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The Mishandling of the Pandemic within US Prisons

Both Federal and State prisons are mishandling the pandemic that is being caused by the novel coronavirus due to prison conditions.

After warnings by prison reform advocates that prison populations would be particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic and the very limited use of the CARES Act to release inmates to home confinement, numerous prisons are seeing outbreaks of COVID-19 among staff and inmates. Many are also under fire for inadequate protocols to prevent or manage the spread.

Jessica Schladebeck of NYDailyNews reports that the Justice Department Inspector General’s Office has found the prison primarily responsible for the outbreak at Lompoc FCI in California. Although BOP spokesperson Justin Long indicates that Lompoc followed protocols by the CDC at the time (primarily with regards to limited use of face coverings until recently), guidance by the CDC such as social distancing, limited movement, and health screenings were flawed at Lompoc FCI, leading to increased infection rates. Schladebeck cites several staff members who worked while showing COVID-19 symptoms, symptomatic inmates who were not isolated for several days, and staff moving from unit to unit despite prison guidelines at the time because of staffing shortages. Ultimately, the limited use of the home confinement option provided by the CARES Act prevented the BOP from adequately following its own guidelines, particularly regarding staffing, in this case.

Matt Kristoffersen of The Sacramento Bee outlines that this problem is statewide for California and references a recent judge’s order that space must be offered within each institution to isolate symptomatic inmates. The judge, Jon Tigar, has provided four weeks for such space to be assessed and emphasized that the space needs must be assessed according to health guidelines only; the prisons may not adjust the amount of space needed to isolate inmates to prevent a reduction in prison population. If a reduction in prison population is needed to adequately provide isolation space, then that must be addressed. Dana Simas, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says that prison populations in California have been reduced by about 12,000 inmates and that the CDCR aims to reduce the population by 15,000 inmates total by the end of July. Notably, however, the total prison population in California is about 115,000 inmates, making 15,000 people about 13% of the prison population.  

The problem extends beyond California, however. Beaumont FCC, located in Texas, is seeing high numbers of inmates testing positive for COVID-19 as well, alarming family members and inmates alike according to Angel San Juan of The inmates here also emphasize that the prison has not allowed them space to adequately distance from one another, similarly to the situations in California many inmates with disabilities report that they are housed very close to positive COVID-19 cases, making them fear for their lives.

Overall, reports across the country of prisons mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic share a similar bottom line: the prison population is simply too large to provide adequate distancing or preventative protocols without a reduction.

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