A Half-Million People Got COVID-19 in Prison. Are Officials Ready for the Next Pandemic?

Derrick Johnson had a makeshift mask. He had the spray bottle of bleach and extra soap that corrections officers provided. But he still spent every day crammed in a unit with 63 other men in a Florida prison, crowding into hallways on their way to meals and sleeping feet from one another at night.

As the coronavirus ravaged the Everglades Correctional Institution, Johnson was surrounded by the sounds of coughing and requests for Tylenol. And while he thought a lot of the prison’s policies were ineffective at protecting prisoners, he also wondered if that was the best the facility could do.

“Prison is not built to compete with a pandemic,” said Johnson, who was released in December. “The pandemic’s gonna win every time.”

For 15 months, The Marshall Project and The Associated Press tracked the spread of COVID-19 through prisons nationwide. We counted more than a half-million people living and working in prisons who got sick from the coronavirus. Prisons were forced to adapt to unusual and deadly circumstances. But now, as new cases are declining and facilities are loosening restrictions, there’s little evidence to suggest enough substantive changes have been made to handle future waves of infection.

With crowded conditions, notoriously substandard medical care and constantly shifting populations, prisons were ill-equipped to handle the highly contagious virus, which killed nearly 3,000 prisoners and staff.

There were
512,864 cases
of coronavirus reported among prisoners and staff through June 2021.

Sources: The Marshall Project and Associated Press weekly data collection from state and federal prison agencies.

Download our data.

Corrections systems responded with inconsistent policies, struggling to contain the virus amid understaffing and overcrowding. At its peak in mid-December, more than 25,000 prisoners tested positive in a single week.

But in recent months, infections behind bars nationwide have slowed to a few hundred new cases each week, and many prisons have eased what restrictions they had in place, including mask-wearing, visitors and other movement in and out, going back to business as usual.

It’s a critical moment, with new coronavirus cases low but the threat of infection looming as new variants spread around the world, said Dr. David Sears, an infectious-disease specialist and correctional health consultant.

“The medical community, prison leadership and society at large have learned so much about COVID in a short period of time,” Sears said. “We need to take these lessons and make sure that the things we’ve learned after a lot of real human suffering are not in vain.”

According to the data collected by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press, about 3 in 10 people in state and federal prisons were infected with the virus. But correctional health experts widely agree that this number is an undercount.

“A great many of the people who ever had COVID, they were never tested,” said Dr. Homer Venters, a former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system who has inspected health conditions in prisons around the country over the last year. “In most prisons it ran through these places like wildfire. People were never tested.”

One man housed at a low-security federal prison compared the Bureau of Prisons’ public data to what he was seeing inside. At least half of his unit fell ill, he said, but the bureau’s data didn’t reflect that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is still incarcerated and afraid of retribution.

“For the first year of the COVID, they never tested anybody in my institution unless they had a fever,” he said in a call from prison. “The easiest way to not have a positive at your institution is to not test anybody. … It’s like, hello, we’re dying from this shit. Can you test us?”

In the early days of the pandemic, testing within the Bureau of Prisons was limited, and staff at some prisons were told there was no need to test inmates and they should just assume everyone had the coronavirus. The Justice Department’s inspector general found that at some facilities, like FCC Oakdale in Louisiana, which emerged as an early hotspot, inmates who tested positive for the virus were left in their housing units for days without being isolated. The Bureau of Prisons said it follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that any inmate who is symptomatic or tests positive for the virus is placed in medical isolation until they recover.

Even when state and federal prisons did conduct tests, they still allowed prisoners who tested positive to come in contact with others.

Texas prison officials transferred more than 100 infected prisoners in East Texas to prisons just outside Houston in the first months of the pandemic. Officials said the move would bring the men closer to medical resources, but other prisoners worried it would just bring the virus closer. A few days after a group of the sick arrived to his unit, Jason Duncan fell ill.

“The unit nurse came around to take temperatures, mine was checked at 102,” he wrote in a letter at the time. A few hours after having his temperature taken, he fainted. “When I came to, my body was so hot I could not stand at all. I could not breathe, it felt like the life was being [sucked] out of me. I was also covered in sweat — all my clothes wet.”

Eventually, he ended up in a hospital and “hooked up to a breathing machine.” Finally, he got a COVID-19 test. “I was given no medication at all,” he wrote, adding that he was instead sent back to the prison and housed in the wing with the sick prisoners who’d been transferred in.

Scott Medlock, an attorney who represented prisoners in a class-action lawsuit accusing Texas of inadequately protecting them from the virus, said the failure to properly quarantine prisoners was key to the spread of COVID-19 at Texas’ Pack Unit. While staff would isolate those who tested positive for two weeks, they considered prisoners “recovered” when the quarantine period ended, regardless of whether prisoners were showing symptoms.

“They were moving people who had quote-unquote recovered, who were still having symptoms, sometimes into dormitories where there would be people who have not tested positive yet,” Medlock said.

But many prisons simply lack the space needed to adequately isolate sick prisoners. There are structural and logistical changes prisons could make, such as upgrading ventilation systems and creating surge capacity for staff and health care workers. But the most effective approach, Sears said, is to drastically reduce prison populations.

“When you’re filled to the max and you have two people in an 8-by-10 cell right next to two more people in an 8-by-10 cell and on and on, it’s impossible to create any form of physical distancing,” Sears said. “We have to get people out of prisons so we have that space.”

While many jails emptied out during the pandemic and prison populations declined, the criminal justice system has not fundamentally changed. Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, who leads the COVID Prison Project, said she hasn’t seen the systemic change needed to address the next pandemic.

“What we’re seeing over the past couple weeks and months is a real return to status quo, which makes me worry that prisons and jails didn’t learn much at all,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said. “I see incarcerated populations returning to what they were before.”

Photographs from inside a federal prison show how close people slept during the pandemic last year. The images have been altered to obscure the identity of people in the prison.

The Marshall Project

Employee shortages plague many prisons. The federal system is at critically low levels and has been forced to make teachers and others watch prisoners. The Nebraska prison system recently declared a staffing emergency at a fourth facility, and Texas prisons are struggling with more than 5,000 correctional officer vacancies and the lowest staffing levels in recent memory.

In Pennsylvania, transfers and insufficient quarantine policies contributed to spreading the virus between prison facilities, said John Eckenrode, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. Once there were active cases throughout the state’s prisons, including among staff, the department became lax with quarantining and actively contact-tracing staff after someone tested positive.

A few months into the pandemic, Eckenrode believes, a lot of supervisors were tired of quarantining officers and calling in overtime.

“There were definitely officers who went weeks without a day off and sometimes working all 16-hour shifts,” he said. “It takes a toll on you, your home life, your time with family, your mental and physical exhaustion.”

The Pennsylvania Prison Society, a group that advocates for humane prison and jail conditions, found at one point during the pandemic 1 in 6 corrections officers was out sick or in quarantine. Prisoners contacted the society to say their medical request slips were piling up.

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“Because so many staff members were out sick during COVID-19, what we found was people had an even harder time getting access to medical care,” said Anton Andrew, the society’s education and advocacy fellow.

The strain of understaffing and working in a high-risk environment has led to corrections staff leaving their jobs, Venters said. These staffing shortages will have long-term consequences, especially as prison populations rise.

“Understaffing means people don’t get to their health care appointments and certainly don’t go outside,” Venters said. “It’s unlikely when they have an emergency that anybody is going to see it or respond to it.”

Like life on the outside, the immediate risk to prisoners in many states has largely receded. Twenty states have administered at least one dose of the vaccine to two-thirds of their prison population, and new cases in prisons nationwide have stayed below 500 a week for more than a month. Prisoners who spent more than a year without family visits, educational programs and outdoor recreation are eager to regain more social interaction and activity. Despite these promising signs, however, doctors and advocates for the incarcerated fear that prisons are letting their guard down too quickly.

New variants of the coronavirus are more contagious, which Sears said may call for higher vaccine rates to bring about herd immunity. Maryland, Michigan and Colorado found variants within their prisons earlier this year, though case numbers remained low.

In Hawaii, one of the few states where cases have risen in prisons in recent weeks, state authorities attribute the outbreak to overcrowding and transfers into its facilities. Unlike most states, Hawaii’s correctional system houses both sentenced prisoners and people awaiting trial, a more transient population with lower vaccination levels.

“Our jails have all been burdened by extreme overcrowding for decades, and now added to that are the unique challenges posed by the COVID pandemic,” Toni Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, said in an email.

While vaccine acceptance among prisoners has been higher than anticipated, most systems have seen staff vaccination rates lagging behind.

“We know that COVID doesn’t just spring up from the ground within a prison. COVID is introduced by people coming into and out of a prison,” Sears said. “Ninety-nine percent of that movement is staff … so creating that ring of protection around a prison with higher staff vaccination rates is vital.”

In Colorado, where 55% of corrections workers are fully vaccinated, unvaccinated staff are tested daily with rapid tests, said Brandalynn Anderson, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated staff take weekly PCR tests.

Not all prisons take as thorough of an approach. In some states, such as Wisconsin and South Carolina, staff are tested every two weeks. Others only mandate testing when employees are suspected to have been exposed to the virus.

As prison coronavirus cases have slowed, so, too, has the release of data from state and federal agencies. Michele Deitch, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has researched prison data transparency during the pandemic, said this is a troubling sign that prisons are prematurely moving beyond the pandemic.

“There’s a sense that COVID is over, that the pandemic is behind us, and that is just not the case,” Deitch said. “We have to remember that prisons and jails were hit so much harder than the outside communities were, and in many jurisdictions, they were late to provide vaccinations to incarcerated people.”

Katie Park

is a developer and data journalist who creates data visualizations and digital features at The Marshall Project. Her work has been recognized by the Society for News Design, the Society of Professional Journalists, Malofiej Infographic Awards and the White House News Photographers Association. She previously worked at NPR and The Washington Post.

Keri Blakinger

is a staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. She writes the column “Inside Out” with NBC News, and her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization’s first formerly incarcerated reporter.

The latest on coronavirus and the justice system.

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June 30, 2021 at 06:03AM

The Everglades Experiment: Florida’s First ‘Incentivized’ Prison Redefines Punishment

Edward Demoreta, a 39-year-old resident at Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI) and former schoolteacher from West Palm Beach, Fl., isn’t the typical person you’d envision in prison.

“I had a perfect family and great life before I was arrested,” he said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t miss laughing and playing video games with my kids.”

A first-time offender, my cellmate takes full responsibility for his actions—having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Demoreta works daily to better himself, but adapting to Florida’s violent prison system was difficult for him.

And he’s not alone.

As of mid-June, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) has 80, 246 inmates in their custody—the third highest incarceration rate in the nation—and many of them are nonviolent or first-time offenders trying to survive in a place notorious for gangs, fighting, and sexual abuse.

With the exception of protective custody, and despite its 153-year history of violence, the FDC hasn’t adopted any new or innovative ideas to curb these problems throughout its correctional institutions—until recently.

The Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami opened its pilot program in January 2019 to great fanfare. It’s a first-of-its-kind facility that cultivates an environment of learning and rehabilitation—a privilege offered to men who stay free of disciplinary reports for four years.

The initiative focuses on improving the quality of life inside prison, with attention paid to education, career counseling, leisure time, wellness, and planning for reintegration in civilian society before release.

“When I first came to prison it seemed like every person I met operated out of a mindset of violence. No one wanted to better themselves,” Demoreta explained to me in an interview for this article.

“When I came to the Everglades I was encouraged to see so many men dedicated to the path of learning and self-improvement.”

It is nearly impossible for men and women to thrive in a traditional prison setting.

The brutality and hopelessness of life behind bars limits opportunities for anyone wanting to change. But by creating a safe place to live, ECI began to address the problem of widespread violence in the criminal justice system, allowing inmates to focus on self-betterment.

The progressive institution offers a good-quality menu, freedom of movement, a state-of-the-art game room, unlimited recreation, and live concerts. Vocational programs like a professional barber school, a water treatment operator’s course, and commercial driver’s license training offer a potential source of income for some of the majority of people who will eventually return home.

“We needed a solution for the violence men use to retaliate against perceived offences, bringing victims to the brink of death and administering life-long scars—both physical and emotional— with no justification,” said FDC Secretary Mark Inch in a statewide email to inmates on August 14, 2020.

“We needed to separate the men who wanted nothing to do with that aggression.”

Because incentive programs are only successful when prisoners are invested, the administration empowers men to get involved.

Compound activities are led by inmates. Many of the classes available are peer-facilitated, and men take ownership of the amenities by cleaning the facility and organizing events. Participants of the incentivized prison eagerly attend classes voluntarily: Toastmasters, Servant Leadership, Conflict Resolution, Seven Habits, Parenting, Victim Impact, K-9 Service Training, Yoga, and Zen Meditation are all popular classes and usually filled to capacity.

If you look at the advantages I’ve had in life, it’s almost inconceivable that I am sitting here in the Everglades today: a loving family who raised me to have good character; gifted classes in a great school system outside Philadelphia; an ambitious and career-oriented work life; a beautiful wife and son.

Yet in 2014, after losing a long struggle with drug addiction, I was sentenced to eight years in prison for grand theft and dealing in stolen property. I served my first five years on a rough compound in the Florida Panhandle—a city-boy stuck in the Deep South—and then volunteered to move to a newly created incentivized program as a way to change my life for the better and make my family proud.

My first class was called Healing Emotions.

I sat in a circle of convicts, sharing my feelings and fears while connecting on the same level as my peers. I’d never thought that I’d be involved with something like group therapy in prison, but it felt cathartic to explore my past.

Racism was nonexistent in the room: a bald, former white supremacist with homemade tattoos leaned forward with his chin in his hands; a retired Black gang leader posted up against the wall; a Hispanic boy sat mute, possibly ruminating on his own life choices.

We were all there for the same reason and working in harmony … trying to better ourselves.

In recent remarks to me about his institution, Assistant Warden of Programs Scott Siegler stated: “Environment plays a role in reform. By creating a low-stress atmosphere for officers and inmates, it allows growth and mutual understanding.”

On any given day there could be a Gang Summit for Unity or Family Day in the visitation park, a church softball league playing on the rec yard, or Peace Education Development in the learning annex.

Professors from nearby University of Miami and Florida International University volunteer to teach writing workshops and exchange anonymous letters with college students studying criminal justice or law. In an unprecedented move for the FDC, the administration hands out seven-inch loaner tablets used to email family, receive pictures and video-grams, and keep a schedule of classes.

The wardens send uplifting messages regularly. Living at ECI is the first time I’ve had a guard shake my hand, call me ‘sir’, or ask me how my afternoon was going. It inspires me to show them equal respect.

Measuring Success

If a nonviolent incentivized prison gives men and women an opportunity to change their lives and not come back to prison, it should be considered a viable option to pursue if only for the benefit of tax-paying communities, victims’ rights, and the broken families of the incarcerated.

The state of Florida spends an average of $25,000 per year to house, feed, clothe, secure, and give medical attention to a single inmate.

The minimal cost of converting a traditional prison into an incentivized prison pales in comparison to the cost of recidivism in the FDC: official records show that 35 percent of Florida’s inmates will return to prison within three years and approximately 65 percent will return in their lifetimes.

Experts disagree about whether imprisoning criminals in a violent environment actually prevents further crime. U.S. prisons simply warehouse men and women—meaning that inmates are confined in large numbers, with little or no effort made to rehabilitate them.

This punitive structure impedes correction, as isolation from society already hinders attempts to reintegrate back home. Sociologist Erving Goffman[i] describes prisons as total institutions— self-contained systems that are unhealthy and shelter inmates from societal norms.

Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia, America’s ‘First Penitentiary,’ promoted education for prisoners.

The first progressive prison in the U.S. was the Walnut Street jail in my hometown of Philadelphia. Built three years before the American Revolution as a conventional jail, it was expanded in 1790 to incorporate Quaker ideas that’ prisons should be rehabilitative.

The prison, which was called “America’s First Penitentiary,” was spearheaded by Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who promoted prisoner education. Not all his views on prison reform would find approval today: inmates were locked in their cells for the duration of their stay with “minimum human contact and nothing more to read than a Bible,” according to one description, ostensibly to encourage them to focus on personal redemption and penitence for their sins (hence the word “penitentiary”).

But the innovative energy that fueled such reformers in the past seemed to fizzle out in modern day corrections. States are still slow to adopt policies that reduce violence inside—while at the same time the rate of incarceration across the country has exploded.

But how will anyone know if incentivized prisons are successful or simply progressive?

What set of metrics can be used to quantify meaningful change in an inmate?

Besides monitoring statistics and disciplinary reports, how can we say that living in this atmosphere reduces violence?

I’ve seen evidence of this 1,800-man pilot project working here in the Everglades.

Before I moved from my last institution I saw a stabbing every week. I haven’t seen one here in three years. No officers have been assaulted by inmates, or vice-versa. There hasn’t been one drug overdose or riot. Nobody has been life-flighted by a trauma helicopter after being brutally attacked on the rec yard.

These are daily occurrences in other Florida prisons that I’ve seen firsthand.

Statistics from North Dakota, Oregon, California, and Georgia show that DOC programs like firefighting school, forestry camps, equestrian training, and conservation groups lower inmate violence and help curb recidivism.

Only time will tell if ECI is completing its mission.

The benefit of treating inmates humanely has already been widely publicized in magazines like Outdoor, Time, and Esquire, and on television series like 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning.

On September 16, 2020, only nine months after ECI’s experiment began, FDC Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon sent a statewide email to inmates verifying Florida’s plans to open two more pilot programs.

It said the following:

We are also expanding the number of Incentivized Prisons,. These facilities are for those of you, who through your cooperation, have shown excellent behavior that is deserving of advanced privileges. e have tested this in the Everglades and it has been a success. Your peers have better program outcomes, fewer disciplinary infractions, and reductions in theft and violence. We will continue to reward positive behavior. Our goal is to provide an environment free from violence with opportunities for personal growth and development. [ii]

A Long Way to Go

Any new innovation incorporated into an already broken system comes with impediments.

Peer-facilitator Justin Slavinski, a 40-year old tutor who has lived at ECI since its transition, points out the limitations facing the institution.

“There’s little accountability for the officers who exhibit the same behaviors as those at non-incentivized correctional facilities,” said Justin. “It’s as if they haven’t bought into the tranquility of program oriented inmates.

“These officers are unwilling to adjust their behaviors, and they’re unchecked by upper administration.” [iii]

FLDOC correctional officer trainees who are assigned to ECI straight from the academy haven’t yet experienced what a “real” prison is like; therefore, some take advantage of the population’s meekness and fail to have a positive mind-set.

Some of this responsibility falls on the training officers, but for the most part it is a failure in regional leadership.

Guards who are assigned to an incentivized prison work in a safe environment; nonviolence and mutual respect creates a stress-free workplace. Unfortunately, some correctional officers have the ingrained thinking that all convicted felons are untrustworthy and evil.

Because of a FDC policy called population adjustment, the regional administration will regularly transfer new inmates to ECI even though they have not volunteered to participate in an incentivized prison and have not gone four years without a disciplinary report. Most often this is done to fill beds and meet certain requirements.

Although these inmates typically take advantage of the amenities and blend in, many have a negative attitude and do not follow the rules. Allowing men to live at an incentivized prison that hasn’t earned the right negates a reward-based system.

There’s also the lingering question: should we have to send people to prison to get the educational, emotional, and other support services they need? Many people in the criminal justice system were cut off from such opportunities and it led them down a path to incarceration.

Ryan Moser

Ryan Moser

Ideally, this support model would be applied before anyone interacts with the criminal justice system in the first place.

But for the current system—where violence is rampant—any conversation about reform must include discussing the way that modern correctional institutions operate. The goal is to raise awareness of progressive rehabilitation methods and spur a revolution of new ideas and innovative solutions for the future.

After two years of trial and error, the Everglades Correctional Institution is now known as the safest prison out of the 64 correctional institutions in the state.

Looking at ECI can at least start a conversation about that change.

Editor’s Note: On Dec. 23, 2020, Florida Corrections Secretary Mark S. Inch announced that, following “the successful pilot at Everglades Correctional Institution, FDC will add four institutions designed for inmates who meet strict admission criteria by demonstrating positive behavior during their incarceration. The incentivized program features enhanced opportunities and enables inmates to make a positive re-entry back into society.”

Ryan M. Moser is a recovering addict from Philadelphia serving eight years in the Florida DOC for property crimes. Nominated for a 2020 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2021, he’s had work published by the Mississippi Quarterly, Upstreet Literary Magazine, december, Muse Literary Journal, Evening Street Press, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, Miami Herald, The Covid Collection, University of Iowa Prison Project, Progressive, thewildword.com, ihemarshallproject.org, medium.com, pen.org, and thestartup.com. Ryan enjoys yoga, martial arts, chess, and has two beautiful boys.


[i] The late Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman has described U.S. prisons as total institutions—that is. self-contained, self-sufficient social systems that are unhealthy and shelter inmates from societal norms. Isolated within a total institution, inmates are cut off from the rights and responsibilities of society

[ii] All quoted emails were sent from administration directly to inmate-owned tablets

[iii] All interviewees quoted directly, with expressed consent.

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June 21, 2021 at 07:39AM

US rights groups urge end to solitary confinement

The Federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce (FAST) released its Blueprint for Ending Solitary Confinement on Monday, detailing how the government can end solitary confinement of inmates in federal custody through executive, administrative and legislative action.

On any given day, more than 10,000 people are in a form of solitary confinement in federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities, with people of color, transgender people, and people with mental health needs disproportionately represented in this figure.

FAST’s Blueprint calls for four forms of government action. First, it asks that all forms of solitary confinement of inmates in federal custody be abandoned. This is subject to exceptions, including short lock-ins for the purpose of de-escalation and medical quarantine. Second, it requires that there be alternatives to solitary confinement, which must involve at least 14 hours per day out of the cell, with 7 hours of meaningful activities. Third, due process protections must be enhanced through the utilization of neutral decision-makers. Fourth, oversight and enforcement mechanisms should be implemented.

FAST is a coalition of 130 advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Tammie Gregg, the director of the ACLU’s Stop Solitary Campaign, supported the Blueprint, explaining:

the debilitating, dehumanizing, and even deadly effects [of solitary confinement] on incarcerated people are an ongoing stain on the American legal system. We strongly believe that the reforms outlined in this Blueprint will go a long way towards eradicating much of the senseless and counterproductive harm that has been caused.

In addition to the Blueprint, the ACLU and more than 130 other organizations signed a letter on last week to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris calling for the administration to end the use of solitary confinement. Biden and Harris committed to stopping the use of solitary confinement during the 2020 campaign. Moreover, states are restricting the use of solitary confinement. In 2021, 70 pieces of legislation have been filed in 32 states.

The post US rights groups urge end to solitary confinement appeared first on JURIST – News – Legal News & Commentary.

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June 10, 2021 at 02:09PM

New data: State prisons are increasingly deadly places

New data: State prisons are increasingly deadly places

New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that state prisons are seeing alarming rises in suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol-related deaths.

The latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on mortality in state and federal prisons is a reminder that prisons are in fact “death-making institutions,” in the words of activist Mariame Kaba. The new data is from 2018, not 2020, thanks to ongoing delays in publication, and while it would be nice to see how COVID-19 may have impacted deaths (beyond the obvious), the report indicates that prisons are becoming increasingly dangerous – a finding that should not be ignored. The new numbers show some of the same trends we’ve seen before – that thousands die in custody, largely from a major or unnamed illness – but also reveal that an increasing share of deaths are from discrete unnatural causes, like suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol intoxication.

a chart showing deaths by suicide, homicide, and intoxication are on the rise in state prisons

State prisons, intended for people sentenced to at least one year, are supposed to be set up for long-term custody, with ongoing programming, treatment and education. According to one formerly incarcerated person, “if you have the choice between jail and prison, prison is usually a much better place to be.”

Deaths in jail receive considerable attention in popular news, and here on our website – which they should, given the deplorable conditions that lead to tragedy among primarily unconvicted people. State prisons, on the other hand, are regarded as more stable places, where life is slightly more predictable for already-sentenced people. Why, then, are suicides up 22 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior? Why are deaths by drug and alcohol intoxication up a staggering 139 percent from the previous mortality report, just two years prior?

The answer isn’t just because there are more incarcerated people. The very slight net change in the state prison population since 2001 pales in comparison to the increase in overall deaths occurring in these facilities. (Prison populations have actually decreased since peaking in 2009, but they’re still larger in 2018 compared to 2001.) Prisons have been, and continue to be, dangerous places, exposing incarcerated people to unbearable physical and mental conditions. State prison systems must greatly improve medical and mental healthcare, address the relationship between correctional officers and the health of their populations, and work with parole boards to accelerate release processes. Then, maybe, a state prison sentence would not become a death sentence for so many.

Record-setting deaths in almost all categories

In 2018, state prisons reported 4,135 deaths (not including the 25 people executed in state prisons); this is the highest number on record since BJS began collecting mortality data in 2001. Between 2016 and 2018, the prison mortality rate jumped from 303 to a record 344 per 100,000 people, a shameful superlative. It may seem like a foregone conclusion that more people, serving decades or lifetimes, will die in prison. But for at least 935 people, a sentence for a nonviolent property, drug, or public order offense became a death sentence in 2018.1

BJS slices mortality data in many ways, one of which is “natural” versus “unnatural” death; “natural” deaths are those attributed to illness, while “unnatural” deaths are those caused by suicide, homicide, accident, and drug or alcohol intoxication. Any death pending investigation or otherwise missing a distinct cause gets filed away as “other,” or “missing/unknown.” Other than accident deaths, every cause of death had its worst year yet in 2018.

Taking BJS’ definitions of “natural” and “unnatural” deaths at face value2, the data shows that, like in past years, most (77%) of all prison deaths in 2018 were “natural.” However, “unnatural” or preventable deaths make up an increasing share of overall mortality: In 2018, more than 1 in 6 state prison deaths (17%) were “unnatural,” compared to less than 1 in 10 (9%) in 2001.3 Clearly, prisons are doing poorly at keeping people in their care safe. We must remember that being locked up is the punishment itself; inhumane conditions are not supposed to be part of a prison sentence.

Suicide rates in prison are higher than ever

Incarceration is not only difficult for someone who comes in with mental health needs, but it creates and exacerbates disconnection, despair, and overall psychological distress. Prison is basically a mental health crisis in and of itself, and too many incarcerated people contemplate and/or complete suicide.

In 2018, state prisons saw the highest number of suicides (340) since BJS began collecting this data 20 years ago. Compared to the 1% net growth of state prison populations since 2001, suicides have increased by a shocking 85 percent. Suicide is an affliction for the general U.S. population, but the mortality rate from suicide in state prisons has always been higher.

a chart showing suicide rates have always been higher inside prisons, and the gap is widening

The BJS data does not allow us to compare death rates by sentence length, but it’s hard to ignore the possibility that longer sentences are contributing to a sense of hopelessness and forcing incarcerated people into harmful situations. Other data collected by BJS shows that between 2001 and 2015, the number of people admitted annually to state prison with a sentence of 5 years or longer grew by nearly 12,000 people, accounting for almost all of the growth in new prison admissions over that time period.4

At the end of 2015, 1 in 6 people in state prisons had already served over 10 years. To add insult to injury, between 2016 and 2018, the average state prison sentence grew by about four months.

Not only does a longer incarceration increase the sheer probability of having a mental health crisis inside, but it also creates the conditions for this to happen. With longer periods of separation from loved ones, and a rapidly changing outside world, people serving long sentences are isolated and deprived of purpose.

When someone in prison is clearly in crisis, correctional officers are supposed to act swiftly to prevent suicide and self-harm. Not only do officers routinely fail to recognize mental health warning signs, but they’ve been found allowing and even encouraging self-harm, a disturbing reality. And on an institutional level, prison systems avoid making the necessary changes to protect people in dangerous conditions: In response to a Department of Justice investigation finding that the Massachusetts Department of Correction “exposes [people experiencing a mental health crisis] to conditions that harm them,” the DOC is piloting Fitbit-like bracelets for its population to track changes in vital signs related to mental health distress. Instead of rolling back harsh solitary confinement practices and improving how correctional officers respond to crises, the DOC is increasing surveillance and allowing another private company to profit off of prisons.

Who is committing homicide in prison?

The number of homicides in state prisons reached a record high of 120 deaths in 2018, a reminder that while prisons are secure, they are largely unsafe. Violence in prison is commonplace, tied to trauma prior to incarceration as well as mental health stressors inside. The rate of homicide in state prison is 2.5 times greater than in the U.S. population when adjusted for age, sex, and race/ethnicity.

The age of those who died in prison seems most relevant when talking about illness, but older people were actually more at risk of homicide and all other causes of death, except for accidents. By absolute numbers, more homicide deaths affected people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but the homicide rate was highest for incarcerated people aged 55 and older. They were twice as likely to die by homicide as anyone aged 25 to 44.

What about who is actually behind the deaths that are ruled homicides? The BJS data does not separate homicide committed by incarcerated people from death “incidental to the use of force by staff,” or even “resulting from injuries sustained prior to incarceration.” While correctional officials might go right to “prison gangs” or otherwise blame incarcerated people for these deaths, it’s a bit more complicated than that. In this terrible instance, a correctional officer heeded a request to close a cell door remotely, allowing someone to fatally wound a 72-year-old man in total privacy. The nuance of who is responsible for prison homicides points to huge gaps in security and staffing, but also a clear indifference to people’s lives and unaddressed anger and trauma.

How can drug and alcohol intoxication deaths be so high, when prison security is so strict?

As we look back to the beginning of mortality data collection in 2001, no manner of death has spiked more than drug overdoses and alcohol intoxications. (Unfortunately, the BJS data does not distinguish between the two.)

a bar chart showing deaths from drug and alcohol intoxication since 2001 has dramatically outpaced the rise in deaths from any other cause

With such coarse data, it’s difficult to pinpoint an explanation for this trend with certainty. However, no conversation about illicit substances inside prisons would be complete without mention of contraband, particularly drugs brought in by correctional staff.

In the name of preventing contraband from entering prisons, many state prison systems have cracked down on incoming mail and visitation, two major lifelines for incarcerated people. However, there’s evidence to suggest that the majority of drugs, as well as sought-after items like cell phones and cigarettes, are brought in directly by prison staff. In 2018, we conducted a survey of local news coverage that revealed a dozen instances in that year alone where staff were fired, arrested, or sentenced with smuggling drugs and other items into correctional facilities.

A recent Twitter poll doubles down on the premise that prison security staff are the major players in contraband movement. Initiated by Worth Rises director Bianca Tylek, the poll and resulting thread brought formerly incarcerated voices into what could be the most revealing look to date at how correctional officers in particular are wound up in contraband dealings.

a twitter poll indicating most contraband is brough int by staff of prisona response to a twitter poll indicating an incarcerated person said drugs are brought into prison by guards

With so many people in state prisons lacking proper treatment for substance use disorders, it’s no wonder corrections staff will use their access to the outside and charge exorbitantly for drugs like Suboxone or potent synthetic cannabinoids. Instead of improving the quality of healthcare and treatment for drug addiction, prisons are imposing costly restrictions on mail and visitation and incentivizing their own staff to carry out illegal activity.

Mortality data for 2020 won’t be released for another two years or so, but we don’t have to wait to see whether drug contraband was drastically reduced when state prisons banned in-person visitation due to the pandemic: it wasn’t. In Virginia, for example, the Department of Corrections found that drugs did not become more scarce; positive drug tests actually increased after pandemic restrictions went into effect. Texas prisons also saw an uptick in drug contraband and related disciplinary reports in 2020, even as prison populations declined and visits were limited or cut off entirely.

Can we relate the thriving drug market in prisons to increasing drug-related deaths? Not directly. Clearly, though, the people working in prisons, who already turn a blind eye to violence and suffering, are responsible for introducing some of the dangerous substances that killed 249 people in 2018.

Illness is still the most common cause of death, but how natural is illness in prison?

Even though most prison deaths each year are attributed to illness, and are therefore “natural,” being sick or old in prison is not quite what it is on the outside. Incarceration can add 10 or 15 years to someone’s physiology, and take two years off of their life expectancy per year served, alarming statistics when considered alongside longer sentences and high costs of healthcare for older people.

The systemic neglect of illness and aging in prison populations isn’t natural at all. Every summer, we hear about prisons in hot climates that lack air conditioning, exposing incarcerated people to consistent temperatures of over 100 degrees. We’ve previously reported on these extreme heat conditions that exacerbate chronic diseases, counteract medications, and increase the risk of dehydration and heat stroke among even the healthiest people. In Texas, for example, when summer incarceration is described as unconstitutional, deadly, and a practice in reckless indifference, how natural are some deaths due to “illness”?

Again, consider the mortality data that will eventually come out for 2020, when prisons and jails played host to the COVID-19 pandemic and over 2,600 incarcerated people (and over 200 staff) died as a result. We know how badly every state handled this situation; it will be important not to brush these deaths aside as simply succumbing to illness – nor the deaths caused by other illnesses that went untreated in understaffed, overwhelmed prison health systems. These thousands of people were failed by state criminal justice systems, and deserved care and precaution while in custody.

State criminal justice systems can improve prison healthcare and loosen their grip on parole processes

We are supposed to trust prison systems to keep people alive and safe, so they can serve their sentences and be released back to their communities. The significant increase in overall “unnatural” deaths, like suicide, homicide, and drug intoxication tells us that state prisons are failing to provide humane conditions for incarcerated people, and it’s killing them. There are many ways that state prisons and related agencies can reduce the risk of death.

  • A surefire way to reduce risk is to reduce prison populations, and parole boards are a natural bottleneck to this end. Parole hearings and approval rates must increase in order to move large numbers of incarcerated people back into their communities, despite many states failing to do this in 2020 when it was clearly a matter of life and death. Compassionate release should be ramped up, and no one should be ordered to return to prison after recovering from illness. Burdensome in-person check-ins should also be eliminated to reduce the incidence of low-level technical violations of parole and probation.
  • States can also consider major sentencing policy changes to address the scourge of long prison sentences that only worsen physical health, mental health, and preparation for reentry. Dozens of state legislatures are considering “second-look” policies to review cases for those currently serving excessive, costly sentences.
  • As one of the most basic services guaranteed to people in custody, healthcare must be improved. And if it feels like prison healthcare spending is already outrageous, releasing people – especially older, sicker people – would certainly mitigate those costs. Medical care aside, correctional officers must respond swiftly to sick calls and emergencies.
  • Providing high-quality treatment for substance use disorders would prevent incarcerated people from turning to desperate and dangerous solutions. State correctional agencies must acknowledge the scale of drug smuggling facilitated by correctional staff. Instead of banning in-person visitation and meaningful resources like books, prison staff should be subject to stricter security measures and enduring consequences.
  • Improving prison conditions can also prevent many “natural” deaths in prison; for example, there should be universal standards for indoor temperatures where extreme heat can be deadly. In a decently climate-controlled space, medications will work as intended, and people can remain focused on education, employment, and connection with loved ones, and deadly viruses might not spread so easily. And as we have learned through the pandemic, improving ventilation, access to healthcare, coordination with public health departments, and reducing population density by releasing more people from prison can prevent countless deaths when infectious diseases enter prisons.

Under pressure, change does happen, and we have been tracking state-level changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some changes were only temporary or did not go far enough to slow the spread of the deadly virus. Had states taken these actions years ago to reduce other dangers in prisons, we might not have seen record mortality in 2018 – or for that matter, in 2020.

via Prison Policy Initiative https://ift.tt/3551eSE

June 8, 2021 at 12:02PM

Former Prison Gets New Life Growing – and Selling – Pot

A former New York prison that once held individuals incarcerated for drug convictions and other crimes will now be converted into a space for cannabis-related businesses to grow and process marijuana, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The former prison, located in the town of Warwick, northwest of New York City, closed a decade ago and was bought by town officials so they could choose what happened with the space. Proponents of the venture say it will bring tax revenue and new jobs to the town. However, small marijuana growers throughout the state worry the big businesses brought in will drive them out of the market.

Since the state legalized marijuana this spring, local officials have recruited seven cannabis-related businesses interested in the site. Phyto-Farma Labs LLC tests cannabis, Citiva Medical LLC grows medical marijuana and UrbanXtracts makes cannabidiol (CBD) products. Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based cannabis business, bought 38 acres of the land for cultivation and a manufacturing facility. It pledged to invest $155 million and create at least 179 jobs within three years. The county’s industrial development agency offered the company about $30 million in incentives over 15 years — a deal the agency predicts will add about $285 million in benefits to the regional economy over that period.

Small growers throughout the state worry they will lose business to the multistate companies coming in. One such grower, Allan Gandelman, explained growers need a license to plant a 2022 crop, but currently there has been no board appointed to create the licensing rules for the state. Small growers do not have the means to scale up their infrastructure to get a license in the same way other big companies can, giving them what he believes to be a head start.

Additional Reading: Legalized Marijuana Industry Struggles to Meet Diversity Goals

via The Crime Report https://ift.tt/2myW3Gx

June 1, 2021 at 11:38AM

Florida Lawmakers Push Reforms to Lower Prison Population

A group of bipartisan Florida lawmakers hope a flurry of targeted sentencing- and rehabilitation-focused reforms could begin to reduce the state’s massive prison population, relieving some pressure on the corrections department that its own leadership has repeatedly described as close to a crisis point, reports the Orlando Sentinel. The proposed reform bills would create new options to release elderly and sick inmates, increase incentives for prisoners to complete educational and other self-improvement programs and provide opportunities to retroactively reconsider and change some long sentences. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased challenges for the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), with FDC Secretary Mark Inch recently alerting lawmakers that more than half of the state’s prisons were understaffed to the point of emergency, and that the agency could not withstand more budget cuts.

At least two more inmate deaths linked to COVID-19 were reported this month, bringing the total to 210, the second highest in the country, and new cases among staff and inmates continue to rise. Two of the bills proposed this session would give FDC officials more autonomy to release inmates before the completion of their sentence, under certain circumstances. Another bill would create a new elderly release program and expand medical release options, under the complete authority of FDC, to account for the growing number of aging inmates, as well as those with terminal or incapacitating illnesses. Another bill would change the minimum amount of time served on a criminal sentence for those eligible to earn time off for good behavior, lowering it to 65 percent instead of 85 percent. According to legislative analysis, such a change would save the state almost $800 million over the next six years.

via The Crime Report https://ift.tt/2myW3Gx

March 15, 2021 at 09:53AM

“Prisons are getting Whiter. That’s one way mass incarceration might end.”

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post commentary authored by Keith Humphreys and Ekow N. Yankah. Here are excerpts:

Research shows that many White Americans see incarceration as a “Black problem,” and the more they see it that way, the less willing they are to do anything about it.  Biden and others might surmount this resistance, however, by highlighting a surprising trend: White Americans have been filling jails and prisons at increasing rates in the 21st century. Reducing incarceration, reformers can credibly argue, will benefit Whites as much as Blacks….

Racial codings of social problems influence public attitudes through two basic processes.  The first is in-group favoritism, which is greater appreciation of and empathy for people we perceive as similar to ourselves.  Such favoritism increases willingness to help a stranger in distress, leave a big tip at a restaurant or grant a promotion at work, among many other kindnesses. In-group favoritism is not limited to race (we can be favorably disposed to someone over something as trivial as sharing a first name or a birthday), and people of all races are prone to it.  But race is clearly one of the many dimensions by which we judge similarity, so that as more White Americans understand that more Whites are behind bars, they may feel increased compassion toward prisoners and voice more support for policies to reduce incarceration.

The other process in play is more disturbing, because it implies an active attempt to harm others.  Sociologists Rachel Wetts and Robb Willer documented that, when told the income gap between White Americans and Black and Latino Americans was shrinking, Whites favored social welfare programs that they believed particularly helped other Whites. But they became less supportive of programs that they thought particularly helped minorities.  Wetts and Willer concluded that perceived threats to the racial hierarchy drive White opposition to helping Black Americans.  The same Whites who recoiled at a Black man rising to the presidency, for example, might oppose prison reforms (shorter sentences, better health care, early release for the sick and elderly) precisely because they believe that the beneficiaries will mainly be Black. Informing such people that prisoners are increasingly White could soften their hostility.

Persuading people to join the fight against mass incarceration because Whites stand to benefit is bound to repulse those already committed to the cause.  But because each state runs its own prison system and sets most criminal penalties, building a nationwide coalition is essential.  That can happen only by shifting the opinion of people who are not moved by — or indeed are even comforted by — the thought of prison populations being mostly Black. And exploding the idea that mass incarceration is only a “Black problem” may allow us to reimagine a broad range of other issues, such as the policing that helps feed it….

In the effort to control Black and Brown people through the criminal justice system, White Americans have shown a stunning willingness to tolerate a huge number of White prisoners as collateral damage.  And once such systems are built, they have a remarkable capacity for self-preservation; jail populations, for instance, have stayed constant even as crime has plummeted.  So we cannot say how well a strategy drawing attention to the Whitening trend will work. In his book “Dying of Whiteness,” physician Jonathan Metzl argues that White people’s racial resentment can lead them to cut off their nose to spite their face — opposing policies that would help them because they would help Black citizens, too. Indeed, numerous economists have concluded that America’s long history of hostility toward Black people has left it the sole advanced economy without some form of universal health care.  If some White Americans are willing to give up health care to keep their place in the racial hierarchy, perhaps they are willing to risk imprisonment as well.  Yet the reversal in rhetoric during the opioid crisis shows that entrenched policies can be changed.

What’s more, in a remarkable moment of convergence, libertarians, religious leaders and racial-justice advocates oppose mass incarceration for separate but overlapping reasons.  Were our country more just and less dismissive of Black pain, growing White incarceration would have no special weight in assessing the moral value of locking up more than 2 million of our fellow citizens.  Opponents of mass incarceration — including Biden — should continue to denounce racism within the criminal justice system.  But the president can also remind Americans that our racial fates are joined: All of us would benefit from the end of mass incarceration.

via Sentencing Law and Policy https://ift.tt/2Jb7wUP

February 28, 2021 at 11:33PM

Private Prison Firms Could Lose $1B Under New Biden Rules

CoreCivic and the GEO Group, two of the largest U.S. private prison companies, could lose as much as a quarter of their revenue, about $1 billion a year between them, under new limits on the sector from President Joe Biden, reports Reuters. Shares in GEO Group and CoreCivic took a hit on Tuesday after Biden signed an executive order to roll back the U.S. government’s use of private prisons, a part of what he called an initiative to tackle systemic racism. Shares of GEO and CoreCivic had already been walloped in the past year as COVID-19 restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border and capacity restrictions for health reasons kept facilities they operate for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) well below capacity.

Biden’s current order applies to the Justice Department’s federal contracts with private prisons, which would include facilities used by the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service, though the order did not specifically name those agencies. The order does not apply to the Department of Homeland Security and therefore not to ICE facilities. In 2019, CoreCivic earned 5 percent of its total revenue from its federal contracts with the Bureau of Prisons and 17 percent from the U.S. Marshals, or a total of about $440 million. Its largest customer in 2019 was ICE, accounting for 29 percent of business. At GEO Group, U.S. Marshals and Bureau of Prisons accounted for 23 percent of total revenue in 2019, or about $570 million. Neither prison company has raised money in public markets since 2019 and Biden’s new order could increase credit risks, making it harder for either company to refinance debt.

via The Crime Report https://ift.tt/2myW3Gx

January 27, 2021 at 11:18AM

FL Prison Whistleblowers Tell of Racism, Abuse, Coverups

The Santa Rosa Correctional Institution is a crucial backstop in the Florida prison system, responsible for some of the state’s most challenging inmates, but also some of its most vulnerable. But the Panhandle prison also has major problems on its own staff, according to whistleblowers. In interviews with the Florida Times-Union, a dozen former and current employees at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution described a culture of abuse, bullying, racism and administrative cover-ups in the mental health dorms. Officers selected inmates they had problems with for unsanctioned forms of punishment: to include physical violence or withholding their food to the point where prisoners lost considerable weight, employees said.

One former Panhandle prison employee said she filed a written complaint about a correctional officer’s racist behavior, then came into work several days later to another officer dangling a noose made of toilet paper in front of her. Another former employee said she walked in on a handcuffed inmate being beaten in the medical unit, surrounded by a group of officers. She was suspended one day after filing an incident report about it, and fired within two weeks. One former inmate, Ronald Thornton, was one week away from his release date, serving a four-year sentence for cocaine possession, when he says guards told him they had a going-away present for him — a severe beating, which he claims was retribution for his complaints about racist guards.

via The Crime Report http://bit.ly/2myW3Gx

May 9, 2019 at 08:41AM

The U.S. Prison Population is Shrinking

The number of people in U.S. prisons fell to a nine-year low of just under 1.5 million last year, a 1.3 percent decrease, according to a report released today by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

via The Marshall Project http://bit.ly/1qMivmK

April 24, 2019 at 06:03AM