We are running out of time to save the lives of those incarcerated in the world's largest network of prisons, jails, and detention sites. There are 2 million people incarcerated in the United States - more than any other country on the planet. They are all at risk.
In just the last three days, states and large cities have announced lockdowns, seeking to restrict the movement of people and lessen points of contact in the face of a dramatic spike in COVID-19 infections. Social distancing coupled with regimens of basic hygiene such as regular hand washing are the primary means of fighting the spread of coronavirus generally and COVID-19 in particular. There is no vaccine, no cure. Its spread can only be managed through changes in human behavior - and those recommended changes are not available to people who are locked up. As even the most isolated jail cell requires a degree of social interaction between those incarcerated and the community in which they are situated, what happens behind these walls should concern us all.
The biggest story this week has been the COVID-19 outbreak at the massive Rikers Island prison complex, which is under the authority of the city government in New York. As of March 24, the number of people imprisoned at Rikers with confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 52, up from 39 cases fewer than 24 hours earlier. The number of staff testing positive was up to 30 from 21. Prisoners protesting the lack of medical care were pepper sprayed earlier this week. In a long twitter thread yesterday, a public defender from Brooklyn compared Rikers to a “slave ship” noting that unsanitary conditions and overcrowding were setting the stage for “mass death.” There are more than 5,000 people incarcerated at Rikers Island. However, city officials are only planning to release 300 people. Mayor DeBlasio plans to release another 800 people from other city jail facilities.
PLEASE READ: Conditions on Rikers are unimaginably bad. My colleague has spoken to a few people trapped inside. What they told her is horrifying. Unless @NYGovCuomo, @NYCMayor, & all DAs do something ASAP, we're looking at mass death. What they're reporting:
Last week, a day after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Rikers, Nick Pinto, writing in the Intercept, laid out the disaster scenario that is now unfolding. Lack of staff, lack of resources, and ultimately a lack of care.
Last week, a man with a medical history that makes him especially vulnerable to contracting coronavirus, housed in a special-housing unit in one Rikers jail, called a social worker twice in one day to report that he was exhibiting symptoms of disease. Others in his special housing unit were coughing and exhibiting flu-like symptoms, the man told the social worker, who relayed the account to a lawyer who asked that they all remain anonymous to avoid reprisals. The men in the unit were told that there were not enough correction officers to transport them to the health clinic.
Yesterday, a reporter with the Appeal spoke with someone inside Rikers who described how medical personal simply shouted from the door to ask if anyone had symptoms:
The doctors said they were going to come and do screenings every day, but for the past two days, they’ve just come into the dorm and stood by the front door and yelled, “Does anybody have any symptoms?” and then walked out. The first day, they sat down, had everybody come in, checked them off a list, asked them if they had symptoms, if anyone said they weren’t sure, they took their temperature.
They’re not doing any of that [now]. They did that once. And now they just come in and yell. Some people don’t speak English, some people are in the shower or the toilet or the day room or listening to the radio or taking a nap, you know? Because if one person has it in a dorm of 40-odd people, that’s a huge problem.
Outside of New York City, there have been some successful, though still sporadic, efforts to reduce the number of people who are locked up at the local level. There are just over 630,000 people in county and local jails around the country. 470,000 of them have not been convicted but are being held in pre-trial detention, most simply unable to pay bail. So, we can, and must do better. That said, county and state officials are at least trying to reduce numbers in local jails through early and compassionate release of those at risk.
For example, in New Jersey, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of hundreds of inmates in county jails, writing, "The reduction of county jail populations, under appropriate conditions, is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by Covid-19." In Montana, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath is asking judges statewide to release nonviolent and other jail inmates to reduce crowding and protect against the spread of coronavirus. Though no one in local jails has tested positive, the judge wrote,"Due to the confines of these facilities, it will be virtually impossible to contain the spread of the virus."
Detroit area counties are reducing the number of people in jail. For example, “In Oakland County, Sheriff Michael Bouchard tells Local 4 [an NBC affiliate] jail personnel is reviewing cases for early release. It is a time consuming process because they are looking at the current offense and history of offenders.” The number of people in the jail has fallen from 1,262 to 1,079 in three weeks. Wayne County reduced the number of people in jail from 1,381 to 1,138 in two weeks. Los Angeles County has seen a reduction of nearly 1,700 over the last two weeks, or 10% of the jail population. “All of those inmates had fewer than 30 days left on their sentences. And all were convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors.”
Other areas are committed, but struggling to get the releases done. For example, Harris County, TX (Houston) Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is trying to get hundreds of people out on compassionate release. But, thus far, judges have only released 60 people. “Our priority is reducing the population strategically in a way that targets our most at-risk inmates who are nonviolent,” said Jason Spencer, spokesman for Gonzalez. “Those charged with nonviolent crimes over a certain age and those who have preexisting health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to corona virus.” In Kentucky, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton Jr. urged state court officials to release jail inmates “as quickly as we can” to “avoid potentially calamitous outbreaks of the novel coronavirus behind bars.” But thus far, there has been no reduction in the jail population. The justice warned, “Kentucky’s overcrowded jails desperately need our attention...Much like nursing homes, jails are susceptible to worse-case scenarios due to the close proximity of people and the number of pre-existing conditions.”
As indicated by these stories, counties all across the country are working to get people out. At the same time, as described by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, “no similar push has taken place with prisons, despite the fact that the coronavirus has already infected employees and prisoners in at least five states.” There are over 1.2 million people in state prisons around the country. This is a ticking time bomb, and yet, little comparative urgency to get people out.
In Utah, for example, while county jail officials are trying to reduce the number of people incarcerated, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the state prison authority declared that there are, “‘no active plans’ as of Tuesday to release any of the more than 6,500 people who are currently incarcerated. ‘We are coordinating with our partner agencies at this time,' prison spokeswoman Kaitlin Feldsted said, ‘and will likely have more information later in the week.’”
In Texas, one prisoner and one counselor working in the state prison system, have tested positive, while dozens who have been tested await results. Within the state prison system, visitations have been cancelled as the result of a statewide health emergency crisis called by Governor Abbott. However, state prison authorities have no capacity to test for the virus. Everyone tested thus far has been tested off-site, increasing the danger of exposure. Many more prisoners with flu-like symptoms have not been tested but are “being medically isolated from other prisoners.” Yet, getting people out of prison altogether is not on the table, despite the risks.
In Mississippi, the state Department of Corrections has issued guidelines to stop transfers of prisoners and halted visitation. People participating in off-site work programs are not being allowed out. However, humanitarian or compassionate releases on any significant scale are not being planned. At the notorious Parchman Prison, already understaffed, people are staying away from work. From the Clarion Ledger,
Fears of the coronavirus are running so high at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman that some employees are staying away, renewing concerns about low staffing at the prison, which is already under investigation by the Justice Department.
Lucinda Addison, a case worker, said she has stayed away from Parchman for a week out of fear of catching COVID-19 because she already suffers from diabetes. Experts say those suffering from diabetes may be at higher risk for complications from the disease.
Her absence from the prison has stoked fears among inmates and family members that someone at the prison already has tested positive for the novel virus.
In New York, which has become ground zero for coronavirus infections in the United States, the state prison system has not been spared. Indeed, while all eyes are on Rikers Island in New York City, coronavirus is spreading in the state system as well. From the New Yorker:
The coronavirus has now found its way into New York’s prison system. On Sunday, the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, or D.O.C.C.S., confirmed that two prisoners at Wende Correctional Facility had tested positive for covid-19. (One of them, according to multiple reports, is the former movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who was sent to the facility only recently after being convicted of rape.) Health officials in Cayuga County announced that the coronavirus had infected a man who had been incarcerated at Auburn Correctional Facility. D.O.C.C.S. has also confirmed three cases of covid-19 in its ranks: one officer at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, another at Shawangunk Correctional Facility, and one civilian staff member in Albany.
Immigrant Detention Facilities
The number of people held in immigrant detention facilities is difficult to track. Generally speaking, we track this by looking at the number of people held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their network of 200+ detention sites around the country. That number is currently just over 38,000, down from an all time peak of 55,000 in August of 2019, but still among the highest numbers ever recorded.
This is not everybody, however. There are also another 3,000 to 4,000 people held by the Customs and Border Protection on any given day. CBP tends to be short-term detention but is renowned for having horrible conditions - those videos and pictures of people under freezing on concrete floors under mylar blankets are CBP facilities. Of course, many people released by CBP are destined to be then held by ICE for much longer. There are another 3,000 or so children currently held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement awaiting placement with family members or community sponsors. The large tent cities erected last year to hold kids are mostly gone, but children are still in custodial settings that put them at higher risk of contracting infectious diseases. Indeed, two staff members working at "undisclosed" ORR facilities caring for children tested positive this week.
Thus far, the primary focus on the #FreeThemAll campaign has been ICE detention. There are good reasons for this. ICE detention is longer term - and getting longer under Trump. The average stay is about two months, and some people end up in detention for well over a year. None of the people in detention are there serving criminal sentences. All are in administrative hold, or civil detention, and thus can be released at the discretion of ICE with no further judicial process. The conditions in detention facilities, especially regarding health services, have been documented repeatedly to be sub-standard. In just the last week, two people have died in detention from infections.
When it comes to immigration policy, Trump sets the most abusive standards possible within the current institutional framework he inherited, and then advocates pushback in the courts. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Trump refuses to willingly change course on immigration rules - be it inside or outside our borders. And so, in court, people are fighting to gain release of people in immigration detention. In one recent court filing, Dr. Homer Venters submitted evidence concerning conditions in detention centers. He writes:
ICE will not be able to stop the entry of COVID-19 into ICE facilities, and the reality is that the infection is likely inside multiple facilities already. When COVID-19 impacts a community, it will also impact the detention facilities. In New Jersey, one employee at an ICE detention facility has already tested positive, and this is likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of ICE staff that are already infected but are unaware due to the lack of testing nationwide, and the fact that people who are infected can be asymptomatic for several days. In New York, one of the areas of early spread in the U.S., multiple correctional officers and jail and prison inmates have become infected with COVID-19. The medical leadership in the NYC jail system have announced that they will be unable to stop COVID from entering their facility and have called for release as the primary response to this crisis. Staff are more likely to bring COVID-19 into a facility, based solely on their movement in and out every day.
Venters goes on to document, what everyone knows, that social distancing and sheltering in place are impossible inside a prison or detention facility. Attorneys Naureen Shah and Andrea Flores noted this more vividly on the ACLU blog yesterday.
Immigrants in government custody are forced to live, sleep, and eat together. Some spend nearly all day in large rooms filled with closely packed bunk beds, or just long concrete benches. Others live in dank two-person cells, sometimes with minimal ventilation. Dozens of people share toilets and showers, sometimes with no divider and without disinfection between use. Social distancing is not an option. With everything we’ve learned from the Centers for Disease Control, we know these conditions are dangerous, even deadly.
For immigrants in detention, the tools for basic hygiene aren’t available either. Many people don’t have access to soap, let alone hand sanitizer. In Border Patrol stations, many immigrants are detained in overcrowded cells without ready access to sinks and showers. Detained people have described feeling like “sitting ducks, waiting to be infected.” One detained man in New Jersey said he and others were on a hunger strike to try to obtain soap and toilet paper — and that guards reportedly said, “Well, you’re going to have to die of something.”
We are all going to die of something, but for those who would rather not die in the next two weeks strapped to a ventilator and drowning in their own mucus, the federal government could do one a simple thing to make that less likely, and even save money doing so: Release people in immigrant detention facilities. Today.
So, how has ICE responded? The number of people detained by ICE has actually increased over the last two weeks - reversing a 6-month-long period of decline - (though overall March numbers, with a week remaining, are still slightly behind February’s daily average). Indeed, rather than release people, ICE and CBP are trying to get hundreds of millions of dollars to build and manage quarantine facilities. So, agencies that have refused to provide flu vaccines to people in their custody, have refused to hold contractors accountable over decades of medical negligence, and under whose supervision people die from simple infections for lack of care are going to manage medical quarantine? The last thing we need is to make a coronavirus quarantine of immigrants the latest profit-driven experiment for the prison industry.
As fear of infection spreads, detainees have begun protests in facilities in Texas and Louisiana, only to be attacked by guards and pepper-sprayed. Both facilities run by private prison companies. In Pine Prairie, Louisiana, seven men were pepper sprayed and beaten, then placed in solitary after refusing guard orders to go to the yard. At a Pearsall, Texas detention facility, guards attacked a group of 60 men who were protesting for their release. A local attorney told the San Antonio Express:
“These are people sitting, trapped, at the government’s expense without access to proper medical care, so they’re freaking out,” said Andrés Perez, an immigration lawyer for the San Antonio-based Perez & Malik firm. “Pepper spray is uncalled for.”
Meanwhile, in California, asylum seekers speak of inadequate care - still.
Elvira is from Cameroon. She has been held in several different detention centers over the course of the last 3 years of seeking asylum in the United States. Three years in detention!
In Adelanto Detention Center, a privately owned facility operated by GEO Group in Los Angeles, Elvira has told her sisters that the conditions are woefully inadequate to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. She has not received a flu shot, so how, she wonders, will such a facility take precautions against a far more contagious disease? Although only 26, Elvira has conditions that make her more vulnerable should she contract COVID-19. She has suffered complications since giving birth, she’s asthmatic, she has high blood pressure, and she developed hepatitis A from drinking the water in a detention center. When she was diagnosed, she was told to buy water from the commissary at inflated prices. And she still experiences terrible back pain from when government forces in Cameroon beat her with the heel of a gun.
Why is Elvira still incarcerated? She is not a criminal. She has family that can receive her and a community that will support her. She has a strong case for asylum. She should have never been held to begin with. She should be released now.
Along with 37,000 other people in immigrant detention facilities.
And hundreds of thousands of people held in jails and prisons around the country.