Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Prisons and Jails

At risk are not only those incarcerated, but also correctional officers, medical staff and their families and communities

By Caitlin Borgmann

In the face of a public health crisis more serious than any of us have seen in our lifetime, we all feel vulnerable. In our best attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19, we listen to public health experts and close schools, cancel gatherings and events, and practice social distancing, staying home – and away from other people – except for the most essential needs. It’s vital advice coming from public health experts to flatten the curve, ensure that our health care systems can function, and save as many lives as possible.

People in Montana’s prisons and jails are some of the most vulnerable people in our state. Incarcerated people cannot socially distance. Prisons and jails are notorious for low quality healthcare. In many facilities, basic hygienic products are unavailable, or inmates – who often have no money – are required to pay for them. The three things that public health experts say will save lives – distance, adequate hygiene, and good medical care – are unavailable to incarcerated people. Without swift action, people in our prisons and jails will be serving death sentences. Moreover, research shows that jails contribute to infectious disease deaths in the broader community.

It’s the state’s responsibility to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t take over prisons and jails like wildfire, putting at risk not only those incarcerated, but also correctional officers and medical staff – and their families and communities when they leave work each day and return home. This is not theoretical. A Yellowstone County jail worker has already tested positive for COVID-19. What is happening on Rikers Island, where nearly 40 people have contracted coronavirus, could easily happen in Montana’s prisons and jails.

The state and local governments must address this looming crisis immediately to ensure that the medical system isn’t inundated with cases from prison and jails. That would add to the real possibility that our hospitals will soon be over capacity. 

This is a matter of life or death. It cannot be pushed to the side. If the state and local governments act quickly, we might have time to avoid the worst case scenario.

Nobody is in this alone – we need all government agencies and officials to work together. Last week, it was heartening to see the Montana Supreme Court ask judges in municipal and county justice courts to limit in-person appearances and to release people who are incarcerated when possible. It was reassuring to see Missoula County make meaningful and swift changes in response to the court.

But to stop, or even to slow, this pandemic, our government officials, from the local level to the governor, need to do more.

In a letter to the governor, attorney general, Department of Corrections, and others involved in Montana’s criminal legal system, the ACLU of Montana and our allies recommended some common-sense changes that should be made immediately, including:

• Stem unnecessary arrests and detention to limit the number of people entering the criminal legal system in the first place;

• Reduce the number of people in prisons, jails, and other detention facilities;

• Ensure those who are incarcerated have access to necessary personal hygiene products and information;

• Take steps to maintain and make publicly available accurate data on infection and prevention in prisons and jails;

• Suspend payment of fines, fees, and costs associated with criminal charges to provide greater financial stability during uncertain times and avoid arrests and warrants for failure to pay;

• Severely curtail supervision requirements that force people to ignore social distancing and leave their homes unnecessarily, like random drug testing and in-person probation and parole check-ins.

This is the time for Gov. Steve Bullock to lead. Through executive order, he has the power to take swift action to reduce prison and jail populations and lessen the spread of COVID-19. Among other changes, he should ask the Department of Corrections and Parole Board to immediately identify and release certain populations, including people with a short amount of time left in their sentence, people who are older than 55, and those with health issues that make them exceptionally vulnerable. Exceptions would be made for individuals deemed to pose an immediate and direct threat to public safety.

A number of the measures we are suggesting are already being implemented in various parts of the country, from New York to Ohio to Los Angeles, as leaders recognize the necessity.

As we all navigate our lives in the face of coronavirus, we cannot forget about the people in our prisons and jails. That will only lead to more suffering and death for those currently incarcerated or under supervision, employees including correctional officers, probation/parole officers, medical staff, and our larger communities.

The time for Montana to take meaningful action is running out. The state must act now.

Caitlin Borgmann is executive director of ACLU of Montana.

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