'A Ticking Time Bomb': Advocates Warn COVID-19 Is Spreading Rapidly Behind Bars

Apr 28, 2020
Originally published on April 28, 2020 3:41 pm

In Arizona, a woman behind bars at the Perryville women's prison reports hearing coughing echoing through the warehouse-style dorms all night.

In New Jersey, an immigrant detainee being held in the Essex County jail has been put on quarantine cleaning duty even though he's been sick. He fears he's spreading the coronavirus.

And at the Etowah County jail in Alabama, Karim Golding, an immigrant detainee who's fighting deportation to Jamaica, says he's been feeling short of breath and worries he got coronavirus from the guards or new detainees coming in and out.

"At the end of the day I want to be tested because I want to know — did you give me the coronavirus?" Golding said. "Did you willfully give me the coronavirus and put my life at risk?"

Across the country, the spread of coronavirus behind bars is likely much more rampant than what's known right now. In prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, there is very little diagnostic testing.

And when widespread testing has been done in a few places, the results show the virus has infected huge numbers of the confined population. One Ohio prison recently found that more than 70% of inmates are positive for COVID-19.

Felicity Rose, director of research and policy for criminal justice reform at the progressive advocacy group FWD.US, says the lack of testing is leading to a false sense of security.

"We know that it's spreading among staff and that staff are bringing it into and out of the facilities," Rose said. "We know there are people who are asymptomatic and are able to pass it along, but we just don't know how many. So it's a ticking time bomb."

Inmates, detainees and their advocates say it's impossible to maintain social distancing behind bars, and they say masks as well as soap and cleaning supplies are limited and sometimes not available at all. In some places, if inmates try to make their own masks out of their T-shirts, they can be disciplined for "destruction of state property."

State, local and federal officials say they are taking steps to protect the detained population and staff, and that people behind bars can get immediate medical treatment when needed. To force social distancing, many facilities have stopped visitation and lock detainees in cells for at least 23 hours a day to limit the amount of time in common areas.

But one epidemiological model suggests coronavirus will spread rapidly in prisons, jails and detention centers unless more steps are taken, according to FWD.US, which advocates for changes to the criminal justice and immigration systems.

In Arizona, for instance, the model predicts that 99% of the Arizona inmate population will be infected within the next few weeks. But so far, less than 1% of 42,000 in Arizona prisons have been tested for COVID-19. The state reported on Monday that 44 inmates have tested positive.

Officials there do not disclose any information about staff testing or results. According to unions representing correctional officers in the state, at least 20 officers have tested positive, though union leaders believe the number is much higher. They say hundreds of employees have shown up to work with COVID-19 symptoms and been sent home.

Compounding the problem, union leaders say, is that the correctional officers were barred for a time from wearing masks for fear that would cause panic among the inmates. Officers can now bring their own masks in, but inmates are not allowed to wear any kind of mask. Some have been tasked with making cloth masks for the officers.

Testing also has been limited among detainees being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which often contracts with county jails for space. Overall, about 2% of 32,000 immigrants detained by ICE have been tested. When they are tested, about 50% are coming back positive.

The agency says more than 300 detainees and 35 employees at ICE detention centers have tested positive. But ICE does not report how many contractors have gotten sick, including medical and corrections staff.

Officials at many prisons, jails and detention centers say they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that testing can only be done when there are symptoms. At the Etowah County jail, for instance, an ICE spokesman says there are no suspected cases of COVID-19.

But critics say the lack of testing is masking the problem.

The ACLU warns that as many as 200,000 people could die in the U.S. from COVID-19 — double the government estimate — unless more steps are taken to reduce prison and jail populations.

A number of states and localities have released older, medically compromised inmates who are not considered safety or flight risks.

ICE also has released hundreds of detainees, and in some cases federal judges have intervened and ordered their release. Most immigrant detainees have no criminal record. They are being held on civil immigration violations, and judges have found their detention during a pandemic to be excessive punishment.

But some states, such as Arizona, have refused to release inmates. Instead, police and sheriff's deputies are choosing to cite people rather than book them, and prosecutors are agreeing to hold fewer people awaiting trial in jail.

As a result, jail populations have declined. In Maricopa County, which operates the fourth largest jail system in the United States, the daily population has shrunk from 8,000 inmates to 5,000 in recent weeks.

Still, advocates say that's not enough. In Arizona, FWD.US recommends the state release at least 10,000 inmates, or one-quarter of the prison population, to make a significant impact in stopping the spread of the virus.

Jimmy Jenkins is a reporter for KJZZ. Matt Katz is a reporter for WNYC.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Across the country, the spread of coronavirus behind bars is likely much more rampant than what is known right now. In prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, there is very little testing. And in the few places where testing has happened, results show that the virus has infected huge numbers of the confined population. Joining us now to talk about this - Matt Katz, he covers immigration for our member station WNYC in New York; and Jimmy Jenkins, who covers criminal justice for KJZZ in Phoenix. Thanks to both of you for being here.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel.

JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Of course. Good morning.

MARTIN: Jimmy, I want to start with you. You have been talking with prison inmates. What are they telling you?

JENKINS: Yes. Most recently, I talked with a woman whose daughter is in the Perryville women's prison here in Arizona. And she said all you can hear at night, echoing throughout the dorm, is coughing, just hundreds of women coughing. Most inmates in Arizona prisons live in large warehouse-style settings with no separation, which makes them especially vulnerable. Incarcerated people at all the prisons tell me they're hanging towels over their bunk beds to make some sort of barrier, but, of course, they know it's not enough. And if they try to make their own masks out of their T-shirts, they'll be disciplined for destruction of state property.

MARTIN: Matt, you've had conversations with immigrants who are currently being detained. What's the story from them right now? How are they feeling?

KATZ: They're petrified, and they have been for the last several weeks. They say, if they're going to die, they want to be home. They also watch the news, so they know what they're supposed to do to keep safe, like social distance, which is impossible in jails and prisons. And detainees know they're supposed to have masks, soap and cleaning supplies, which they say is limited and sometimes nonexistent.

I spoke to one immigrant being held at the Essex County Jail in New Jersey, Dan Govender from South Africa. He's staying in a unit with non-COVID-positive detainees, but he cleans the units of the sick detainees and delivers them food in their cells. And he said he's been sick himself. He worries that he's just spreading the virus.

MARTIN: So are they not getting tested? I mean, Jimmy, what have you heard about the testing situation?

JENKINS: No, definitely not in the numbers that we need to get an idea of the true severity of this outbreak. In Arizona prisons, 44 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, but less than 1% of the 42,000 inmates here have been tested. When prisons do test, they are finding a lot of cases. One Ohio prison recently found that more than 70% were positive for COVID-19. But as we've said, most prisons aren't coming anywhere near that level of testing. Felicity Rose from the advocacy group FWD.US says this is leading to a false sense of security.

FELICITY ROSE: Staff are bringing it into and out of the facilities. We know that there are people who are asymptomatic and are able to pass it along, but we just don't know how many.

JENKINS: According to one model FWD.US ran, 99% of the Arizona inmate population will be infected within the next few weeks.

MARTIN: OK, so that's the situation in prisons, but what about reporting of COVID-19 among immigrant populations and ICE detention, Matt?

KATZ: Yeah, there's certainly also underreporting in terms of the extent of the sickness. Overall, just about 2% of 32,000 immigrants detained by ICE have been tested so far. And when they are tested, a lot are coming back positive - about 50% so far. ICE often contracts with county jails. And I spoke to three guys being held by ICE at the Etowah County jail in Alabama, and they said no one had been tested there yet, even though people are sick.

Karim Golding, a detainee there who's fighting deportation to Jamaica, was feeling short of breath. And he worries, with new detainees coming in and with guards who go in and out every day, that he ended up getting coronavirus.

KARIM GOLDING: At the end of the day, I want to be tested because I want to know did you give me the coronavirus? Did you willfully give me the coronavirus and put my life at risk?

KATZ: A spokesman for ICE said there are no suspected cases of COVID at the Etowah facility and that you have to have symptoms in order to be tested.

MARTIN: So speaking of guards, I mean, are the guards at risk? I mean, they must be - right? - other staff in these facilities.

JENKINS: Absolutely, they are. Some officers have died from COVID-19. In Arizona, we don't know how many have been infected. There are 9,000 correctional officers here, and the state's Department of Corrections is refusing to disclose any information about staff testing or results. Union leaders say there are at least 20 officers who have tested positive, but they believe the number is much higher.

At first, the COs were not allowed to wear masks because the director of prisons believed it would scare the inmates or cause a panic. Then after an outcry from the officers, the director changed course. Meanwhile, the inmates in Arizona prisons, who are not allowed to wear masks of any kind, are now being forced to make cloth masks for the correctional officers here.

MARTIN: Wait - what? They can't wear masks themselves to protect their own being, yet they are making masks for the guards?

JENKINS: That's right.

MARTIN: So, Matt, how are prison officials characterizing their own response, their own efforts, if they have any, to protect people?

KATZ: Yeah, they insist that everyone is properly protected from infection and that anybody can get immediate medical treatment. In a lot of places, in order to do this, officials say they've stopped visitation entirely. They've modified operations to avoid the spread of COVID inside, like forcing social distance by locking detainees in cells for at least 23 hours a day, sometimes more, to limit the amount of time that they would spend in common areas with other people.

MARTIN: So we've reported this for weeks, that some jails are actually just releasing people in order to protect them, to reduce the population. Do you think we're going to see more of that going forward? Jimmy, we'll start with you.

JENKINS: Some states, like Arizona, are still holding out. Where we are seeing a difference here is with policing. Officers and sheriffs' deputies are doing things like citing people and releasing them, and the prosecutors are agreeing to hold fewer people in jail who are awaiting trial. And jail populations have declined. Maricopa County, for instance, their daily population has shrunk from 8,000 inmates to just over 5,000 in recent weeks.

MARTIN: Matt, what about ICE? Have they been releasing people?

KATZ: Yeah, ICE has actually released several hundred detainees who are old, medically compromised and considered not to be safety or flight risks. Plus, there have been a bunch of successful federal lawsuits, with judges releasing dozens of immigrants, saying it's excessive punishment to keep them locked up in a place where the virus is raging.

MARTIN: Matt Katz, he covers immigration for WNYC. Jimmy Jenkins covers criminal justice for KJZZ. Thanks to both of you for your reporting. We appreciate it.

KATZ: Thank you, Rachel.

JENKINS: You're welcome, Rachel. Thank you.

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