As the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus starts to creep up in states around the country, fears are rightfully sparking about the impact of this outbreak on a critically vulnerable group of people: those incarcerated in our jails and prisons. The danger of infection is high in these crowded, unsanitary facilities—and the risk for people inside and outside of them is exacerbated by the “churn” of people being admitted and released at high rates.
Many detention facilities, including CoreCivic, have refused to say how − or whether − they intend to protect our clients from COVID-19. From inside, we hear that they have provided little to no meaningful guidance or directives, and few protective resources (like hand sanitizer). These facilities owe the people in their custody, their families, and their visitors candid answers about how they are managing COVID-19 concerns.
David Patton, the federal defender in Southern/ Eastern District of New York, issued this statement:
The Federal Defenders of New York calls on the BOP and each institution in New York City housing federal detainees to make public its plans and policies for preventing a coronavirus outbreak and responding to detained people who contract coronavirus. At a minimum, those plans and policies should include:
1. A comprehensive testing protocol;
3. A provision for quarantining anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus at a hospital, not at the jail;
4. A provision that the jails not be locked down or closed off to outsiders or considered in their entirety as places of “quarantine”, and permitting lawyers and family members access to their clients and loved ones;
5. Coordination with the Courts and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to ensure that only in extraordinary circumstances should any new arrestee be detained at the jails, and no one should be admitted without testing.
Likewise, fifteen Democratic senators have demanded action from BOP and private facilities, including CoreCivic, by March 16, 2020:
Given the spread of the virus in the U.S.—and the particular vulnerability of the prison population and correctional staff—it is critical that [you] have a plan to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to incarcerated individuals and correctional staff, along with their families and loved ones, and provide treatment to incarcerated individuals and staff who become infected.
The Kansas Federal Public Defender joins these demands, and specifically calls on CoreCivic and other pretrial facilities to publish their COVID-19 plans and policies. This is not meant to be alarmist or opportunistic. And, here, we are not even talking about the constitutional implications of this crisis on those in custody. These requests—for medical care and prescribed precautions, for information and transparency−are a matter of public health, institutional responsibility, and human decency. Until these questions are answered, perhaps we should rethink who we force into these unsafe conditions. Again from Slate:
A hallmark of incarceration is that it strips people of autonomy and self-determination; a medical outbreak of this proportion shines a harsh light on the real-life effects of that deprivation. . . . We must take responsibility for the crisis of mass incarceration we have created, which is now also a massive public health crisis waiting to happen. Prosecutors can stop seeking detention in many cases; judges can stop incarcerating people at the outset; and courts, politicians, and parole commissions can begin to release people who are already incarcerated.