Special Report: ‘Death Sentence’ – the hidden coronavirus toll in U.S. jails and prisons

By Peter Eisler, Linda So, Ned Parker and Brad Heath

(Reuters) – When COVID-19 began tearing through Detroit’s county jail system in March, authorities had no diagnostic tests to gauge its spread. But the toll became clear as deaths mounted. First, one of the sheriff’s jail commanders died; then, a deputy in a medical unit.

“Working in the Wayne County Jail has now become a DEATH sentence!” the head of the deputy sheriffs’ union, Randall Crawford, wrote on Facebook as the losses mounted.

By mid-April, the jail system’s medical director and one of its doctors also had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The virus was everywhere, but jail officials had little sense of who was infected and spreading it.

Testing of inmates and staff – needed to determine who should be quarantined to slow transmission – was just getting started. In the weeks since, more than 200 staff and inmates have tested positive.

COVID-19 has spread rapidly behind bars in Detroit and across the nation, according to an analysis of data gathered by Reuters from 20 county jail systems, 10 state prison systems and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which runs federal penitentiaries.

But scant testing and inconsistent reporting from state and local authorities have frustrated efforts to track or contain its spread, particularly in local jails. And figures compiled by the U.S. government appear to undercount the number of infections dramatically in correctional settings, Reuters found.

In a May 6 report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 54 state and territorial health departments for data on confirmed COVID-19 infections in all correctional facilities – local jails, state prisons and federal prisons and detention centers. Thirty-seven of those agencies provided data between April 22-28, reporting just under 5,000 inmate cases.

Reuters documented well over three times the CDC’s tally of COVID-19 infections – about 17,300 – in its far more modest survey of local, state and federal corrections facilities conducted about two weeks later. The Reuters survey encompassed jails and prisons holding only 13% of the more than 2 million people behind bars nationwide. Among state prisons doing mass testing of all inmates, Reuters found, some are seeing infection rates up to 65%.

The CDC tally “is dramatically low,” said Aaron Littman, a teaching fellow specializing in prison law and policy at the law school of the University of California, Los Angeles. “We don’t have a particularly good handle” on COVID-19 infections in many correctional and detention facilities, “and in some places we have no handle at all.”

Problems with unreliable data aren’t unique to corrections. Epidemiologists say the incidence of COVID-19 in the general U.S. population also is unclear due to limited testing, especially in the pandemic’s early days. And the CDC acknowledged in its report that its infection count for jails and prisons was similarly hampered by spotty data and “not representative” of the disease’s true prevalence in those facilities.

But uneven testing for COVID-19 in correctional settings and erratic reporting of confirmed cases have profound implications for health officials and policymakers tracking its spread because epidemiologists see jails and prisons as key pathways of transmission.

EVIDENCE OF “A CRISIS”

The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation, a total incarcerated population of more than 2.2 million as of 2018, including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and just under 740,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Jails generally keep inmates for short stays: arrestees awaiting trial or people serving short sentences. The churn of these inmates raises the risk of infections among both the inmates themselves and jail staff, who can carry the virus to and from the community.

Prisons, which hold convicted criminals on longer sentences, also are fertile ground for the virus. While inmates come and go far less frequently, the pathogen can be carried in from the community by a single contagious staffer, spread quickly in crowded cell blocks, and be re-introduced to the community by other, newly infected workers.

Reuters collected data from 37 state prison facilities across the country that have done mass testing for COVID-19 among all inmates, including those with no symptoms, and found more than 10,000 confirmed cases among the 44,000 tested. There were 91 deaths from the disease at those facilities, which span 10 states.

In contrast, federal prisons, which typically limit testing to inmates with obvious symptoms, reported confirmed infections in fewer than 4,200 of their total inmate population of about 150,000, with 52 deaths.

The situation in the nation’s 2,800 local jails is even more opaque. Many don’t report their COVID-19 cases publicly, and there is no national tracking of their infection numbers.

Reuters surveyed the 20 U.S. counties with the largest jails, holding an average total of about 73,000 inmates, and found nearly 2,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases – a figure that has risen nearly 30-fold over the past six weeks. While some of that increase is a result of increased testing during that time, it still reflects an almost certain undercount, because testing remains limited in many of those facilities.

The surge in jail infections comes amid a chorus of concerns from judges, oversight agencies, corrections officers, defense lawyers and civil rights groups that most local lockups are ill-equipped to control the virus, which has killed at least 310,600 people worldwide. Unlike state and federal prisons, typically equipped to provide health care for long-term inmates, jails often have little medical capacity.

In health care, jail inmates “are the last and the least and the lost,” said Dr. Thomas Pangburn, chief medical officer for Wellpath LLC, the medical contractor in Wayne County’s jails and hundreds of others nationwide. Many jails have been overlooked in the race to secure COVID-19 test kits and medical supplies for hospitals and nursing homes, he said, but “we have the most vulnerable population in a very confined space meant for correctional housing – and not for medical care.”

In many jails and prisons, the toll of COVID-19 on corrections officers and other staff approaches that of inmates – and here, too, the numbers reported to the CDC by state and local authorities appear to be a vast undercount.

The CDC report documented nearly 2,800 COVID-19 cases among staff across all U.S. correctional facilities. But Reuters found more than 80% of that number – upwards of 2,300 infected jail and prison workers – in its far less comprehensive survey of just the federal prison system, a few dozen state prisons and the 20 counties with the biggest local jails.

In an effort to curb infection rates, many jails and prisons are releasing inmates to create more distance among those remaining behind bars. That has raised concerns about whether inmates, particularly in jails, are being screened for COVID-19 before returning to the community, where many can’t get medical care.

More than 37,000 state and federal prisoners have been released since March 31, according to U.S. government data and records collected from 41 state prison systems by the Vera Institute of Justice, a research group that seeks to reduce incarcerated populations. There is no national tracking of local jail releases, but in just the 20 counties surveyed by Reuters, at least 14,000 jail inmates have been let go.

Releasing inmates is critical “both in jails and surrounding communities, because of the role jails serve as vectors” for spreading the virus, said Udi Ofer, justice division director at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed dozens of “decarceration” suits and legal petitions. “It’s a crisis.”

Some groups have pushed back. Victims’ rights group Marsy’s Law, named after the murdered sister of billionaire Henry Nicholas, has criticized the releases, expressing concern that crime victims aren’t always notified when inmates are let out.

NO TESTS, NO PROTECTION

U.S. President Donald Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 13. By that time, officials in the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office already were scrambling to address a looming outbreak in their three jails.

Days earlier, Sheriff Benny Napoleon and Chief Robert Dunlap, the jails supervisor, had laid plans to keep inmates more separated, cut public visits and quarantine new arrivals – rules that took effect just after Trump’s announcement. On March 19, the jail also began releasing low-level offenders, for the most part inmates with risky medical conditions.

Staff and inmates were already falling ill across the jail system, which typically houses a population of about 1,400. Donafay Collins, 63, a jail commander, was hospitalized with a COVID-19 infection that would kill him less than two weeks later – the first death among the four staffers claimed by the virus.

“It’s like a bad dream,” Chief Dunlap said in an interview with Reuters.

Meanwhile, getting diagnostic tests and protective equipment to track and manage the virus proved challenging, Dunlap said. Suppliers had little to offer, and just about everything they had was going to hospitals and emergency medical services.

Hunting for face masks, the sheriff’s office turned to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who had been pressing the federal government to give states more supplies from federal stockpiles. On March 20, state officials sent the sheriff 7,500 N-95 masks provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The highly protective masks are used by staff handling sick inmates, Dunlap said. Basic surgical masks became available later for more routine use by both staff and inmates, he added.

Getting test kits proved even harder. As COVID-19 raced through Wayne County’s jails in March, corrections officers needing tests had to visit a local testing center or hospital, where they often were refused if they did not show specific symptoms, Dunlap said. It wasn’t until April 6 – the day the virus killed the jails’ medical director, Dr. Angelo Patsalis – that officers began getting regular tests through the Wayne State University Physician Group.

Getting the tests was “a matter of life and death,” said Crawford, the head of the deputy sheriffs’ union, in an interview.

For inmates, however, testing remained elusive.

In late March, the sheriff directed the jail’s medical contractor, Wellpath, to obtain test kits for inmates, but the company couldn’t get enough due to heavy demand, Dunlap said. “Wellpath, like every other provider around this county, couldn’t get them.” So, COVID-19 testing was limited to inmates with symptoms.

By April 30, the jail’s population had dropped to just 834 inmates – about 500 had been released – and only 89 had been tested for the new coronavirus. Of those tested, 29 were positive, just over 30%, according to the sheriff’s office. Among the sheriff’s 810-member staff, 196 had tested positive, or 23% – of whom 89 have returned to work.

On May 7, the jail expanded testing to all inmates under a grant from the Hudson Webber Foundation. That should “further mitigate the spread of the virus” inside and outside the jail, Dunlap said, and help identify infected inmates before release.

As in many states, Michigan’s prison system began universal testing earlier than the jails.

On April 21, Michigan’s Department of Corrections began testing for coronavirus infections in large numbers of inmates even if they showed no sign of illness, said department spokesman Chris Gautz.

Demands for mass testing are growing. The ACLU and the Council of Prison Locals, representing 30,000 federal prison employees, called earlier this month for universal testing in all federal lockups.

But some public health experts are ambivalent on that approach. The CDC’s guidance for correctional facilities calls for quick COVID-19 testing of inmates who appear symptomatic, but it takes no position on universal testing.

The guidance reflects a belief among some public health experts that testing only symptomatic inmates and, in some scenarios, a sample of the rest may suffice for assessing the virus’ overall prevalence in a jail or prison, said Marc Stern, former medical director for the Washington State prison system and a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Public Health. Testing every asymptomatic inmate may not make sense if a jail lacks the capacity to isolate and trace the contacts of those who test positive – and also because not everyone who tests positive may be contagious.

In Michigan’s prison system, however, officials say mass testing has been valuable.

“If you don’t know where the problem is, you can’t fix it,” spokesman Gautz said.

‘IT’S CRAZY IN THERE’

Charles Peterson, 78, began showing symptoms of COVID-19 a week after a parole violation landed him in Colorado’s Weld County Jail on March 11. By the time he was released on March 30, he was on the verge of dying from it.

Peterson declined quickly, two fellow inmates told Reuters. Coughing and disoriented, they said, he eventually struggled to stand and began losing control of his bladder and bowels.

Donovan Birch said he and other inmates alerted jail staff, but Peterson was left in the general population. Birch also became ill with COVID-19 symptoms after his exposure to Peterson, he said, but never was tested.

Peterson “needed help,” said Birch, who was jailed on a parole violation for trespassing charges. “I knew he was going to die if he didn’t get it.”

Instead, Peterson was released; two days later, he was dead. Official cause: “acute respiratory failure, viral pneumonia and COVID-19 infection.”

Peterson likely was a “superspreader,” according to an infectious disease expert who inspected the jail on behalf of inmates for a lawsuit they filed seeking better sanitary and safety measures. By early May, at least 10 of the jail’s roughly 480 inmates had tested positive for the virus – but just 22 had been tested. Eighteen deputies had also been infected, the jail said.

The inmates’ lawsuit claims Weld County Sheriff Steven Reams “willfully disregarded public health guidelines” by leaving three to four inmates to a cell, sharing sinks and toilets, as the virus spread. “Failing to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 endangers not only those within the institution,” the suit says, “but the entire community.” Reams declined to comment.

The case is among more than 100 lawsuits nationwide, many of them class-action cases, seeking mass releases of inmates or other measures to reduce overcrowding and infection risks in jails hit by the new coronavirus, according to the UCLA law school’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. Many of those cases, as well as hundreds more filed by individual inmates, argue that confinement in facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks violates the U.S. Constitution’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Inmates have been issued masks since early April and have access to soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, said Weld County Sheriff’s spokesman Joe Moylan. He noted the jail has been on lockdown since April 1 – the day Peterson died – and inmates are rotated out of their cells in small groups to common areas that allow for social distancing. He declined to comment on the litigation and the specific cases of Peterson and Birch.

Peterson was released after Colorado’s Department of Corrections decided not to hold him for his parole violation, part of the effort to slow COVID-19 transmission in local jails by reducing inmate populations. Since March 1, the jail has reduced its population by more than 300 inmates; fewer than half its 954 beds are occupied.

Peterson’s parole violation involved failing to renew his sex offender registration while living at “Rock Found,” a re-entry home for convicts returning to the community. When he was let out of jail, a former Rock Found roommate brought him back to the home, cold, shivering, barely able to walk.

The program director called paramedics.

“I honestly could not believe that not a single person from the Weld County Jail had told anyone at Rock Found that they were releasing a seriously sick person into our care,” the director, Cheryl Cook, said in a statement filed in the inmates’ lawsuit.

Moylan, the sheriff’s spokesman, said Peterson was not tested for COVID-19 because he was not overtly symptomatic.

The conditions at the jail violated the constitutional rights of medically vulnerable inmates, a federal judge ruled May 11. He ordered the sheriff to socially distance those at risk, provide single cells when possible, and improve cleaning of communal spaces.

Many of the problems addressed by the judge were identified by the plaintiffs’ expert witness during two visits to the jail in April. He reported to the court that he found most inmates confined to group cells more than 22 hours a day with no handwashing options unless they were let out to a bathroom. Many complained of unsanitary conditions and said shared sinks and toilets were not cleaned between uses, the expert reported.

Ralph Brewer, 41, jailed for violating a restraining order, told Reuters he was directed to continue working in the kitchen after developing nausea and a bad cough. Staffing was short, he was told, so he had to work unless he had a fever.

“It really concerned me. We had no masks, just gloves,” Brewer said. He requested a doctor to check his lungs, he said, but nurses only gave him Tylenol, cough medicine and instructions to stay hydrated.

Brewer was released on April 3 and his daughter took him straight to an urgent care clinic. The doctor said he had COVID-19 symptoms – no tests were available – and told him to quarantine for 14 days, Brewer said. He recovered at his mother’s house.

“I was lucky to get out, but I’m worried about the people still in jail,” Brewer said. “It’s crazy in there.”

(Additional reporting and data analysis by Grant Smith. Peter Eisler, Linda So and Brad Heath reported from Washington. Ned Parker reported from New York. Editing by Jason Szep)

In U.S. prisons, tablets open window to the outside world

Inmate Steven Goff connects his JPay tablet device to a kiosk inside the East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, U.S., July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Diana Kruzman

RAHWAY, N.J. (Reuters) – Marvin Worthy, confined to a New Jersey state prison since 2004, cannot watch his son play basketball or visit him in college. But for the past three years, a tablet computer has kept their relationship alive.

Eight years after Apple introduced the iPad, specially designed tablets are reaching thousands of prisoners in state and county lock-ups around the United States. In the last year alone, at least 19 states have made tablets available to inmates, saying they reduce violence while providing education and job training.

“We talk about school, what he does every day,” said Worthy, 37, who is serving the last 13 years of his sentence in East Jersey State Prison in Rahway. A picture of his son on prom night glowed on the small screen in his hands.

The tablets, which are tamper-proof and unable to access the internet, allow inmates to exchange emails with people on an approved list of contacts. But some advocacy groups say their charges are too high and fear they may be used to replace family visits.

“Having tablets to help people in prisons use email and technology is a good thing,” said Caroline Hsu, an attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project. “But I’m worried about these services being considered replacements and not additions.”

In some states including Colorado, New York and Virginia, companies provide the tablets for free. But in all cases, inmates have to pay for the services they use, which include email, video calls, and downloads of games, music, movies and books from a limited selection. They can also file prison grievances, access a law library or take job training courses.

All messages are limited in length and screened for security to prevent any unauthorized contact with the outside world.

Inmate Ignacio Rodriguez shows his JPay tablet device inside the East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, U.S., July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Inmate Ignacio Rodriguez shows his JPay tablet device inside the East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, U.S., July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Two of the big players in the field are Global Tel Link (GTL), a tablet provider based in Reston, Virginia, and Dallas-based Securus Technologies and its JPay unit, which have long sold other prison services such as pay-phone calls and money transfers.

The privately-owned companies design their own tablets and software and sell them to inmates or facilities through contracts with correctional departments.

JPay and GTL told Reuters they factor in the high cost of creating a closed network for emails when setting prices. They said they do not encourage facilities to cut in-person education, visits or physical mail.

‘CAPTIVE CONSUMER BASE’

About 30 states say they offer tablets to all prisoners, along with numerous county jails. Many say the computers keep inmates occupied, lowering the risk of fighting, while email and video-calling cuts the cost of hiring staff to sort mail or screen visitors.

Tablets are especially useful for inmates whose families are unable to travel to see them, said Brian Peters, a vice president at GTL. And family contact reduces the chance inmates will commit crimes after being released, according to studies from the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

But because many states sign exclusive contracts with one company, tablet providers can freely set prices.

Inmate Ignacio Rodriguez poses while using his JPay tablet device inside the East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, U.S., July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Inmate Ignacio Rodriguez poses while using his JPay tablet device inside the East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, U.S., July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

“These vendors have specialized in making money off of people in prison and their families,” said Hsu. “They have a literally captive consumer base.”

She said New York’s contract with JPay, which will provide tablets for some 50,000 prisoners, does not allow prisoners to send free or confidential emails to attorneys. JPay confirmed that was correct.

Each email costs 40 to 50 cents to send, as much as five hours of work for New York inmates, according to 2017 data from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative.

“This is just a means to monetize human contact,” said Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that campaigns on behalf of prisoner rights.

Ignacio Rodriguez, 32, who has been incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison since 2014, said he had to choose “between writing emails and purchasing food or other essentials from the commissary.”

“At times the cost can be a burden,” he said.

(Reporting by Diana Kruzman, Editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O’Brien)

Syrian government denies U.S. accusation of crematorium at prison

A satellite view of part of the Sednaya prison complex near Damascus, Syria. Department of State/via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government on Tuesday denied U.S. accusations that a crematorium had been built at one of its prisons that could be used to dispose of detainees’ remains.

A foreign ministry statement published by state news agency SANA said the U.S. administration had come out with “a new Hollywood story detached from reality” by alleging the crematorium had been built at Sednaya military prison near Damascus.

Stuart Jones, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said on Monday that U.S. officials believe the crematorium could be used to dispose of bodies at a prison where they believe Assad’s government authorized the hanging of thousands of inmates during Syria’s six-year-old civil war.

Amnesty International reported in February that an average of 20 to 50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years since a popular uprising descended into war, it said.

The government also denied that accusation.

Amnesty said the executions took place between 2011 and 2015, but were probably still being carried out and amounted to war crimes.

In a briefing on Monday, Jones showed aerial images of what he said was the crematorium at the Sednaya site.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

At least 12 have died in Texas flooding, Prisons evacuated

Texas Game Warden Jeff Gillenwaters and Chris Zimmer, deputy director for Fort Hood's Directorate of Emergency Services, discuss search and recovery efforts for four missing soldiers in Fort Hood

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – At least 12 people, including five Army soldiers, have died in Texas due to torrential rain in the past week which has also damaged hundreds of homes and led the state to evacuate three prison facilities, officials said on Friday.

The U.S. Army and local rescue teams were using boats, helicopters and sniffer dogs to search for four soldiers who went missing when their military vehicle overturned in a flood-swollen creek on Thursday at Fort Hood in central Texas.

Five other soldiers in the vehicle were killed while three more who survived were expected to be released from a hospital as early as Friday, a military official told a news conference.

“This tragedy extends well beyond Fort Hood and the outpouring of support from around the country is sincerely appreciated,” Major General John Uberti told reporters.

The vehicle overturned at a low-water crossing and military officials have not said why the convoy was training near a swollen waterway. The sprawling army post covering an area about 15 times larger than Manhattan was closing down flood-hit roads when the accident took place.

There was likely one more flood-related death in the state, San Antonio police said on Friday, after recovering the body of a man caught in metal bars at a river drainage site in the city.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice began evacuating on Friday about 1,700 inmates at its Ramsey Unit in Rosharon, about 30 miles (50 km) south of Houston, due to flooding along the Brazos River.

It evacuated about 2,600 inmates from two other facilities earlier this week due to flooding on the same river. Many of the inmates were sent to other units with available beds, it said.

The National Weather Service has placed large parts of Texas and Louisiana on a flash flood watch, including Houston and New Orleans.

Heavy rains are forecast to hit Houston and eastern Texas through the weekend, likely causing more flooding, it said. Some areas could see as much as 7 inches (18 cm).

“Due to already saturated soils, even fairly brief, intense rainfall rates can easily cause roadway and low-land flooding over urban areas,” it said.

More than 150 flights have been canceled at airports in Dallas and Houston as of 1:00 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Friday due to the weather, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Phil Berlowitz and James Dalgleish)