Sept 24, 2020 | By Psalm Delaney | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the closures of many high-density public spaces such as shopping malls and universities. Masks are required to enter any public space in Colorado, and social distancing protocols are enforced. Business and government officials are working to combat the spread of the pandemic, but how are prisons, which offer little ability to social distance as one of the most densely populated living situations in the United States, operating?
Limited physical space in prisons has led to COVID-19 outbreaks. Most people testing positive in prisons and youth detention centers are asymptomatic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are a total of 227,688 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in United States corrections and detention centers as of Sept. 22. Residents make up 134,783 and staff make up 92,905 of these cases.
According to the Colorado Public Radio (CPR), the Sterling Correctional Facility, which is the largest facility in the state of Colorado, reported 561 positive COVID-19 cases out of 2,200 inmates as of June 10. This marked the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreak. The El Paso County, Colorado, federal government prisons and youth detention centers have made significant changes to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities. These changes include early release protocols, amendments to inmate visitation, and access to medical care.
Governor Jared Polis’ executive order that allowed the early release of some Colorado inmates is one example of the efforts taken by United States detention and correctional facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among prison inmates and staff. The executive order has expired, but the effects are still apparent. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the Jefferson County Jail ranked fifth in the nation for the largest local jail inmate release, reducing the jail’s population by 44 percent as of July 22.
Denver corrections and detention facilities populations have dropped by 41% since March 1. Groups who qualified for early release most often included prisoners who committed a victimless crime, were 60 years or older, pregnant, had less than 180 days left in their sentence, had a low-bond sentence, or had a health condition that posed an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The El Paso County jail decreased its population by 31%. The Colorado Division of Youth Services (CDYS) reduced its detainee population by 44%. Detention and correctional facilities nationwide have also reduced the number of prison admissions in an effort to limit the prison population. The Division of Youth Services has experienced a 20% decrease in committed youth. On March 23, the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) announced that arrests for “low-level technical parole violations are suspended.” Punishment for these violations is replaced by alternatives to incarceration such as therapy referral, house arrest, or electronic monitorization.
In addition to efforts to reduce facility population, state prisons have implemented protocols to protect inmates and staff that are still required to live and work in the prisons, respectively. Some CDOC and CDYS modified protocols include:
- In-person visitations are reduced to only essential visits that include medical or legal professionals.
- Inmates are allowed one free 10-minute phone call per week, provided by the GTL phone company.
- The Department of Corrections Headquarters in Colorado Springs is closed, and most staff work from home. Staff whose tasks cannot be done remotely continue to work in the facility.
- The elimination of medical co-pays for flu, respiratory, or COVID-related symptoms include inmates.
- Inmates and staff are required to wear masks within the facility.
- Youth in detention are attending school via distance learning.
- Correctional and detention facilities have implemented protocols for regular inmate and staff testing. The schedule for testing is dependent upon facility population and resource demands.
However, prison advocacy organizations such as the Greenlining Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative claim that prisons are not doing enough to protect inmates. Prisons face a shortage of hygiene supplies such as soap and masks. In an interview with Keri Blakinger and Beth Schwartzapfel from USA Today, Central Texas prison inmate Lauren Johnson explained that “alcohol-based hand sanitizer was against the rules.” She also explained that when she used hand sanitizer, the corrections officer that was on-duty yelled at her, “wrote her up,” and denied her of all phone and recreation privileges for 10 days.
Moreover, when interviewed by New York Times, Kristen Morgan, a nurse at the federal prison in Tallahassee, expressed that “[the inmates and staff] may have to reuse masks.” Due to the lack of physical space and shortage of materials, it is nearly impossible to follow the CDC’s guidelines of six-feet social distancing and routine sanitizing in prisons; therefore, these organizations argue that prisons should release more inmates. Opposers of this argument claim that cities should instead strive to provide inmates and staff with more hygiene supplies.