Friday, May 15, 2020

Crowded rural prisons could usher in pandemic health care crisis in rural America

Meatpacking plants became covid-19 hotspots because of the difficulty in observing social distancing and hygiene practices. Prisons could go the same way and for many of the same reasons. And since almost 70 percent of prisons are in non-metropolitan areas, an outbreak could spread the virus to the rural communities through prison workers and overwhelm local health care resources, L.J. Dawson reports for Kaiser Health News.

"A breakdown of New York Times data tracking covid-19 cluster sites on April 26 revealed that out of 100 top cluster sites, 35 were tied to correctional facilities. In comparison, 28 percent of infections were linked to nursing homes," Tana Ganeva reports for The Intercept. "Those numbers are astounding when you consider that nursing home residents are at much higher risk of serious infection because of their age, while incarcerated people and prison staff vary in age. Seven of the top 10 cluster sites are linked to American prisons or jails."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are frequently moved to prisons after weeks in crowded and unsanitary detention camps on the border, alarming prisoners who protest that not enough precautions have been taken to screen the sick. Public health and corrections officials have warned that conditions in prisons and jails could spread the disease.

But many of the rural hospitals that would need to care for sickened prisoners have struggled in recent years, and more than 120 have closed nationwide in the past decade, Dawson reports. County jails are a problem too: a report from The Justice Collaborative last month found that 12% of people in jails nationwide (and up to one-third in some states) are in counties without any intensive care unit beds.

The prison-related death toll could top 100,000 if incarcerated populations are not dramatically reduced, according to an epidemiological model released last week from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many cities, counties and states have been releasing non-violent inmates in recent weeks, making fewer arrests, and suspending visitation in an effort to keep prisons and jails from becoming too crowded. Prison reform organization The Vera Institute for Justice recently released recommendations for how jails and prisons can reduce the spread of the virus.

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