‘Prisons Are Bacteria Factories’; Elderly Most at Risk

By: - March 25, 2020 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This story was updated March 25 to include information about a Texas inmate who tested positive for COVID-19.

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas — Here in the Estelle prison unit, most of the male inmates in the geriatric dormitory first ran afoul of the law years or even decades ago, convicted of crimes ranging from murder and sex offenses to forgery and repeat DWIs.

Today, any outward hint of menace has evaporated. White-haired, frail and often tethered to canes or wheelchairs, they live in small rectangular cubicles and while away the days in unwavering sameness.

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, prisoner advocates are warning of the potential for a disastrous outbreak among inmates. The elderly are most vulnerable, and the U.S. inmate population is aging. Jails and prisons, crowded places where social distancing is nearly impossible, are breeding grounds for contagious disease.

“These prisons are bacteria factories,” said Rick Raemisch, a consultant and former executive director at the Colorado Department of Corrections. “I don’t think people understand the gravity of what’s going to happen if this runs in a prison, and I believe it’s inevitable.

“You’re going to see devastation that’s unbelievable.”

New York inmates tested positive at Rikers Island and at a regional detention center in Brooklyn. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported its first two positive cases of COVID-19 this week: an inmate and an employee. A 37-year-old inmate has been medically isolated, and other inmates and staff who may have had contact with him are now being medically restricted. The contract employee was ordered to self-quarantine. The employee had contact with other prison workers and inmates, but so far none of them has developed symptoms.

While state prisons have resisted calls to release inmates, several large county and municipal jurisdictions have freed hundreds of jail inmates deemed low-risk, including seniors and those in poor health.

New Jersey plans to release as many as a thousand people from its county jails, including inmates jailed for probation violations and those sentenced for low-level offenses. Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that New York City may release more than 200 inmates, according to news reports. Los Angeles County and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County also have released prisoners.

Prisoner advocacy groups in more than a half-dozen states, including Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan, have called on governors to release state prisoners, especially elderly inmates, through compassionate release or medical furlough.

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David Montgomery
David Montgomery

David Montgomery is a Stateline correspondent based in Austin, Texas, where he covers state government and politics.