by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer, April 22, 2021
Correctional staff in most states have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccination for months, prioritized ahead of many other groups because of the key role staff play in introducing the virus into prisons and jails and then bringing it back out to surrounding communities. Against the recommendations of medical experts, many states chose to vaccinate correctional staff before incarcerated people, often claiming that staff would serve as a barrier against the virus entering prisons and infecting people who are locked up. Now it’s becoming clearer than ever that this policy choice was a gigantic mistake: New data suggests that most prison staff have refused to be vaccinated, leaving vast numbers of incarcerated people — who have been denied the choice to protect themselves — at unnecessary risk.
Monterey County Now: When the criminal justice system defaults to a mental health system, it’s not easy to serve defendants.
When the criminal justice system defaults to a mental health system, it’s not easy to serve defendants. Monterey County Jail takes defendants found not competent to stand trial and attempts to restore them to competency. The men enrolled in the program, called Jail-Based Competency Training, go through intense therapy every day to focus on their mental health issues, and also go through court training, to learn and understand who all the players are when they go to the courtroom—who the judge is and why, who the attorneys are and why.
Whidbey New Times: Jail earns distinction for efforts with mentally ill
The Stepping Up Initiative recently named Island County (WA) as one of 23 “Innovator Counties” in the nation for its data-driven efforts to assess and assist people with mental health illnesses in the jail, according to the initiative. County officials say the jail system has been transformed in the five years since the death of Keaton Farris, a 25-year-old man who was suffering from mental illness and died from dehydration alone in his cell. The jail has developed a screening system for people being booked into the jail. The classification tool gauges mental illness and risk; people thought to be suffering from a mental illness are set up for referral with mental health care providers on an urgent or not-so-urgent basis.
Standard Examiner: New Weber County program aims to help jail inmates overcome drug, mental health problems
Weber County (UT) is entering into a four-year, $421,000 contract with the University of Cincinnati to train local staff in helping jail inmates kick drug habits, get mental health counseling and find jobs after release. The program is being paid for by part of a $1 million grant the county was awarded last year by the U.S. Justice Department. The grant is intended for development of community reentry programs for adult inmates with substance abuse and mental health issues, according to Justice Department documents.
New Times: SLO County adopts plan for mental health care at jail
San Luis Obispo County (CA) is working to reduce the number of residents with mental illnesses in its jail and provide better treatment to those who are behind bars. On Nov. 3, officials outlined a strategic plan to do just that. The county’s three-year plan, part of its participation in the national Stepping Up initiative to improve mental health care at county jails, sets four priority areas for action. They include reducing the number of individuals with mental illnesses who are booked into county jail, reducing average daily jail populations, decreasing the average length of a jail stay, and lowering recidivism rates. As of September 2020, 22 percent of all jail inmates had serious mental illnesses, up from 11 percent last year. Officials say the increase is in part due to COVID-19 restrictions at state prisons and hospitals.
COVID-19 Transmission in Corrections
The Appeal: Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons
Homer Venters has been to prisons, particularly in the South, where there are still at between 80 and 120 percent of capacity and where really not much has been done in a meaningful way to prevent the spread of infection. Some of these states are trying to lower the age at which a person can become a correctional officer, or they’re trying to raise the salary of correctional officers. He does not hold out for better facility development that improves infection control. His primary recommendation has always been for places to consider high-risk people for release to protect them from dying.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Breaking out in prison: COVID-19 gaining traction in Montana correctional facilities
Nine months since the coronavirus pandemic began afflicting the country, some of Montana’s most highly populated correctional facilities are swamped with disease spread that shows no sign of being contained. As of Friday, the Department of Corrections had recorded 261 positive cases among inmates at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and 114 among staff members. The prison is more than 85% full with roughly 1,400 inmates in custody. There are an additional 99 inmate and 21 staff cases at Montana Women’s Prison in Billings.
Springfield News-Leader: Two more Fed Med inmates die amid prison outbreak
Late Friday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said that two more inmates at Springfield's Medical Center for Federal Prisoners died Wednesday after they were infected with COVID-19. In total, four prisoners have died since Oct. 31, according to Bureau of Prisons news . Both men had underlying conditions and received "daily symptom checks" before being transferred to a "local hospital," officials said. Hospital staff pronounced them dead Wednesday.
COVID-19 Preventive Release
The New York Times: 2,258 N.J. Prisoners Will Be Released in a Single Day
In a sweeping acknowledgment of the risks of the coronavirus in cramped prisons, New Jersey released more than 2,000 inmates on Wednesday, Nov. 5, as part of one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population. More than 1,000 additional prisoners will be released in the coming weeks and months after earning early-release credits for time served during the health crisis — resulting in a roughly 35 percent reduction in New Jersey’s prison population since the pandemic began ravaging Northeast states in March.
NJ Spotlight News: Prisoner release raises concerns about their health during pandemic
New Jersey released thousands of people from prisons Wednesday to try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in corrections facilities, but questions remained about the state’s ability to support the public health needs of this vulnerable population. Former Gov. Jim McGreevey, a prominent advocate for prisoner rights who now leads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, said re-entry partners around the state pulled together in recent weeks to support the state’s release, working with the DOC and other departments to try to secure specific resources for each individual leaving custody: federal food stamp benefits; general assistance or welfare support, which is connected to housing subsidies; a Medicaid card; access to medical treatment, including for substance use and mental health needs; and employment training. Individuals also need a government-issued ID card other than their prison identification.
Marshall Project: When Going to the Hospital Is Just as Bad as Jail
States and cities have long struggled with a dearth of mental health care funding, and whether to put that limited money toward more in-patient psychiatric beds or community mental health care. This tension has only gotten worse during the pandemic, now that government budgets have been gutted, some psychiatric hospitals have become COVID hotspots, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression are on the rise. Just as communities of color experience more police violence, they also face disparities in the existing mental health system. Alameda County, California, has the highest rate of psychiatric holds in the state—over three-times the California average. Black people make up over a third of those brought to the hospital’s emergency psychiatric ward, but just a tenth of the county population overall.
The Sacramento Bee: California must reduce jail and prison populations to fight COVID-19 — and racism
A California Court of Appeals recently ordered the San Quentin State Prison to halve its inmate population. While some states and localities have taken steps to reduce incarceration, the overall effect has been negligible. Even though jail populations plunged and prison populations decreased, there are nearly five times as many COVID-19 cases per capita among incarcerated people than in the general population. Most people who are released from incarceration are returning to a community that has been harmed by both the virus and economic recession, not to mention a history of mass incarceration. COVID-19 has exposed the flaws of a system that focuses its effects on Black, Hispanic and Native American people. Fighting against COVID-19 in prisons and jails with decarceration and improvements in health care won’t just control outbreaks, it is also fighting racism.
Undark: Is Mass Incarceration Driving Racial Disparities in the Pandemic?
Encompassing nearly 100 acres, the Cook County Department of Corrections is one of the largest single-site jails in the country. The jail currently houses about 5,400 detainees daily, most of them awaiting trial, and employs more than 3,000 staff. The County, as it’s known across Chicago, has been cited for a laundry list of civil rights violations since the 1970s. This year, the County earned another dubious distinction: It was home to one of the country’s largest Covid-19 outbreaks at the height of the pandemic in the spring. By the end of April, 628 detainees and 279 staff had tested positive. Yet an underappreciated paper published in June suggests that the virus outbreak rippled far beyond those concrete walls. It showed that 16 percent, or about one in every six, of all Covid-19 cases in Chicago and across Illinois could be traced to people cycling in and out of Cook County Jail. As a result, the authors reveal a strong correlation between incarceration and Covid-19 cases in the region, especially in African American communities.
NBC Los Angeles: Drop in Jail Population Due to COVID Failed to Cut Number of Black or Mentally Ill Inmates
The release of thousands of inmates from Los Angeles County jails in response to the coronavirus failed to reduce the proportion of mentally ill inmates or racial disparities in the lockups, both of which are on the rise, according to a county report released Monday. That number would need to be cut significantly further in order to support closing the downtown jail, which was built in 1963 and houses roughly 4,000 of the more than 13,000 individuals held in custody countywide, based on an Aug. 19 point-in-time count. Based on that count, the proportion of both Black men and women in county jails has increased since before the virus struck. Black people made up 29% of the jail population pre-COVID and 31% on Aug. 19, while the number of white inmates dropped from 15% to 12%.
With COCHS prior approval, WACHSA has permission to repost their newscan for important correctional healthcare news.
Los Angeles County voters have approved Measure J, which will divert more county money to social services and jail diversion programs. Measure J requires that 10% of locally generated, unrestricted county money — estimated between $360 million and $900 million — be spent on a variety of social services, including housing, mental health treatment and investments in communities disproportionally harmed by racism. The county will be prohibited from using the money on prisons, jails or law enforcement agencies.
Winning an election was the furthest thing from Tarra Simmons’s mind in 2013 when she was working at Burger King, worried about how she was going to pay her rent. She had recently been released after a 30-month prison sentence for drug and theft convictions. Ultimately, Simmons decided to help fight for changes for people after they’re released from prison. That led her to apply to law school, and she was accepted to the Seattle University School of Law, and ended up graduating with honors in 2017. Simmons said she decided to run for public office as a “second chance” candidate focused on prison reform in the hope of helping those with prison records find housing and jobs and start anew with their loved ones.
Network Characteristics and Visualization of COVID-19 Outbreak in a Large Detention Facility in the United States — Cook County, Illinois, 2020
Outbreak at San Quentin Podcast
Court Orders Immediate Release Or Transfer 1,700 San Quentin Prison Inmates Over COVID Outbreak
San Quentin must release or transfer half its prisoners because of lack of COVID care, court rules
Pringle JC, Leikauskas J, Ransom-Kelley S, et al. COVID-19 in a Correctional Facility Employee Following Multiple Brief Exposures to Persons with COVID-19 — Vermont, July–August 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 21 October 2020. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6943e1external icon.
The correctional officer reported no other known close contact exposures to persons with COVID-19 outside work and no travel outside Vermont during the 14 days preceding illness onset. COVID-19 cumulative incidence in his county of residence and where the correctional facility is located was relatively low at the time of the investigation (20 cases per 100,000 persons), suggesting that his most likely exposures occurred in the correctional facility through multiple brief encounters (not initially considered to meet VDH’s definition of close contact exposure) with IDPs who later received a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result.
Among seven employees with exposures to the infectious IDPs that did meet the VDH close contact definition, one person received a positive test result. Among thirteen employees (including the correctional officer) with exposures to the infectious IDPs that did not meet the VDH close contact definition during contact tracing, only the correctional officer received a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result...read the full report online
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By Emily Widra and Dylan Hayre Tweet this
June 25, 2020
When the pandemic struck, it was instantly obvious what needed to be done: take all actions possible to “flatten the curve.” This was especially urgent in prisons and jails, which are very dense facilities where social distancing is impossible, sanitation is poor, and medical resources are extremely limited. Public health experts warned that the consequences were dire: prisons and jails would become petri dishes where, once inside, COVID-19 would spread rapidly and then boomerang back out to the surrounding communities with greater force than ever before.
Advocates were rightly concerned, given the long-standing and systemic racial disparities in arrest, prosecution, and sentencing, that policymakers would be slow to respond to the threat of the virus in prisons and jails when it was disproportionately poor people of color whose lives were on the line. Would elected officials be willing to take the necessary steps to save lives in time?
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Lawmakers question federal prisons’ home confinement rules
WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers are raising questions about the federal Bureau of Prisons’ release of high-profile inmates and are calling for widespread testing of federal inmates as the number of coronavirus cases has exploded in the federal prison system.
Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries sent a letter Monday to Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal over the home confinement policies. They expressed concern that a number of high-profile inmates, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, had been released despite not meeting all the criteria that the agency has set for inmates prioritized for home confinement.
“As President Trump’s associates are cleared for transfer, tens of thousands of low-risk, vulnerable individuals are serving their time in highly infected prisons,” the lawmakers wrote.