By David M. Greenwald
Washington – This week the Biden Administration announced it would invest more than $1.6 billion to support COVID testing and mitigation in vulnerable communities.
“As we continue the vaccination program to get more Americans protected, it is important that we double down on our efforts to increase testing especially in vulnerable communities,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the former AG of California.
He said that “we can make sure high-risk environments like correctional facilities and shelters for those experiencing homelessness have greater capacity for testing to prevent potential outbreaks and continue our nation’s progress in moving out of the pandemic.”
This includes about $700 million that will go “to 64 state and local jurisdictions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in confinement facilities, including prisons, jails, and juvenile confinement facilities.”
They stated in their release, “These funds will allow facilities to implement COVID-19 diagnostic and screening programs for people who are incarcerated, staff, and visitors. Funds also may be used to support other activities, including COVID-19 contact tracing, isolation and quarantine strategies, infection control practices, and education and training on ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19 for facility staff and people who are incarcerated/detained.”
The allotment of $700 million is a welcome infusion of resources to helping vulnerable prison populations.
“Being confined in a prison or jail should not be a death sentence,” Miriam Krinsky, Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution said in a statement on Friday. “During the pandemic, at least 2,700 people have died of COVID-19 in American prisons and jails. These facilities—in which abiding by CDC guidelines is exceedingly challenging—have become some of the worst hotspots in the country due to crowded, unhygienic conditions and inadequate access to sanitation and hygiene procedures.”
The infusion of money comes at a time when COVID cases are back on the rise and, after months of shrinking COVID cases in custody, those numbers are rising quickly. Especially concerning is the relatively low vaccination rates among correctional staff.
Krinsky said, “As we see COVID cases back on the rise, this week’s announcement from the White House of increased funding for COVID mitigation in confinement facilities is a vitally important and timely step towards ensuring the protection of incarcerated people, correctional staff and our communities in general from the ongoing dangers of the pandemic.”
Last year at the outset of the pandemic in March, 35 elected prosecutors in a joint statement said, “We…have an obligation to protect the safety and wellbeing of everyone in our community, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. Those obligations extend behind prison walls.”
In many ways, the state and federal agencies failed that obligation.
As we saw last summer at San Quentin, negligent prison transfer policies led to an explosion of cases at San Quentin.
In March the prosecutors warned: “An outbreak of the coronavirus in these custodial facilities would not only move fast, it would potentially be catastrophic.”
As the Vanguard previously reported, Jennifer Huber, a partner at Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP that represents the 300-plus petitioners, said prior to the hearings, “This is an opportunity to raise awareness of the CDCR’s utter failure to enact policies and protocols that prioritize the health and safety of incarcerated people. This horrific outbreak and the resulting deaths were preventable.”
In May of 2020, CDCR decided to move 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men (CIM), in Chico, to San Quentin. At the time, CIM had the highest COVID-19 infection rate of any prison in California. Prior to the transfer, San Quentin did not have a single confirmed case.
In the ensuing weeks, approximately 75 percent of prisoners and staff were infected with the virus.
“San Quentin expects us to hold ourselves fully accountable for our actions and I think it would be quite reassuring to know that it holds itself to the exact same standard of accountability,” one official testified. “They don’t practice what they preach, I don’t see that happening here at all, that’s why I’m here.”
Some of the money from the federal government could help prevent future disasters with $169 million going to advance testing and mitigation efforts in federal congregate settings.
According to the HHS release, “This will include funding to support routine testing and surveillance for outbreak and non-outbreak situations in accord with public health recommendations.”
Krinsky added, “We commend the Biden administration for their leadership on this issue and encourage local, state and federal leaders to continue to take action to protect those behind bars.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting