As COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the world, our nation’s jails and prisons have become the epicenters of the outbreak in the United States, greatly increasing the risk that the people confined within their walls will contract COVID-19.
Why is COVID-19 so Dangerous in Jails and Prisons?
Populous, confined spaces—whether they are nursing homes, cruise ships, or naval carriers—make the spread of COVID-19 all but inevitable. Jails provide the same type of closed environment, on steroids. Overcrowding in limited space, bans on alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and lack of autonomy combined with inadequate testing for the coronavirus, has jeopardized the health of incarcerated people and strained medical care in federal and state prisons and jails.
COVID-19 thrives in these types of environments for several reasons:
- The way it spreads. This coronavirus is highly contagious and can spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets expelled when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks, and can reach others from approximately six-feet away. It can also be contracted from infected surfaces; experts estimate it can live on surfaces for hours or even days.
- Without comprehensive testing, it can be undetectable. The head of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has estimated that 25% of people infected with COVID-19 may not show any symptoms. It is estimated that symptoms do not present for anywhere from five to fourteen days, and transmission of the disease from asymptomatic, presymptomatic, and mildly symptomatic people is possible. Although many jails will check inmates’ temperatures to determine if they have the disease, this will only detect the disease if someone is symptomatic with an elevated temperature. Obviously, this type of testing will miss people who are infected but not showing symptoms, people who are infected and will show symptoms but are not yet, and people who are displaying mild symptoms that do not include a fever.
My Loved One is Incarcerated; Are They at Risk?
Jail and prison settings have proven to expose their residents to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19; of those who have contracted the virus, some individuals are more susceptible to developing serious or life-threatening complications from it. Doctor Anthony Fauci, the long-time Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has acknowledged that there are still unknowns surrounding why COVID-19 affects some people more than others:
[Y]ou get so many people who do well and then some people who just, bingo, they’re on a respirator…and they’re dead. I mean, the dichotomy between that, there is something there…that we’re missing from a pathogenesis standpoint. And I don’t think it’s only if you’re elderly or if you have underlying conditions. There’s something else going on there that hopefully we’ll ultimately figure out.
The Washington Post reports that at least 759 people under the age of fifty have died from COVID-19 in the United States.
Still, there are certain demographics that are known to be most at risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19:
- “Older Adults” – The CDC warns that older adults are at higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19. According to the CDC, eight out of ten COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States have been in adults sixty-five years old or older. For people who are incarcerated, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics adjusts the qualifying-age down to fifty-five years old or older, due to the prevalence of risk-factors in jails and prisons.
- People with underlying health conditions, including:
- Asthma – Asthma is a respiratory disease affecting one of the primary biological system COVID-19 is known to attack. For that reason, the CDC advises that people with moderate to severe asthma may be at a higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 because COVID-19 can affect a person’s respiratory tract, cause an asthma attack, and possibly lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease. The CDC offers additional guidance for people with asthma, here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/asthma.html
- Diabetes – The CDC advises that diabetics of all ages are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
- High Blood Pressure – High Blood Pressure, or hypertension, is the most common type of heart disease, affecting about half of American adults. For those with hypertension, COVID-19 can cause a “systemic reaction,” meaning the virus attacks multiple organ systems.
- Heart Disease – According to the American College of Cardiology, “people with heart disease seem to be at higher risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19.”
- African Americans have been disproportionately affected. In Chicago, black residents have died at a rate six times that of white residents, accounting for nearly 70% of the city’s 118 reported deaths.
How are Courts Responding?
Recognizing the unprecedented danger posed by COVID-19, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memorandum advising the director of the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement, and BOP has since increased home confinement by 40%.
Unfortunately, trials and “non-essential” court hearings are repeatedly being continued by the courts, sometimes indefinitely, leaving those who are awaiting trial stuck in jail, unsure of when they will have their day in court.
The Supreme Court of Missouri has suspended most court hearings, including most criminal jury trials, through at least May 15, 2020, the Eastern District of Missouri has suspended all trials through at least May 31, 2020, and the Speedy Trial Act has been waived. Both of those dates are subject to being pushed out even further.
The Good News: Help is Available
Fortunately, there are a variety of procedures to request release for those who are incarcerated, and many courts have released individuals due to the dangers posed by COVID-19. Although trials and other “non-essential” court dates are being continued, a request for relief such as a Bond Hearing or Motion for Temporary Release” will be entertained by the Courts. When a hearing is granted, most courts will hold the hearing on video conference or on the phone.
- Center for Disease Control (https://www.cdc.gov/CORONAVIRUS/2019-NCOV/PREVENT-GETTING-SICK/PREVENTION.HTML)
- Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services (https://health.mo.gov/living/healthcondiseases/communicable/novel-coronavirus/)
- Missouri State Courts: (https://www.courts.mo.gov/pandemic/)
- Eastern District of Missouri (https://www.moed.uscourts.gov/)
- Holly Yan, Prisons and Jails Across the US are Turning into ‘Petri Dishes’ for Coronavirus. Deputies are Falling Ill, Too. CNN.com, April 10, 2020, available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-jails-prisons/index.html?utm_source=fbCNN&utm_medium=social&utm_term=link&utm_content=2020-04-09T22%3A01%3A42&fbclid=IwAR0trO5lqvEQogm7XRNC96_4T9JO8HSGLMH3xlobS6pKGx6_EPQfrC39G0k
- Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, COVID-19 is Ravaging Nursing Homes. Government Records Show Why, CNN News, April 24, 2020, available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/24/us/nursing-homes-coronavirus-invs/index.html
- Smriti Mallapaty, What the Cruise-Ship Outbreaks Reveal about COVID-19, Nature, Mar. 26, 2020, available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00885-w
- 840 Sailors on USS Theodore Roosevelt Test Positive for COVID-19, Navy Says, USA Today, April 24, 2020, available at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/24/coronavirus-uss-theodore-roosevelt-sailors-test-covid-19-positive/3018331001/
- Bill Chappell, 73% of Inmates at An Ohio Prison Test Positive for Coronavirus, National Public Radio, Apr. 20, 2020, available at https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/20/838943211/73-of-inmates-at-an-ohio-prison-test-positive-for-coronavirus
- Associated Press, How Many People Have Had Coronavirus with No Symptoms?, NBC News, Apr. 20, 2020, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/how-many-people-have-had-coronavirus-no-symptoms-n1187681
- See Pien Huang, What We Know About the Silent Spreaders of COVID-19, NPR.org, April 13, 2020, available at https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/04/13/831883560/can-a-coronavirus-patient-who-isnt-showing-symptoms-infect-others
- Chris Mooney, Brady Dennis, and Sarah Kaplan, Hundreds of Young Americans Have Now Been Killed by the Coronavirus, Data Shows, The Washington Post, April 8, 2020, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/04/08/young-people-coronavirus-deaths/
- Rachel Bedard, MD, Geriatrics and Palliative Care in the Correctional Health Setting, Mar. 2018, available at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/boc/downloads/pdf/Meetings/2018/March-13-2018/RachaelBedardGeriComplexCareBOCpresentation3%202018FINAL%20rm.pdf
- See People Who Are at Higher Risk, CDC, Mar. 21, 2020, available at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/groups-at-higher-risk.html
- Ryan Prior, Those with High Blood Pressure Are At A Greater Risk for COVID-19. Here’s What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself, CNN Health, Apr. 17, 2020, available at https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/17/health/blood-pressure-coronavirus-wellness/index.html
- American College of Cardiology, Heart Patients Warned of Risks from Coronavirus, CardioSmartNews.com, available at https://www.cardiosmart.org/News-and-Events/2020/03/Heart-Patients-Warned-of-Risks-from-Coronavirus
- Reis Thebault, et al., The Coronavirus is Infecting and Killing Black Americans at an Alarmingly High Rate, The Washington Post, Apr. 7, 2020, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/?arc404=true
- See William Barr, Office of the Attorney General, Memorandum for Director of Bureau of Prisons, (Mar. 26, 2020), available at https://www.bop.gov/resources/news/pdfs/20200405_covid-19_home_confinement.pdf
- Bureau of Prisons, COVID-19 and Home Confinement, available at https://www.bop.gov/resources/news/20200405_covid19_home_confinement.jsp