In discussions about the spread of coronavirus, grocery stores, nursing homes, and restaurants have received plenty of attention. But the aggressive spread of COVID-19 in prisons has gone largely unnoticed.
According to the numbers, America’s prisons have become the newest epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. In one Louisiana prison, 192 out of 195 inmates tested positive for the virus, while 2,028 out of 2,300 inmates at a prison in Ohio tested positive.
How are prisons handling the spread of the coronavirus, and what does it mean for the future of this pandemic?
Impossible to Maintain Social Distancing Behind Bars
Prisons aren’t designed for social distancing. “We know that it’s spreading among staff and that staff are bringing it into and out of the facilities,” explained Felicity Rose, director of research and policy for criminal justice reform at the advocacy group FWD.US.
“We know there are people who are asymptomatic and are able to pass it along, but we just don’t know how many. So it’s a ticking time bomb.”
Many facilities have responded by suspending visitation rights and locking detainees in cells for at least 23 hours a day to limit interactions between inmates. But inmates in many prisons across the country are not allowed to wear masks, and some officers were only recently permitted to bring their own.
One Miami District Court Judge, Kathleen Williams, ruled in early April that a Miami jail was required to give inmates masks and ensure social distancing to curb the spread of coronavirus. A federal appeals court blocked Judge Williams’ decision, ruling that the Miami jail can’t be forced to give inmates masks, soap, and tests for COVID-19.
The legal battle, which is still ongoing, represents a larger problem within the prison system: who is responsible for keeping prisoners safe, and to what degree?
Disinfectant Supplies and Testing Are Limited
Soap and other cleaning and disinfectant supplies are severely limited in most prisons across the country. Some facilities don’t have any additional hygiene resources for inmates. Combined with a lack of masks and poor social distancing, prisons are becoming petri dishes for COVID-19.
Some states have responded by requiring testing of all inmates in facilities where cases of coronavirus occur. Others only test inmates with symptoms, leading to unclear data.
As of April 29, testing confirmed at least 14,513 people in the prison system had the coronavirus. Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan, and North Carolina are among the states aggressively testing nearly everyone at prisons where inmates or officers have become sick.
In Ohio, for example, 2,300 inmates were tested at Marion Correctional Institution in north central Ohio. A total of 2,028 tested positive, but close to 95% had no symptoms whatsoever. Such a significantly large proportion of infected inmates suggests that prisons who only test people with symptoms are underestimating their infection rate dramatically.
In turn, asymptomatic patients are likely infecting others, causing the widespread outbreak now occurring and making it impossible to stop.
Implications of the Spread of COVID-19 Beyond Prisons
The lessons learned in America’s prison systems are important to consider outside of prison walls as well. If the vast majority of prisoners are infected but asymptomatic, the same may be true of the general population. Are people who believe they’re healthy actually infected and spreading COVID-19 to others?
It’s a discussion that warrants attention, especially in the midst of the face mask debates being hashed out as retail stores and restaurants reopen.