As business and government both scramble to contain the coronavirus pandemic, one segment of society is uniquely vulnerable: the prison population. It is no secret that hygiene standards and medical services are lacking in many corrections facilities and immigration processing centers. A largescale coronavirus outbreak among the U.S. prison population would be a disaster, especially because federal and state prisons already suffer from overcrowding and a shortage of resources.
The unique threat posed by coronavirus to America’s prisons prompted several U.S. Senators to write the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) this week and ask the agency what steps it was taking to prevent its spread among inmates and staff. In a letter to the BOP’s director, Michael Carvajal, fifteen senators requested that the BOP inform Congress of its efforts to prevent an outbreak and its preparedness should the virus reach any federal or privately operated facility.
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. While it is true that the BOP and state prison authorities have not yet reported any coronavirus cases, now is the time for federal and state officials to take preventive action.
The situation abroad is less promising. Chinese officials have confirmed over 500 cases of coronavirus 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 are all 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 be too drastic. Yet something must be done 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. For example, most federal facilities already operate on a point system for visitation rights (e.g., 7 points worth of visits in a calendar month where a weekday visit constitutes 1 point and a weekend or holiday visit constitutes 3). 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 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 (i.e., 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 obvious, though traditionally prohibited, item 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.
Over 2 million individuals are incarcerated in prisons and jails throughout the United States. They are among the most vulnerable segments of the population at risk of contracting the coronavirus. The ability of incarcerated individuals to themselves take preventative measures is 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.