By Nikki Zinzuwadia
In recent weeks, correctional centers throughout the country have been swarmed with coronavirus infections among their workers and inmates. By May 29, The Marshall Project reported that at least 34,584 inmates and 7,987 prison staff across the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, approximately 455 prisoners and 33 correctional workers in the United States have died from coronavirus-related causes.
America’s jails and prisons struggle with overcrowded environments, sanitation problems, and limited protective measures, making it almost impossible to practice recommended hygiene and social distancing. Moreover, they can rapidly accelerate disease transmission, impacting public health both inside and outside correctional settings.
Incarcerated individuals compose one of the nation’s most underrepresented and vulnerable populations. The Prison Policy Initiative found that pre-existing health conditions like asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure are common among inmates. Furthermore, large numbers of incarcerated people in state and federal prisons are 55 and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these health risks can increase the likelihood of a severe course of COVID-19.
Massive coronavirus outbreaks in this susceptible community have the potential to overwhelm our prison’s healthcare system, and they present significant challenges for governments to reduce their spread. A recent COVID-19 crisis in a West Virginia prison poses severe threats to the health of incarcerated people, prison staff, and the general public.
On May 19, Gov. Jim Justice announced the first coronavirus case of an incarcerated individual in a West Virginia correctional facility. A 62-year-old male inmate at Huttonsville Correctional Center (HCC) in Randolph County tested positive for COVID-19, following previous news that a part-time employee at the facility was infected with the virus. Shortly thereafter, two more inmates and four employees were declared confirmed cases. Three days following the announcement of the state’s first positive test of an incarcerated individual, four additional employees and 25 inmates at the correctional facility screened positive.
By May 26, at least 83 prisoners and workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 650 inmate tests were still pending. 116 positive prisoners and ten pending inmate tests were reported on May 29. Even further, the virus was not contained within the walls of the prison. Within a week of the first reported case of a prisoner at Huttonsville testing positive, five more residents in rural Randolph County were also confirmed positive.
Mass testing and contact tracing for all inmates and workers at HCC, along with sanitizing and screening efforts, are now being conducted by the West Virginia National Guard, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Bureau for Public Health, Department of Health and Human Resources, and the Randolph County Health Department. On May 27, Governor Jim Justice committed to expand testing capabilities across West Virginia’s corrections system. Although these are important steps to mitigate the crisis, it is uncertain how the situation at HCC and the surrounding community will evolve in the coming weeks.
Furthermore, it is not just state facilities that risk an upsurge in coronavirus infections. The Federal Correctional Institution in McDowell County, WV found a positive coronavirus case among one of its staff members on May 14. Earlier this month, the transfer of 124 new inmates to FCI Gilmer in Glenville saw five confirmed cases within days of their arrival.
As the outbreaks at HCC and FCI Gilmer show, every incarceral setting in the state - every jail, prison, and juvenile detention facility - is a ticking time bomb for a coronavirus disaster.
The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy found that the state has experienced one of the nation’s highest incarceration growth rates in recent years. Although these numbers have declined since the pandemic started, new data shows that West Virginia’s regional jail population is increasing at a problematic level. In a COVID-19 press briefing on May 27, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation acknowledged an expected growth of jail inmates as courts and law enforcement become more active.
America’s jails and prisons can be serious drivers of COVID-19. Their physical conditions deepen the critical public health risks of the deadly virus as correctional healthcare workers travel and asymptomatic inmates are released. The ACLU, partnering with multiple U.S. universities, predicted 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States if incarcerated populations continue to be ignored.
Although the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is unknown, it is clear that including prisoners and correctional workers in our public health response will decrease the infection and death rate for all of us.
The U.S. death toll from coronavirus has now passed a staggering 100,000, and substantial measures must be taken in our nation’s correctional institutions to prevent further spread of the illness. We must ensure accessible and periodic testing for all incarcerated individuals and corrections staff. We should significantly reduce arrests of non-violent, low level offenders who are unlikely to endanger public safety.
Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of people behind bars who are awaiting trial, held for drug offenses, or facing technical parole or probation violations. We should decarcerate our jails and prisons by releasing those who are most vulnerable to infection and do not carry an immediate safety risk. At the same time, we must increase resources for housing and other transition services for people returning from incarcerated settings.
Our country’s jails and prisons have become epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic. If we are serious about confronting the devastating effects of this disease, we have to redefine how society views and supports our correctional systems.