The Des: a COVID-19 special report

Everything you missed about the Coronavirus behind bars while searching for toilet paper: an aging incarcerated population faces the inevitable

The Federal Bureau of Prisons announced this afternoon that it is implementing stage two of its COVID-19 response which begins with canceling outside visitation for the next 30 days - find all changes here.

Keri Blakinger came out of the gates this week asking what prisons would do about the coronavirus, watch.

When Dr. Lipi Roy was asked by AL Tompkins of Poynter at a seminar in Baltimore last week, if prisons and jails were just a big incubator, “Of course it is,” she responded. “Once it is [inside], it will spread like wildfire.”

Read her piece on why prisons and jails should care. [Forbes]

Why we are concerned:

  • Aging population, incarcerated people over 55 are the fastest growing population behind bars. COVID-19 hits older populations hardest.

  • Poor medical services, inmates regularly report denials of care. Key findings of this Harvard study include that 40 percent of the total prison and jail population reported a chronic medical issue, a rate higher than non-incarcerated Americans of a similar age.

  • Contained space: TB can spread from 11 to 81 times more in prison than in general population. Worldwide prisoners are five times more likely to be dealing with HIV which compromises the immune system.

  • Denial of hand sanitizer and other supplies needed to prevent the spread.

Prison Policy was ahead of the game in asking for quick action last week, these were their suggestions.

  1. Release medically fragile and older adults

  2. Stop charging medical co-pays in prison

  3. Lower jail admissions to reduce high number of people cycling through

  4. Reduce unnecessary parole and probation meetings

  5. Eliminate parole and probation revocations for technical violations

Two weeks ago, we talked about the Coronavirus cases in Chinese prisons. As American faces the COVID-19 disease, experts are highlighting prisons and jails as unprepared and prone to outbreak.

Italy has been the example of what not to do as a country, a high death rate and late reaction to the disease lead hospitals to begin to triage patients and devote resources to those with the best chance of survival.

And prison riots sparked across the country in jails and prisons resulting in 12 deaths of people behind bars and additional escapees after visitation was shutdown. [Reuters]


Positive test: The only known COVID-19 case is in a Brussels’ prison. [The Brussels Times]

Let them go: On the Mar. 12, The Human Rights Watch called for the US to “consider supervised release and other non-custodial alternatives for detained individuals who are at high risk of serious effects from COVID-19.”

  • Colorado Public Defenders join national activists calling for release of people before an outbreak - three quarters of people in CO jails have yet to even be sentenced. [The Colorado Independent]

On pause: Premal Dharia pointed out that its not just the virus but the impact on delaying cases and keeping people in jail awaiting trial. [Slate]

For the better good: Kelsey Kauffman highlighted jails pivotal role in flattening the infamous curve graph on COVID-19 cases that is circulating. [The Appeal]

The elders: In Illinois, multiple advocates are pushing for a release of aging inmates. [The Injustice Watch]

  • So are public defenders and a district attorney in San Francisco. [The Appeal]

Florida Department of Corrections is partnering with JPay and Securus to offer free and discounted communications.

Other places aren’t catching up as quickly:

Low-staffing: Union leaders for the Council of Prison Locals is worried about the coronavirus’s impact on already low staffed federal facilities. [Kaiser Health News]

Let them out: Iran mass released thousands of prisoners in efforts to prevent an outbreak behind bars. [The Marshall Project]

Breaking: the first inmate in Brussels tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. [The Brussel Times]

Make it, don’t use it: Inmates in New York are making hand sanitizer they aren’t even allowed to use. [The Washington Post]

Transparency: The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is asking California to release their COVID-19 plan out of fears it is inadequate. [Los Angeles Times]

One solution: Morgan County Jail in Alabama has a plan to use extra space to quarantine inmates if they get sick - they have a whole unused floor. But most jails and prisons are at or over capacity.

Private prisons: Elizabeth Warren, ever the voice speaking to private prisons, asked the companies to release their plans for the coronavirus. [Mother Jones]

Temp check: NY judge orders temperatures checked before people are brought in for court appearances. [WCBS 880]

Clean it up: New Jersey jails are using regular lock downs to sanitize the jail and others are increasing orders of sanitizing items. []

You not us: In Pennsylvania some jails are following state procedures, some are not. [PA Post]

Stop it: In Washington, courts are proactively trying to prevent the spread in the court houses. [Seattle Times]

These are the known changes to family visitation. If they are verified, a star marks them* [not comprehensive].
The Marshall Project is collecting news links here.

AND people, take this seriously. wash YOUR damn HANDS. See the CDC updates here. With special concerns or stories about COVID-19 reach out to

The Des drops into your inbox weekly with a collection of small and digestible snippets concerning the criminal justice system. It promises to be humanizing, spunky, and educational. Our name: Des is short for Desmoterion, “place of chains”, used to describe prisons in ancient Athens. We like the idea of the chains because incarceration expands far beyond prisons to laws, policies, belief systems, and private industry.

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