COVID-19, a pandemic caused by a coronavirus omicron strain, is sweeping through prisons and jails across the United States. Is it any worse in the cold months?
Omicron in the West: Surprisingly Positive Signs
As of January 10th, 2022, the state of California has 2,350 inmates with current infections. Most infections were concentrated in three sites with an average of 400-500 cases each, and the total number of infections was lower than in the last two years.
With the first public occurrence of an omicron variant illness in a prisoner on January 3rd, 2022, Hawaii reported cluster breakouts in Wailuku and on Maui. Around 60 inmates in Hawaii were infected with COVID-19 at the time.
Despite an ongoing drive to vaccinate prisoners in its three detention institutions since March 2021, Washington’s King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention in Seattle had its greatest increase of COVID-19 on December 27, 2021, with 20 cases recorded.
On the final three days of December 2021, the state set and then broke its single-day case record for the pandemic in Colorado. According to the Department of Corrections (DOC), on January 4, 2022, there were 248 current instances, with the majority occurring in three state prisons.
In the South and Southwest, Omicron is Surprisingly Not Terrible.
According to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, as of January 11, 2022, “its correctional facilities have largely been spared from COVID-19 in recent weeks,” according to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. There were 17 current cases in the jail system but no hospitalizations. Josh Ward, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that as of January 4, 2022, 70% of state prisoners had gotten a complete vaccination, and 20% had received a booster. This year, the DOC will no longer keep track of team member vaccination and infection rates, citing difficulty in collecting data about tests and immunizations outside of the DOC.
Our expectations for infection rates in jails are higher than in other institutions because of their smaller capacity and higher turnover. As a result, it was heartening to see that on January 10, 2022, both Cherokee County and Henderson County prisons in eastern Texas reported zero inmate illnesses.
Sheriff Brent Dickerson of Cherokee County, North Carolina, claimed that in early 2021, his jail had 40 instances of the delta variety. Still, his staff was able “to shut that down with isolation and precautions.”
Sheriff Botie Hillhouse of Henderson County, Tennessee, tempered the good news by adding that 12 of his jail’s 173 inmates had tested positive.
No inmates were found to be infected at the two facilities, but Northeast Texas, Public Health District, stated that 41 inmates in the Smith County Jail had been infected on the same day. There were 16 confirmed cases at Polk County Jail, seven of which were quarantined, in mid-January 2022, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO).
On December 29, 2021, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana reported 24 positive cases from its 861 inmates. Only two out of nearly 1,000 inmates at Gretna tested positive for the virus directly over the river.
During the pandemic, the Thomas County Jail near the Florida border in Georgia reported that it had avoided large epidemics. According to Communications Officer Cpt, it had been “almost 16 months before [they] had an outbreak,” according to Communications Officer Cpt. Steve Jones, but even then, he said, “none of the inmates had to be hospitalized and only a few showed symptoms.”
Coronavirus Reporting Will Cease in June 2021 in Florida
Early in June 2021, the Florida Department of Health halted all emergency pandemic protocols, including reporting any tests, cases, or fatalities that occurred. The Orlando Sentinel reported on September 17 of that year that DOC did not respond to questions about reconsidering its plan to no longer update a COVID-19 dashboard but that “hundreds of prisoners have died in Florida prisons of COVID” while “more than 30% of those who died were eligible for parole at the time of their death.” Forrest Behne, the policy director for the COVID Prison Project, which tracks the virus nationally in prisons and jails, noted, “It’s tough to sit with the fact that some of the most basic, foundational concerns are not really being answered.”
It’s not looking good for Omicron in the Midwest.
On January 10, 2022, the Cook County Jail in Chicago stated that 850 inmates and jail workers had just tested positive for the virus, a dramatic rise. The positive rate in prison was 33%. According to government officials, the number of COVID-19 cases has quadrupled in the last month, marking the greatest infection level since the epidemic began. Spokesperson Matt Wahlberg said that 63 percent of new cases were detected at admission and that majority of the positive detainees were not infected while in custody. By strengthening testing, vaccines, and mitigation practices in preparation for the omicron wave, Cermak Health, and the Sheriff’s Office have prepared for the omicron wave. Educational movies are played daily in the jail, and vaccine information is displayed on each institution tier. 77% of the jail’s employees and 64% of its inmates are immunized. 43 percent of the inmates were infected with breakthrough infections.
On January 6, 2022, Missouri’s St. Louis County Jail stated that 110 inmates and 30 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, although no one had been hospitalized or had any major symptoms. The 110 positive cases represented thirteen percent of the jail population.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported 13 correctional institutions with five or more cases in the previous fourteen days, including the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex, the Riley County Jail, the Shawnee County Jail, and the Topeka Correctional Facility.
As the wildfire omicron variant rocketed coronavirus infections to record highs in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County Jail on January 7, 2022, nearly half the inmates there had caught COVID-19. The jail’s commander, Inspector Aaron Dobson, said that more than 400 of the jail’s 900 prisoners were positive, but he added that “the one good thing is that people don’t seem to get as sick from this variant. Most people are asymptomatic, which is very good.” Infected convicts are being placed in isolation, and the entire unit will be quarantined and tested in five days. According to the state department of health (DOC), this month’s COVID-19 infection rate was 10 times greater than the month before according to the state department of health (DOC). According to spokesperson John Beard, no increase in serious disease was noted by the Department of Commerce, despite a substantial jump. According to Beard, 82% of the inmates under the custody of the Department of Corrections are fully immunized. Booster shots have been administered to about 7,000 of the system’s 16,000 adults and children. As of the first Thursday in January 2022, the DOC has received a total of 466 reports of current COVID cases.
Concerning Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, Omicron is a mixed bag.
On January 7, 2022, Maine stated that there were 13 open cases at Maine State Prison involving 649 inmates. There were 21 instances in the previous month. On the Maine Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 screen, the only infected adult prison site was Maine State Prison. According to DOC’s director of government affairs, Anna Black, 82% of inmates get immunized.
The omicron version was blamed for an increase in COVID-19 cases in Vermont; however, the state’s jail system only saw three instances when the virus was shown to be present. There were 33 positive test results among state prison staff members, even though more than 70 percent of the staff members have been vaccinated, and those who haven’t been vaccinated are tested twice a week.
By January 12th, 2022, no significant illnesses or hospitalizations related to the disease had been reported in the three Pioneer Valley counties of Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin in Massachusetts. According to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, 74 inmates were quarantined on the same day. According to the Hampshire Sheriff’s Department, pre-trial inmates were the only group to have tested positive. According to Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan, 28 inmates in the county jail had tested positive and were placed in medical quarantine. Donelon said, “It took two years for COVID to find us, but I think that (omicron variant) was too much for us to handle. The best chance is that staff brought it in. That’s what we have always feared.”
On December 22, 2021, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests at New York City’s Rikers Island jail, one of the world’s biggest detention facilities, rose to 17 percent, up from just 1 percent 10 days earlier. DOC According to the guards’ union, Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi failed to enforce a mandatory immunization policy for inmates or visitors. Writer Schiraldi has sent letters to New York’s legal assistance organizations, urging them to convince the courts to free convicts and stop new inmates from being admitted. “Data indicates that the risks to human beings in our custody are at crisis level,” he wrote in a letter to public defender groups on December 21, 2021. All indications suggest that our jail population faces an equal or greater risk from COVID now as it did at the start of the pandemic.”
On January 7, 2022, the state of New Jersey’s Department of Corrections (DOC) halted in-person visits to its two dozen prisons and halfway homes because of the omicron variant’s rapid proliferation throughout the state. On January 6, 2022, the Health Department amended instructions for visits to detention institutions. Authorities were given the duty of vaccinating inmates and employees, performing random tests, handing out face masks, and screening anybody entering the facility.
On January 17, 2022, information from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) website showed that 3% of inmates had COVID-19, and two were hospitalized. Positive test results were reported on average every day on average for the 30 days from December 16 to January 16 of 2022. There have been 56 deaths in the state’s prisons and jails since the outbreak began. To determine whether he was immune to the disease, a 70-year-old inmate at Greene Correctional Institution was hospitalized on December 21st, 2021, and died on January 1st, 2022. Since May 2021, DPS has seen a COVID-19 fatality for the first time. 80 percent of inmates and 61 percent of employees are properly immunized, according to DPS. There was 75 percent of inmates vaccinated by Christmas, spokesman John Bull said. “The prison system is offering incentives to incarcerated people to get booster shots including extended television time, longer visits and extended time to use tablets for prisoners in the seven prisons that are tablet-capable at this point,” he added.
Trouble at a Women’s Prison in West Virginia Raises Federal Concerns
The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced on December 22, 2021, that 452 federal prisoners around the country had tested positive for COVID-19. Nearly 300 of the 155,000 inmates doing time in the BOP have perished from the epidemic since it began. With 108 current infections on December 24, 2021, Alderson Federal Prison Camp (FPC) was the worst-hit federal facility, with 665 inmates confined to the minimum-security facility. In addition, according to attorney Paul Petruzzi, 43 people had recently recovered in “abhorrent” conditions, who cited the quarantine unit’s lack of hot water and a lack of staff members. To be eligible for early release for health reasons, women in prison should have CARES Act paperwork handled by prison staff. Still, many women have had to take matters into their own hands due to lost or mismanaged paperwork, requests being denied without explanations or a lack of clarity about who is authorized to make early-release decisions due to confusion.
US ICE Centers have three times more Omicron.
On December 26, 2021, Vox reported the vulnerability to omicron infection of immigrants detained in federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, saying that “it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads though detention centers.” Since July of 2021, when some detention institutions were not giving immunization at all, “vaccine access has improved,” according to Eunice Cho, a senior staff attorney at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. But in a letter released on December 15, 2021, the ACLU noted that “ICE has no coordinated strategy to ensure that detained people can receive COVID-19 booster shots, despite urgent need and ample notice.” As of December 19, 2021, over 47,000 persons imprisoned by ICE at some time during the epidemic had received a vaccination. We don’t know how many people were vaccinated or what sort of vaccine was used since we can’t get that information from ICE because they don’t publish that information.
As a result of the ACLU’s efforts, more individuals are being released from jail faster, arrests and prosecutions for low-level offenses are decreasing, vaccinations for jail employees are mandated, vaccine education is provided, and vaccines are made available for free those in need.
Coronavirus has had a devastating effect on the prison and jail populations, but we may never know the entire extent of its devastation. Even the most basic statistics, such as the number of people who have died due to COVID-related diseases, are missing. But as the New York Times pointed out in an April 2021 report on the pandemic, “prisons were built with security in mind and not to act as hospitals or hospices. Given the age and poor health of many inmates, they remain especially vulnerable to infection and illness.” Medical negligence and curable ailments were killing inmates long before COVID-19 existed, and they will continue to kill prisoners for as long as the government is unconcerned about prisoner health.
Sources: ACLU, BlockClubChicago.com, Bloomberg News, Colorado Springs Gazette, Connecticut Mirror, Delaware County Daily Times, Detroit News, Forbes, KDSK, KYTX, Los Angeles Times, Maine Beacon, Maui News, NJ.com, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New York Times, North Carolina Health News, OklahomaWatch.org, Orlando Sentinel, Pen-Yan Chronicle-express, PubliCola News, Raleigh News-Observer, Springfield State Journal-Register, Vox, WALB, WCAX, WIBW, WISH, PLN, WNBC, Wisconsin Public Radio