The coronavirus pandemic has already left a trail of destruction inside America’s jails and prisons.

Since the onset, at least 414,500 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons have contracted COVID-19 and at least 2,556 have died from it. We don’t know these numbers for jails, which mostly imprison people who have not been convicted of a crime and where deaths are notoriously difficult to track. These official estimates are also almost surely undercounts. But we do know that the rate of infection inside prisons during the first year of the pandemic was more than three times higher than for the rest of the country, as The New York Times reported in April.

Now comes the delta variant.

The more easily transmissible COVID-19 mutation presents a grave threat to the nation’s incarcerated population — and by most indications, the system will yet again fail to protect them. The fundamental structure of the country’s prison system, which relies on cramming people in close proximity to one another in poorly ventilated buildings, makes detention facilities among the most dangerous places to be during an infectious outbreak. With some exceptions, most prison systems haven’t done nearly enough to reduce populations to safe levels.

While vaccines are now widely available, in most of the country, the people who work inside prisons and jails are not required to get vaccinated. In several systems, the prison staff — the people who are the most likely to bring the virus inside the facilities — have far lower vaccination rates than the incarcerated population.

Save for the inevitable death certificates, we may not know how bad this will get. Mass testing is uncommon, perhaps because of the negative headlines such transparency can elicit: After mass testing at a prison in Ohio revealed that 80% of the incarcerated tested positive, the state switched to what it claimed was a more targeted testing approach.

As the fall and winter flu seasons approach and delta surges, there may still be time to protect vulnerable people inside jails and prisons. But not much.

“There is still an opportunity to mitigate the effects of delta and the other variants that are going to siege correctional facilities,” said Forrest Behne, a policy analyst with the COVID Prison Project. “And the answer is vaccination and decarceration.”

Dangerous Vaccine Refusals

Unlike the incarcerated population, staffers enter and exit detention facilities each day, making them the most likely to inadvertently bring the virus inside. Although there are breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals, people who are vaccinated are less likely to get infected — which means they are also less likely to transmit the virus.

When COVID-19 vaccines were first rolled out, there was extensive coverage of vaccine skepticism among the incarcerated — many of whom have understandable reasons to be wary of the medical care they are offered. But in many states — as well as the federal prison system — vaccination rates are higher among incarcerated people than staff. According to UCLA Law’s COVID Behind Bars, 66% of people who are incarcerated in Alabama have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to just 23% for staff. In California, UCLA found, 77% of the incarcerated are fully or partially vaccinated but only 57% of staff. In Minnesota, it’s 94% for the incarcerated and 55% for staff. In Pennsylvania, it’s 90% of the incarcerated and 25% of staff. The list goes on.

“The virus continues to make its way into our prisons because the vaccination rates for the people who work in the prisons are much lower. And that puts our clients at peril,” said Alison Hardy, a senior staff attorney at the Prison Law Office, which represents people imprisoned in California who are being denied adequate medical care. “More than anything, the thing that will offer the best protection for the people who are living inside is if we can make sure that everyone who walks in there and walks out every day has the vaccine.”

Earlier this month, California’s Department of Public Health ordered workers who provide health care to people in correctional facilities to get vaccinated. The order also includes “persons not directly involved in delivering health care, but who could be exposed to infectious agents that can be transmitted in the health care setting (e.g., clerical, dietary, janitorial services, laundry, correctional officers, facilities maintenance staff, administrative, inmate workers, and volunteer personnel).”

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents the state’s correctional officers, is waiting to see how the order will be implemented and has said it will fight against a broad vaccine requirement.

‘A Shell Game’

From the outset of the pandemic, public health experts and people who are incarcerated warned that because of the crowded nature of most detention facilities, it would be impossible to practice social distancing. Since then, some states have taken steps to dramatically reduce prison populations. In New Jersey, which by the summer of 2020 had the highest prison death rate in the country, state lawmakers passed a bill to allow individuals near the end of their sentences to be released early to allow for more space inside the prisons. More than 2,000 people were released as a result of the bill, and the COVID-19 death rate has plummeted.

But population decreases since the beginning of the pandemic don’t necessarily mean incarcerated people have enough space to keep distance from one another. Because so many prisons operate above capacity, a population decrease can mean that a facility is “down” to nearly 100% capacity. In a paper published in the Journal of Urban Health, researchers recommended that 85% capacity or lower should be the “absolute minimum” standard in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.

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In California, the state’s prisons are currently at 109% capacity — down from 131% in March 2020. State officials have publicized their efforts to create more space in prisons by offering early-release opportunities, but “the numbers here were a little bit of a shell game,” said James King, the campaign manager for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “The largest factor in the decrease in the state prison population was a pause on transfers from county jails to the state prisons,” King said, describing a dynamic that is taking place throughout the country.

Already, California’s prison population is up from where it was at the beginning of the year, and there are signs that it will get worse: In July, the state suspended early-release opportunities for those who have less than 180 days in their sentence.

There is a similar trend nationwide. Many states reduced their prison populations in 2020 — but the population drops in prisons “appear to be the result of fewer admissions, not increasing releases,” according to a June Prison Policy Initiative briefing.

In many jails, populations fell in the first year of the pandemic during a concerted effort to minimize the use of pretrial detention. But throughout the country, those measures faded away after several months, causing jail populations to climb back up. Looking at a national sample of 388 county jails, the Prison Policy Initiative found that 88% of facilities decreased their populations from March to July of 2020. But between July 2020 and January 2021, 66% of jails in the sample had population increases.

By June 2021, the average population change across the sample was down just 7%, “suggesting that the early reforms instituted to mitigate COVID-19 have largely been abandoned,” the briefing noted.

In Washington, the state is taking advantage of decreased prison populations by consolidating facilities in an effort to cut costs. The Washington Department of Corrections is currently reporting a population decrease of 4,749 people since March 2020 — a 25% reduction. Over the summer, as COVID-19 cases started climbing back up, Washington’s Department of Corrections announced plans to close several prison units, citing the vacant beds and the need to reduce spending.

The first step in the plan is to “consolidate” units within prison facilities. In other words, instead of taking advantage of the extra space to allow for social distancing and medical isolation, the state is responding to the population reduction by cramming the remaining incarcerated individuals into fewer units. Two units that used to house about 390 people now hold closer to 490, meaning some people who lived in their own cell are now getting a cellmate in the midst of another COVID-19 surge. (Washington Department of Corrections spokeswoman Rachel Ericson noted that the maximum capacity for the two units is 632, which would require most individuals to share a cell.)

Asked for the logic behind crowding people closer together during a pandemic, Ericson said in an email that the department has implemented COVID-19 mitigation strategies based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health officials.

The department claimed that the consolidation was necessary because of staff shortages, but that grouping incarcerated individuals into cohorts helped reduce the spread of the virus and also “allowed for important human connections during the pandemic.”

The window for politicians and corrections officials to take lifesaving action is narrowing. There are at least 131 people incarcerated in California with COVID-19 right now, including one at San Quentin, where an overwhelming majority of prisoners became infected during an outbreak last year. And the active case count is nearly five times higher among staff — suggesting another major outbreak could be imminent.

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