Prisons nationwide haven’t made permanent changes to prevent illnesses or death from the coronavirus, news sources report.
Measures taken to deal with the chaos and deadly circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic weren’t substantial or permanent, according to a report by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press.
“What we’re seeing over the past couple weeks and months is a real return to status quo, which makes me worry that prisons and jails didn’t learn much at all,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who leads the COVID Prison Project. She noted that she hasn’t seen the systemic change needed to address the next pandemic.
Prisons still lack space to isolate sick prisoners. They also haven’t upgraded ventilation systems or created surge capacity for staff and health workers.
The most effective approach is to drastically reduce prison populations, declared Dr. David Sears, an infectious-disease specialist and correctional health consultant.
“When you’re filled to the max and you have two people in an 8-by-10 cell right next to two more people in an 8-by-10 cell and on and on, it’s impossible to create any form of physical distancing,” said Sears. “We have to get people out of prisons so we have that space.”
Infections are now lower, but new variants are spreading around the world, he said. “We need to take these lessons and make sure that the things we’ve learned after a lot of real human suffering are not in vain.”
The inconsistent policies of corrections systems around the country failed to prevent positive infections that reached a high of 25,000 prisoners in a single week in mid-December. The Marshall Project data shows that three in 10 state and federal prisoners were infected with the virus.
Staff shortages have also become an immense problem in a number of prisons. In the federal system, staffing levels have become so critically low that teachers and others have been forced to guard prisoners, reported the article.
The strains of understaffing and working in a high-risk environment have led to some staff leaving their jobs. These staffing shortages will have long-term consequences, especially as prison populations rise, said Anton Andrew of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
“There were definitely officers who went weeks without a day off and sometimes working all 16-hour shifts. It takes a toll on you, your home life, (and) your time with family, your mental and physical exhaustion,” he said. “Because so many staff members were out sick during COVID-19, what we found was people had an even harder time getting access to medical care.”
Most systems have seen staff vaccination rates lagging behind, though 20 states have administered at least one dose of the vaccine to two-thirds of their prison population, a higher rate than anticipated, reported the article.
The lessening of infections in prisons every week has caused prisons to ease restrictions for visiting, prisoner movements, and mask wearing. Many prisoners have gone more than a year without family visits, educational programs or outdoor recreation, and prisoners are eager to socialize and have access to more activities. However, advocates for the incarcerated fear that prisons are letting their guard down too quickly, the report said.
There is a troubling sign that prisons are moving beyond the pandemic prematurely, said Michele Deitch, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
“There’s a sense that COVID is over, that the pandemic is behind us, and that is just not the case,” said Deitch. “We have to remember that prisons and jails were hit so much harder than the outside communities were, and in many jurisdictions, they were late to provide vaccinations to incarcerated people.”