COVID-19 Behind Bars

Authored by: Toviya Nabugero, staff editor

 

Image courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative. https://eji.org/news/covid-19s-impact-on-people-in-prison/.

 

 

It has been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We have experienced overwhelming loss as a country, with our most vulnerable communities disproportionately affected. Some of those communities being individuals in immigration detention centers and individuals in jails and prisons. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities have had some of the worst outbreaks of the virus, with 9,569 detainees in total having tested positive for COVID-19 as of February 24th.[1] The positive testing rate is 17% higher than the general U.S. population.[2] During the summer, Virginia was home to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country due to a terrible outbreak at one detention center.[3]

Farmville Detention Center, operated by private prison company Immigration Centers of America, (ICA-Farmville), had the worst outbreak of COVID-19 of any ICE detention center in the country this past summer.[4] Almost 90% of the people detained at ICA-Farmville tested positive for COVID-19; 259 of its 298 residents at the time.[5] This outbreak occurred after ICE transferred 74 people from detention centers in Florida and Arizona to ICA-Farmville in June.[6] Of the 74 transferred, 51 of them tested positive for COVID-19.[7] This outbreak led to the death of Mr. James Hill, who tested positive for the virus just days before he was scheduled for release to Canada.[8]

Reports from people detained at ICA-Farmville state that dorms are filled with sick people, and they have not been receiving adequate medical care.[9] After a court-ordered inspection of the facility, a public health expert found that the facility was failing to test and screen people for the virus, and they failed to provide proper medical attention.[10] This was not the only facility that suffered an enormous outbreak. Across the country, ICE continues to transfer and detain people which has efficiently spread coronavirus to different facilities across the United States.[11] Since ICE began testing people detained in its facilities back in March 2020, there has been a coronavirus death nearly every month.[12]

These outbreaks and resulting deaths are not coincidental and could have been avoided.[13] ICE has enacted policies that are inconsistent with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines and detention facilities have treated the people they house with callous disregard.[14] These outbreaks are not unique to migrant detention centers. Jails and prisons in the United States have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 40 of the 50 clustered outbreaks in the country have occurred in jails in prisons.[15]

The number of COVID-19 cases is 5 times higher among people who are incarcerated compared to the general population.[16] Like migrant centers, confined conditions and lack of adequate medical care contribute to high transmission rates.[17] Since March 2020, the Marshall Project has been tracking the number of coronavirus infections and deaths in prisons across the country.[18] Recent data from the report revealed that as of February 23rd, at least 383,754 people in prison had tested positive for the virus with at least 2,446 deaths.[19] In carceral facilities, it is impossible to practice social distancing, there is a lack of preventable resources and testing, and people are constantly being moved in and out of the facilities.[20]

All these factors make these facilities hot spots for COVID-19 and super spreaders for the virus. Expanding testing, enhancing preventative protocols, and making protective equipment accessible will help mitigate the outbreaks in these carceral facilities.[21] However, that will not contain the virus.[22] The most effective approach to reducing the transmissions and risk of further spreading the virus within these facilities and to surrounding communities is to reduce overcrowding.[23] Carceral facilities have more people detained or incarcerated than what they were designed to hold, causing crammed-up dorm living situations with bunks only inches apart.[24]

Several facilities around the country followed policy recommendations to reduce their populations early in the pandemic. During the first few months of the pandemic, jail populations, made up of many people who have not been convicted of a crime, dropped by 30% from a combination of early releases and incarcerating fewer people.[25] However, as coronavirus-related restrictions were loosened, the jail populations began to rise again and by September, they regained half of the number of people released.[26] A similar trend has been documented for state and federal prisons.[27] ICE did release some people from detention centers[28] but they also ramped up their enforcement efforts and continued to arrest, detain and transfer people amongst their facilities throughout the pandemic.[29] Without reducing overcrowding and implementing more virus-preventing protocols, the virus will continue to run rampant within these facilities and spread to surrounding communities. With the threat of new and more infectious coronavirus variants, worse outbreaks are on the horizon if we continue to ignore our most vulnerable communities.

 

 

 

[1] Eli M. Cahan, America’s Immigration System Is a COVID Superspreader, Sci. Am. (Feb. 26, 2021), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/americas-immigration-system-is-a-covid-superspreader.

[2] Id.

[3] Katya Schwenk, The ICE facility Where Almost Every Detainee Has Coronavirus, The Am. Prospect (Aug. 12, 2020), https://prospect.org/justice/farmville-ice-facility-almost-every-detainee-has-coronavirus.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Sabrina Moreno, ‘It’s a story that shouldn’t have happened’: 72-year-old man in Farmville ICE Facility dies after testing positive for COVID-19, Rich. Times-Dispatch (Aug. 7, 2020), https://richmond.com/news/virginia/its-a-story-that-shouldnt-have-happened-72-year-old-man-in-farmville-ice-facility.

[8] Id.

[9] See Katya Schwenk, The ICE facility Where Almost Every Detainee Has Coronavirus, The Am. Prospect (Aug. 12, 2020), https://prospect.org/justice/farmville-ice-facility-almost-every-detainee-has-coronavirus.

[10] Jenny Gathright, Inspection Finds ’Systematic’ Failings in Farmville Immigrant Detention Center Response To COVID-19 Outbreak, WAMU.org (Sep. 10th, 2020), https://wamu.org/story/20/09/10/inspection-finds-systematic-failings-in-farmville-immigrant-detention-center-response-to-covid-19-outbreak.

[11] Katya Schwenk, The ICE facility Where Almost Every Detainee Has Coronavirus, The Am. Prospect (Aug. 12, 2020), https://prospect.org/justice/farmville-ice-facility-almost-every-detainee-has-coronavirus.

[12] Eli M. Cahan, America’s Immigration System Is a COVID Superspreader, Sci. Am. (Feb. 26, 2021), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/americas-immigration-system-is-a-covid-superspreader.

[13] John Washington, ICE Mismanagement Created Coronavirus “Hotbeds of Infection” in and Around Detention Centers, The Intercept (Dec. 9, 2020), https://theintercept.com/2020/12/09/ice-covid-detention-centers (describing ICE’s mismanagement of the virus).

[14] Id.

[15] Alexandria Macmadu, et al., COVID-19 and mass incarceration: a call for urgent action, The Lancet Pub. Health (Oct. 9, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30231-0.

[16] Id.

[17] See Madeline Carlisle & Josiah Bates, With Over 275,000 Infections and 1,700 Deaths, COVID-19 Has Devastated the U.S. Prison and Jail Population, Time (Dec. 28, 2020), https://time.com/5924211/coronavirus-outbreaks-prisons-jails-vaccines.

[18] A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons, The Marshall Project (Feb. 26, 2021), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons.

[19] Id.

[20] Jeanette Der Bedrosian, A Carceral Crisis, Hub (Oct. 15, 2020), https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/10/15/covid-outbreak-prisons-report.

[21] See Alexandria Macmadu, et al., COVID-19 and mass incarceration: a call for urgent action, The Lancet Pub. Health (Oct. 9, 2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30231-0.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] See Covid-19’s Impact on People in Prison, Equal Just. Initiative (Jan. 7, 2021), https://eji.org/news/covid-19s-impact-on-people-in-prison (noting that prisons house more people than they are designed to hold); See Stephanie Desmon, COVID-19 in Jails, Prisons, and Immigration Detention Centers: A Q&A with Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Sch. of Pub. Health (Sep. 15, 2020), https://www.jhsph.edu/covid-19/articles/covid-19-in-jails-prisons-and-immigration-detention-centers.html (noting that crowded population density of facilities makes them vulnerable to the coronavirus).

[25] Lindsey Van Ness, COVID-19 Extends Sentences for Some Incarcerated People, PEW (Jan. 20, 2021), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/01/20/covid-19-extends-sentences-for-some-incarcerated-people.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] See Immigration Detention and Covid-19, Brennan Ctr. for Just. (Mar. 27, 2020), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/immigration-detention-and-covid-19; See

[29] John Washington, ICE Mismanagement Created Coronavirus “Hotbeds of Infection” in and Around Detention Centers, The Intercept (Dec. 9, 2020), https://theintercept.com/2020/12/09/ice-covid-detention-centers.

 

 

 

 

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