A Call for Effective Emergency Management in Correctional Facilities During COVID-19

An inmate reads a book while in the infirmary at a detention facility in California, April 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted systems of neglect and disregard for many of America’s marginalized groups. Among those most forgotten have been the millions of individuals in correctional facilities across the country. As history has shown many times, people in prisons and jails have often been left to suffer unjustly during times of widespread crisis; the coronavirus has proved no different.

Prisons and jails have already become major hotspots for coronavirus infections. More than 70,000 people in prison have tested positive for the virus, and more than 700 people have died since March. The New York Times found that the five largest known clusters of the virus have been inside correctional institutions, and research from Johns Hopkins University found the number of coronavirus infections in prisons to be 5.5 times higher than the number of cases among the general U.S. population. While some state and local governments are making changes to protect the general public from the virus, many correctional facilities have maintained high population numbers with limited cleaning and hygiene supplies and virtually no ability for individuals to practice social distancing. As this virus spreads rapidly within the nation’s jails and prisons, facilities have shown that they are ill-prepared to protect the people under their watch. This endangers not only people within correctional facilities but also those outside facility walls in surrounding communities.

It is therefore incumbent on lawmakers to reduce prison and jail populations in order to ensure that incarcerated individuals are protected. Moreover, as formerly incarcerated experts such as those with JustLeadershipUSA point out, governments at all levels must take this opportunity to develop mandatory preparedness measures to implement during the current pandemic and in future national emergencies.

Addressing current and future national emergencies

In order to effectively respond to crisis situations, it is imperative that federal, state, and local governments and corrections agencies develop proactive emergency response measures that safely and deliberately reduce prison populations. These measures should go into effect immediately and work toward the goals of providing adequate medical treatment for incarcerated individuals, avoiding exposing incarcerated individuals and correctional staff to harm, and assisting released individuals with their transition into general society.

Some efforts are already being made on the federal level toward this end. Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Karen Bass (D-CA), and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) recently introduced the COVID-19 Correctional Facility Emergency Response Act of 2020 (H.R. 6414), which was incorporated into the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act that passed the House of Representatives on May 15, 2020. If enacted, H.R. 6414 would establish a grant program through the U.S. Department of Justice to assist in the “immediate release of vulnerable and low-risk individuals” during the coronavirus pandemic. Funding would also be used to test incarcerated individuals and correctional staff, provide medical treatment for infected individuals, decrease the number of individuals incarcerated for parole or probation violations, and provide transition and reentry support for those who have been released.

The measures proposed in this bill, however, should have already been in place. The coronavirus pandemic caught government leaders flat-footed, but that was an unforced error, according to formerly incarcerated leaders. That is why JustLeadershipUSA, a policy and advocacy organization led by formerly incarcerated experts, created the #JustUS campaign to encourage the development of long-standing emergency management procedures for federal and state prisons and jails. As the campaign notes, the coronavirus was not the first national emergency in recent years. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people behind bars were reportedly left without adequate food, drinking water, or ventilation—and in the end, 517 incarcerated individuals were left unaccounted for. Similar stories of dehumanizing treatment were noted when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017. Reportedly, 3,000 incarcerated men “were forced to ride out the storm” under dangerous and unbearable conditions. Inevitably, flooding occurred, water was cut off, and sewage backed up, causing dire sanitation issues for not only the inmates but also the limited staff left to manage the facilities.

The #JustUS campaign is unique in that it is led by formerly incarcerated individuals and calls for emergency release of incarcerated individuals during any time of crisis. Its reform policies cover the full breadth of the criminal justice system and include:

  • The creation of an eight-member advisory board consisting of at least two formerly incarcerated individuals that provides recommendations on and assistance with developing a “decarceration and emergency plan” for correctional facilities
  • A criterion for release that prioritizes individuals most vulnerable to the emergency, such as “individuals over age 50” and those with “documented illnesses” and “compromised immune systems”
  • Limitations on intake into state correctional facilities during an emergency, as well as expedited court processing and more use of incarceration alternatives
  • Assurance of proper medical care, nutrition, safety, and overall support for the well-being of individuals who do not qualify for release during an emergency

JustLeadershipUSA’s concept that correction facilities should have emergency preparedness measures that prioritize the safety and health of prison and jail populations is long overdue to protect incarcerated individuals from COVID-19 and future emergencies. Moreover, the #JustUS campaign is an example of why people directly impacted by the criminal justice system must be centered in the development of reform policies.

The fact that protocols for correctional facilities during national emergencies do not exist today is an indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system. Any one of the natural disasters or other critical events that preceded the current pandemic should have served as a prompt to develop protocols that would protect incarcerated individuals in the future. A recent survey by the Prison Policy Initiative, however, found a general lack of preparation and use of methods to reduce viral spread in facilities. In the case of COVID-19, the lack of preparation not only affects those in correctional facilities but also those in surrounding communities, and it delays any efforts to eradicate the virus.

Conclusion

Far too many incarcerated individuals have been sanctioned to unjust punishment due to the lack of emergency preparedness within U.S. correctional facilities. Now, as we fight to end the spread of the coronavirus within our nation, we must include incarcerated individuals in these efforts. The passage of laws and policy measures that aim to reduce the prison and jail populations during times of crisis while ensuring the health and safety of all involved is needed now more than ever before.

Akua Amaning is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.