Coronavirus Poses Unique Risk to U.S. Prison Population

By Jovalin Dedaj

As businesses and governments scramble to contain the coronavirus pandemic (“COVID-19”), one segment of society is uniquely vulnerable: the prison population.  Poor hygiene, limited medical resources, overcrowding, and prohibitions on over-the-counter medical supplies such as hand sanitizer make corrections facilities and immigration processing centers very susceptible to the disease.  It presents a serious threat to the prison system and could quickly escalate into a disaster if immediate steps are not taken.

Lawmakers have taken notice.  This week, fifteen U.S. Senators wrote a letter to Michael Carvajal, the director of the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”), inquiring into the steps the agency is taking to protect inmates and staff and what preparations it was making should the virus reach any federal or privately operated facility.  While no prisons have reported an outbreak of COVID-19, now is the time for federal and state officials to take preventive action.

As experts have acknowledged, incarcerated individuals are at a greater risk of infection, given their living conditions.  In a letter from the Yale School of Public Health cited by the senators in their letter, public health experts have observed that inmates are less able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe.  Prisons present high transmission risks and make infection control difficult.  With a prison population of over 2 million individuals, it is likely only a matter of time before the virus reaches U.S. prisons.

The situation abroad is less promising.  Chinese officials have confirmed over 500 coronavirus cases across five prisons in three different provinces.  Many countries have begun taking extraordinary measures to address the threat posed to their prison populations.  Iran, for instance, announced the temporary furlough of 70,000 prisoners in an effort to control the outbreak, releasing inmates with underlying health conditions and nonviolent offenses.  In Italy, however, many prisons suspended visitation rights indefinitely, which led to riots in 27 prisons resulting in 6 inmate deaths and over 50 escapes.

These overseas problems present a dire warning for U.S. federal and state prison officials who must take every step to prevent the virus’ spread among the U.S. prison population.  Releasing inmates, as in Iran, or suspending visitation rights altogether, like in Italy, may not be an option in the United States.  Yet precautions my be taken and BOP and state officials should consider all possible options to limit inmate contact with the possible infection sources.

Restricting visitations rights in some capacity may be appropriate.  Most federal facilities operate on a point system for visitation rights.  For example, an inmate may have seven visitation points in a calendar month, which they can spend on weekday visits (1 point) or weekend or holiday visits (3 points).  This is a practice the BOP can implement for all of its facilities in order to reduce the number of visits an inmate receives during this containment period.  The BOP should also consider screening visitors and restricting visitation rights for visitors from outbreak locations.

The situation in China also proves that movement in and among prisons significantly increases transmission risks.  For that reason, federal and state prison officials should consider a temporary hold on transferring inmates from among different facilities, especially in cases where the transfer is not absolutely necessary (e.g., an appearance in a legal proceeding).  The less number of inmates moving around the system, the less risk there is of transmitting the virus.

Federal and state officials also need to reevaluate the medical resources available to prisons.  Prisons should monitor elderly inmates or inmates with underlying health conditions at the outset and reinforce the capabilities and staffing of the existing infirmaries within the facilities now to obviate the need to transfer infected patients to better equipped medical detention centers.  Prisons also need to encourage inmates to maintain their own personal hygiene in order to combat the virus.  One potentially effective and inexpensive fix is hand sanitizer, which most U.S. prisons consider contraband.  Prison officials need to develop a safe and effective way to make these items more readily available and allow inmates to better protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19.  Ultimately, many of these suggestions are the same efforts the BOP has made in the past when it was facing the ebola epidemic in 2014.

Over 2 million individuals are incarcerated in prisons and jails throughout the United States, making the U.S. the most incarcerated society per person in the world.  These individuals are among the most vulnerable segments of the population at risk of contracting the coronavirus.  The ability of incarcerated individuals to take preventative measures themselves is already severely constrained and the prison system in the United States would buckle under the stress of an uncontrolled outbreak.  That is why federal and state authorities need to take decisive action and they must do so now.