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Coronavirus, Custody, and the Grim Reality of Prison Healthcare

The United States houses a notoriously large prison population. Overcrowding, disease, and generally insufficient healthcare services combine to create a situation that is ripe for an infectious outbreak. Studies reveal that American prisons are crawling with infectious diseases at rates that far exceed the general population. Moreover, the current national milieu of panic surrounding coronavirus has not led to broad policy implementation geared to prevent the spread of disease among U.S. jails and prisons. Consequently, American correctional institutions are primed to serve as superb breeding grounds for this new and deadly virus. While measures can and should be taken immediately by prison and jail officials, no such action is currently being undertaken. Therefore, to prevent being exposed to disease, it is best to avoid custody and incarceration altogether. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, call Wasatch Defense Lawyers today—we will fight to keep you safe and healthy!

Healthcare Behind Bars

Contagions in American jails and prisons are a major concern. Jail and prison populations are particularly susceptible to the spread of infectious disease due to overcrowding, poor healthcare, security issues, limited drug rehabilitation programs, and a general prevalence of high-risk behavior among prisoners. Infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C (HCV), hepatitis B (HBV), and tuberculosis have reached epidemic proportions in American prisons. This predominance of disease is attributable primarily to a combination of intravenous drug use, as well as unprotected consensual and non-consensual sex among prisoners.

The rate of contracting HIV and other infectious diseases ranges from ten to more than one hundred times higher than the rates reported outside of prison. In one Louisiana prison study, more than 70% of male inmates reported participating in unprotected sex with other men while incarcerated (currently only Vermont and California provide condoms for inmates). Moreover, multiple studies have demonstrated that infection rates via intravenous drug use are also significantly higher among the prison population than among their non-incarcerated counterparts. Unfortunately, these troubling statistics are not restricted to only male correctional institutions; and studies show that female correctional institutions have even higher rates of infection. Today, screening programs are the primary mechanism guarding against the spread of disease. However, the quality of these screenings varies widely across the patchwork of local, state, and federal correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers. Ultimately, the screening and healthcare provided by U.S. jails and prisons is simply inadequate to control the magnitude of disease circulating the penal system.

As far back as the 1980s, the World Health Organization released recommendations to combat the spread of HIV in prisons. And the United States has implemented some policies and procedures intended to stifle the spread of disease and generally expand prison healthcare. Notably, two federal cases established a prisoner’s rights to healthcare. In Estelle v. Gamble, the Supreme Court ruled that healthcare is a constitutional right, and that healthcare must be made available to prisoners. Prior to Estelle, many prison institutions would deliberately withhold access to medical services as part of their penological mission. Furthermore, in Wayne County Jail Inmates v. Lucas, prisoners gained the right to access drug detoxification and treatment programs. While the above-mentioned case law has advanced the prisons towards an incrementally more humane position, the prevalence of a disease among prisoners is still staggering.

Coronavirus and Incarceration

Public panic has been sweeping the globe as COVID-19, the newly discovered and totally untreatable coronavirus has spread from its origins in China to multiple regions around the world. The disease has spread quickly, and now there are currently more cases outside of China than within. Coronavirus has already infected the prisons of China (a nation with significantly lower rates of incarceration than the United States). And gauging purely from the predominance of disease in American prisons, it is safe to say that if and when COVID-19 arrives in an American community, it will eventually reach the jails and prisons. A large population of Americans are regularly exposed to our disease-infested correctional institutions. U.S. citizens are incarcerated at a rate of approximately one million per month. In addition to the prisoners— countless police, medical staff, and administrative professionals work within America’s jails and prisons. Frighteningly, once the virus begins circulating the prisons, it will be even more difficult to contain— a perfect recipe for an epidemic.

Globally, prisons have already served as a hotbed for the virus. Iran recently released 54,000 prisoners and deployed hundreds of thousands of health workers in an attempt to contain the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China. Iran responded to international pressure as the death toll mounted and infection rates soared within Iranian prisons. Iranian officials have struggled to reassure the population that the virus has been contained since 23 members of the Iranian parliament have tested positive for coronavirus and an advisor to the Supreme Ayatollah died from the disease.  Iran has suspended all international travel in and out of the country, and rumors have swirled that the infection and death rates are much higher in Iran than are being officially reported. Iran attempted to stifle the spread of the disease too late, and by the time Iran dispersed its prisoners, the virus had already taken hold of the nation.

The coronavirus is a troubling new infection that has killed thousands and infected countless more. In order to address the pandemic that is now sweeping throughout the globe, prisons must be monitored and extensively treated. Overpopulated American correctional institutions are highly vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak, and only time will tell if the United States will implement the measures necessary to prevent the spread of the disease.

Staying Out of Custody = Staying Healthy

To prevent the outbreak of disease, there is a dire need for standardized data collection across the nation’s various penal institutions. Most American cities have implemented measures to identify, track, treat, and potentially quarantine those infected with COVID-19. Jails and prisons should be incorporated into these broader prevention programs, and likewise have policies and procedures to identify and respond to coronavirus—this is the only effective means of limiting the spread of disease. However, such measures have not been broadly adopted by American jails and prisons. Consequently, U.S. correctional facilities are and will continue to remain, a biological timebomb. Therefore, it is crucial to remain outside that environment in order to remain healthy and safe.

If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges, immediately call Wasatch Defense Lawyers. Our team of highly experienced litigators will fight to limit time in custody and ensure that proper healthcare services are accessible. Do not allow time in jail or prison to compromise your health or the health of someone you love!

Craig R. Chlarson