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Dimensions of Health Crisis in America’s prison system

Covid-19 spread in prisons reveals inequities in the system

What happens when a deadly virus enters the U.S. prison system? Corrections institutions struggle to care for inmates — many with chronic medical conditions — and their workers.

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At least 386,765 prisoners had reportedly tested positive for the virus and 2,459 had died of Covid-19 from March 2020 to March 2, 2021. Source: The Marshall Project

Glenn Christie missed a mandatory meeting with his parole officer in April 2019 after being hospitalized for a flare up of a spinal condition that affects his ability to walk. 

Christie, who was on a decade-long parole term, said he called his parole officer and left numerous messages explaining the reason he would miss their scheduled meeting. The parole officer said she never received those messages. 

A judge ordered Christie’s arrest for the parole violation and returned him to prison to serve a one-to-two year sentence at Old Colony Correctional Center,  a medium-security secured facility in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

In the midst of Christie’s incarceration, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency because of the rise of coronavirus cases. Christie’s attorney sought his immediate release based on the changed circumstances arising from the pandemic. 

In the appeal with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, David Rangaviz, an attorney with the appeals unit of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s equivalent of public defenders, argued that Christie, who was 54 at the time, suffered from chronic medical conditions and was at risk of serious illness or death if he contracted the coronavirus. 

On April 6, 2020, Christie was released from prison.

Across the United States, millions of incarcerated men and women remain behind bars as Covid-19 cases escalate inside prisons. Like nursing homes, prisons are hotspots for the novel coronavirus.

The Marshall Project, in partnership with the Associated Press, has tracked the weekly number of Covid-19 cases in U.S. prisons. As of March 2, at least 386,765 prisoners had tested positive for the coronavirus, with more than 2,450 inmate deaths.

David Rangaviz, an attorney with the appeals unit of the Committee for Public Counsel Services of Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of CPCS)

While at the prison in Bridgewater, Rangaviz said Christie told him that social distancing was not always enforced, with 50 or more inmates in Christie’s unit often lined up in a hallway to get their meals and medication. In addition, inmates were housed two to a cell and could not maintain adequate social distancing. 

In the early days of the pandemic in Massachusetts, numerous inmates informed defense attorneys with the Committee for Public Counsel Services that prisoners with Covid-19 symptoms were held in solitary confinement 23 ½ hours a day at the Old Colony Correctional Center, said Rebecca Jacobstein, CPCS staff attorney.  She added that it was unclear whether this separation practice persists at state correctional facilities.

Unlock the Box, a nonprofit coalition of organizations, including the ACLU, released a June 2020 report that found a 500% increase in the use of solitary confinement in response to the coronavirus outbreak. (The coalition works to end the use of solitary confinement.)  

“It’s never a good time to be incarcerated, and it’s been made even worse with Covid,” said Jacobstein. “The disease has revealed the inequities in the system to people who have never had to interact with the system.”

In January, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Equitable Data Collection and Disclosure on Covid-19 Act, which mandated that the federal government collect data on racial disparities in coronavirus cases and death. 

“Aspects of my bill were signed into law, and I have continued to push for equity to be centered in our response efforts … (in) our most vulnerable and most impacted communities,” Pressley said. “I will not stop until they receive the resources and support necessary to weather this crisis.”

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 22% of all sentenced male prisoners were age 50 or older at the end of 2019. 

A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at the Cook County jail complex on April 09, 2020, in Chicago, Ill., where nearly 400 cases of Covid-19 had been diagnosed among the inmates and employees. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Elderly prisoners are more likely to have health concerns such as chronic conditions or disability than their non-incarcerated counterparts, according to a study by the Journal of Aging and Health. 

Although elderly incarcerated people receive medical check-ups, access to specialized geriatric care is scarce in the majority of prisons, according to the justice center report, which can result in prison populations with higher rates of chronic and communicable diseases, according to a study by the Center for Justice at Columbia University

In Minnesota, the pandemic has provided an opportunity in the midst of this crisis, especially regarding women prisoners. “The goal was to try to keep Covid out of the (prison) system,” said Shawn Renee Kennon, an assistant public defender in the state’s Hennepin County. 

In a 2020 report from The Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women nationwide increased from less than 50,000 in 1980 to more than 200,000 in 2019. Additionally, about 60% of incarcerated women leave behind children under age 18, many of whom ended up in the foster care system. 

After roughly a three-month shutdown in 2020, the Hennepin County courts started using Zoom technology to adjudicate cases. Kennon said that lower-level offenders were often sentenced to house arrest and monitored with an electronic cuff, instead of being sent to the penitentiary. 

“Having offenders in quarantine at home is what kept our numbers down,” said Kennon. “In this way women, in particular, could be with their aging parents or young children, or both, and not have the inordinate challenge of finding alternative child care or eldercare options. 

I hope (after the pandemic ends) these outcomes will be reviewed,” said Kennon. “Perhaps some of these changes could be incorporated long term.” 

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Angie Chatman

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