Mar 14, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus behind bars

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. prison and detention systems are dangerously susceptible to the coronavirus, experts say.

Why it matters: Immigration and corrections systems around the nation are taking steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 — but they face several systemic challenges.

  • "I'm confident that communities that have sustained spread of coronavirus outside the walls of jails and prisons will also have coronavirus inside those walls," Homer Venters, former chief medical officer of New York City jails, told Axios.

Driving the news: Visits by family members, friends and attorneys to people held in federal prisons are being halted for 30 days, the AP first reported.

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has suspended social visits to immigrants in its custody.
  • Republican and Democratic lawmakers have sent letters to administration officials asking them to provide information about how they are preparing immigrant detention centers as well as prisons as the coronavirus spreads.

The big picture: Detention and correctional spaces are the "perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19," Leonard Rubenstein, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins who has studied infectious diseases in prisons, told Axios.

  • Prisons, jails and detentions are confined spaces, and often overcrowded.
"So when we talk about social distancing, it's almost impossible in prisons unless you have complete lockdown — basically, put everybody in solitary confinement."
— Leonard Rubenstein
  • They often have poor sanitary conditions. Even access to proper hand washing isn't always available, the experts said. Hand sanitizers are often considered contraband in prison because they can contain alcohol.
  • The U.S. incarcerated population has a surging number of elderly people who are more susceptible to severe symptoms if infected by the coronavirus.

"The people that we have put into our 5,000 county jails, state and federal prisons, and immigration detention centers are disproportionately people of color, but also people with lots of health problems," Venters added.

  • There has been recent controversy over immigration officials not giving flu shots to migrants after being initially encountered at the border and taken into custody.
  • Some federal union officials are concerned the spread of coronavirus along with understaffing could lead to a rare federal prison lockdown — something that hasn't been done since 1995, according to Kaiser Health News. Venters warned that punitive actions such as putting prisoner's in lockdown could actually make matters worse.
  • "The mitigation for this virus or any outbreak is not simply to lock people away in cells and not let them out. That's not sustainable," he said. "It's creating health risks for the people in those cells."

The latest: All visits, tours and events at Washington state correction facilities are on hold as screening processes are being set up, according to a press release.

  • In New York City, as of Thursday, visitors must first have their temperature taken and fill out a form to determine if they are at risk of having the virus, the city's department of corrections told Axios. Some visitors may also have to see a medical professional as part of screening.
  • NYC's corrections department is working with a company that oversees the city's correctional health care "to identify and evaluate detainees with potential symptoms and refer them for testing as necessary," the deputy commissioner for public information, Peter Thorne, told Axios in a statement.
  • On Monday, Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine also announced an end to prison visitation "for the time being."
  • California has also stopped all normal visits to inmates in the state‘s prisons.

On the immigration front, Health and Human Services (HHS) is no longer placing migrant minors who cross the border without their parents in shelters located in California or Washington state, a spokesperson confirmed to Axios. As of March 11, there had been no suspected or confirmed cases reported.

  • ICE has had four of its nearly 38,000 current immigrant detainees meet the criteria for coronavirus testing as of March 3, the agency told Axios. There had been no confirmed cases as of March 12.
  • ICE also uses cohorting — the grouping together of immigrants with symptoms — in detention as an alternative to self-monitoring at home to prevent spreading the virus.

What to watch: The Iranian government has temporarily released 70,000 prisoners to prevent coronavirus infections from spreading, as Reuters has reported.

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