Jails face coronavirus in close quarters

This is how the over 2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. are at high risk because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dealing with the coronavirus outbreak in prisons

“If you have a ticking time bomb in your city and there's something you can do about it, why would you just let it explode?” Brut spoke with Dr. Jonathan Giftos, the former medical director at Rikers Island, regarding the coronavirus pandemic and how it is being handled in prisons. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise among incarcerated people. Now, health experts and advocates are sounding the alarm on a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

They aren’t protected

“Jails simply cannot protect patients or staff from pandemic viruses like coronavirus. Jails are not closed systems. They have an enormous amount of flux of people in custody coming and going, as well as 24/7 officers and health care workers… Hand-washing is something that's very difficult to do frequently in correctional settings due to limited access to hand sanitizer or soap.”, Dr. Giftos explains. The number of incarcerated people in the U.S. exceeds 2 million – and those 55 and older are a growing share of the detained population. This group is also the most at risk. In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, more than 139 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported as of March 29, 2020 on Rikers Island – the second-largest jail system in the country.

Minimizing the effects of the virus

“When you have a viral pandemic that is spreading at an exponential rate across the city. The health care team in correctional settings can only do so much to minimize the harms. Eventually, the most vulnerable people in correctional settings are going to be exposed. A population of them are going to experience severe complications of respiratory failure requiring ICU admission. The consequences of unchecked rapid transmission is going to impact everybody across the city. And it is really important for this city to not neglect congregate settings like this.”, he continues. Amid mounting calls for depopulation, counties and states are releasing thousands of incarcerated people from jails – including individuals on probation and low-level offenders. “The only way to minimize or mitigate the harms of coronavirus in correctional settings is to depopulate. And that is to say, to release to the community as many people as possible with a focus on those at highest risk.”, he states. The pressure is now mounting on the federal prison system – with advocates and lawmakers urging the Trump Administration to free at-risk incarcerated people and avoid a public health catastrophe.