New York City jails also spoke about the poor health conditions behind bars and how the virus goes beyond borders, including the prison system.

“Healthcare behind bars is poor and inadequate, mostly because it has been designed to be that way,” Dr. Homer Venters said. He noted that most programs that help us realize what good healthcare is do not spread the same awareness in the prison system. The transparency and the quality of healthcare in the prison system are mostly up to sheriffs and commissioners of correction who are not up to the job.

Dr. Venters shared that the prisons are at risk of spreading communicable diseases and lack infection control and basic access to hand washing which will cause the coronavirus to spread rapidly. He has concerns as to the critical decisions made to where certain treatments or resources go and who is admitted to hospitals, many incarcerated individuals may not have access to that.

In terms of access, most jails don’t have enough sinks, soap, or other basic tools of infection control. He noted these facilities need to contribute resources to basic infection control, such as being able to separate individuals who have symptoms. Dr. Venters also posed the question how we will get them the ability to cover these problems and push them for ensuring the standard is applied evenly across our society.

Barbara Suarez Galeano, the Organizing Director of the Detention Watch Network, called for Matthew Albens, the ICE Executive Director, to release all ICE detainees. She states those individuals are sitting ducks and the structure of mass confinement poses a serious danger to public health especially with “ICE’s longstanding and well documented history of medical neglect, abuse, and malnourishment of people detained.”

She stated that undocumented immigrants were caged at higher rates. In addition, she stated that there have already been 8 reported deaths in ICE custody just this year. Galeano explains those people should be released immediately and ICE has had a history of outbreaks in mass confinement which is a threat to entire communities. She notes peoples’ needs have to be placed first.

Galeano also pointed out that $4.4 billion dollars are put towards detention and removal instead of towards a public crisis. She argued for the humanitarian release of detainees.

Patriess Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, founder of Dignity and Power Now, and chair of Reform L.A. Jails, wanted to express gratitude for everyone trying to stay connected while being told to separate physically.

As someone located in LA, she noted that universities and other places are being called to shut down. The LA county, in the meantime, has 17,000 prisoners on the daily and is at nearly 136% capacity. The jails are full of the most vulnerable people who are suffering from drug dependency, severe mental illness, and receiving little to no care. The prison system also has a large elderly population with already standing medical issues placing them in a dire situation.

Cullors notes that pressure should be placed on the county sheriff, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, the Superior Court System, and the County Board of Supervisors to address these issues. She argued individuals need to rearrange how they understand harm and violence in the country as many have been pushing and challenging the potential issues like this for the last decade.

She called for the immediate release of anyone who doesn’t pose a serious body risk to the community, anyone with 30 days or less of sentencing remaining, or medically fragile adults. Anyone with a non-custodial sentence should also not be sent to jail. Cullors also stated that arrests and booking should be suspended, in-person hearings and warrants should be reduced, and individuals should focus instead on treating, not citing or arresting people.

Cullors notes that there are a significant amount of empty buildings and hotels which we can present to the community members. She notes solutions we offer now could be an opportunity to fix things for the long term.

David Patton, the Executive Director and Attorney-in-Chief of the Federal Defenders in New York, talked about the issues in the New York prisons.

He notes that their detained clients are in the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) which holds over 700 people and the Metropolitan Detention Center which holds about 1,500 people. Both are run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Due to a nationwide lockdown, the BOP has stopped all visiting in those facilities.

Patton explains the prisons are unsanitary with past issues of raw sewage floods and lacking proper medical care. He notes that there are occasions where many individuals have to share one toilet. In cells built for one person, prison overcrowding has forced two people to stay in rooms that often don’t have a properly functioning toilet and are not able to shower properly. As a result, many meet high-risk criteria but there has been an utter disregard for this issue and no confidence the BOP is going to handle this crisis appropriately.

“Elderly people need to be released now before it’s too late,” Patton stated. “If these folks contract it in a jail setting, their lives are at risk.”

He notes individuals should generally be reducing the prison population, especially with staffing issues making individuals unable to respond to the enormous number of inmates. Patton also argued individuals need room and space to deal with medical emergencies and get people out who are high risk. He stated the prison system needs to change their practice.

Andrea James, Founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, mentioned the poor management of women and their condition of confinement.

She notes that the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls have organized a national state clemency campaign to release women from prisons and respond to daily points of crisis including rapes, suicides, health crises, and a myriad of issues affecting their families on the outside. James notes that their organization was working to get people out of prison through a national state clemency campaign, particularly noting the work done in Indiana in response to the coronavirus.

“As expressed in the letter to their governor of Indiana – I want to lift up Kelsey Coffman and our sisters and comrades in Indiana – they stated that prisons are known incubators and amplifiers of disease,” James said. “Once a virus like COVD-19 enters a prison, its almost certain to infect the entire prison population – that is including all employees.”

She notes one of the strategies to avoid the virus is spacing and distancing which is impossible in the prisons. She noted cases where individuals are trying to postpone self-surrendering. James notes that just an hour before the webinar, she received a report about a woman who wanted to postpone her self-surrender as she had just gone through a major surgery but the judge denied postponing.

James emphasized the immediate need to stop the prison flow and get people out.

“We need to be working from a framework that starts with release, not hand sanitizer,” James noted.

She wanted to express her support for families facing stress right now and wanted to emphasize the goal being abolition.

Erika Andiola, Chief Advocacy Officer of The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, also focused on getting families in ICE detention centers freed.

She noted that their attorneys have been working in two family detention centers in Texas and has heard that there are reportedly 600 people detained in one of the centers. These people are entire families and the situation is making them very vulnerable.

Six children in the facility already have cold and flu like symptoms or an illness. The center also has four pregnant women and fourteen babies under the age of 2. As such, they are pushing for clients to be out of the detention center and out of other facilities on parole.

At the moment, attorneys are unable to talk to their families and there is no reason why entire families are detained. She notes that in one instance in the past, it took multiple congress people to get a 1-year-old child suffering from non-stop diarrhea for 20 days to be released with their father.

Andiola notes the need for people to speak up in moments like this.

Stephanie Morales, Commonwealth’s Attorney of Porthsmouth, VA, noted the need for prosecutors to take accountability and responsibility in this situation as they are also responsible for what happens to incarcerated individuals.

She argued that prosecutors have to work with public defenders and defense bar to bring people out under compassionate release. This includes changing bail and policies on individuals held without bail or who are awaiting sentencing for nonviolent crime convictions.

Morales noted a need for a standing agreement for reconsideration conditions, especially in doing what they could to protect the community from the spread of the coronavirus.

She also added prosecutors should consider food insecurity and housing for released individuals and should acknowledge and embrace the serious role prosecutors have in the system.

Brittany White, Decarceration Manager of the Live Free National Campaign, shared her experience while incarcerated.

She notes other women in prison died from infection and described the lack of access to hand sanitizer and other cleaning products like disinfectant and bleach, contributing to an unsanitary environment. White noted that those incarcerated could have a lack of access to information, especially considering many incarcerated individuals need to pay $7 to $10 for a sick call.

White also called attention to solitary confinement and trying to bring individuals out of there who may not have access to treatment. She noted that some visits are being replaced with virtual calls which should not be the permanent solution to this problem.

White stated state governors should pay attention to overseeing incarcerated individuals have access to cleaning products. Additionally, rural hospitals should be prepared and there should be a plan of action as to what should happen should individuals in prison contract the virus. She emphasized the priority to release elderly people and pregnant women.

Duffy closed the webinar, noting potential solutions. She stated on a national level, President Trump should use his clemency power “to release elderly and medically vulnerable in federal custody unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.”

On a state level, governors were called to “commute sentences of elderly, medically vulnerable, and other people unless there is clear evidence that release would present an unreasonable risk to the physical safety of the community.”

On the county level, prosecutors could “use discretion to reduce the number of people in the jail and court system, by declining criminal charges wherever possible and agreeing to the release of people from custody without bail.” Police Chiefs and Sheriffs should also “use discretion to limit arrests and warrants, use non-custodial processes whenever possible.”

The Justice Collaborative noted more information was available on thejusticecollaborative.com/covid19/

1,500 people reportedly attended the webinar.

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