By Jerry Mitchell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting
Fears of the coronavirus are running so high at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman that some employees are staying away, renewing concerns about low staffing at the prison, which is already under investigation by the Justice Department.
Lucinda Addison, a case worker, said she has stayed away from Parchman for a week out of fear of catching COVID-19 because she already suffers from diabetes. Experts say those suffering from diabetes may be at higher risk for complications from the disease.
Her absence from the prison has stoked fears among inmates and family members that someone at the prison already has tested positive for the novel virus.
In recent weeks, some jails across the U.S. have begun to reduce the number of nonviolent, elderly, sick and other at-risk inmates behind bars. New York City’s jail system, which includes notorious Rikers Island, is confronting the nation’s largest coronavirus jail outbreak with dozens of inmates and employees testing positive.
But no similar push has taken place with prisons, despite the fact that the coronavirus has already infected employees and prisoners in at least five states.
“It’s what we’re most afraid of,” said J. Cliff Johnson, director of the University of Mississippi’s MacArthur Justice Center. “Jails and prisons are America’s land-based cruise ships, crammed full of millions, and this disease could infect many of them.”
On March 16, civil rights organizations urged Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to reduce the numbers inside the state’s prisons, four of which are now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Renae Eze, said the governor and his team are doing all they can “to protect the health of staff, inmates and their loved ones. We are confident that (the Mississippi Department of Corrections) will continue to prioritize the well-being of all within their department.”
Marc Stern, a consultant in correctional health care and an assistant affiliate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, compared prisons to nursing homes, where viral infections have spread rapidly.
At least 35 coronavirus deaths have been tied to the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. Deaths have also been reported in nursing homes in New Jersey, Texas, Kansas and Louisiana.
In the wake of such deaths, nursing homes are enforcing a six-foot distance between residents.
Stern believes similar steps should be taken behind bars. “We should be doing everything possible to keep the infection out, reduce the chance of spread, reduce the impact if it does come in by releasing as many as is safely possible of people in high risk groups, like elderly and those with chronic disease, and preparing to release more if necessary and safe in anticipation of reduced workforces,” he said.
Finding a place for inmates to go is a challenge in places like Mississippi, where at any one time up to 800 prisoners who could be paroled can’t go free because they have no home or bed to be released to, according to the state Parole Board.
The state Legislature is considering legislation that would expand the number of transition beds available to inmates, but the pandemic has halted the current session.
Each year, more than 9 million Americans are released from jails and prisons. Many were homeless before their time behind bars, and many become homeless after. Those who spend time behind bars are 10 times or more likely to be homeless than the general public, studies show.
‘The consequences of this are terrifying’
If Mississippi were a nation, it would have the third highest incarceration rate in the world, locking up 1,039 per 100,000. The U.S. locks up less than 700, which is still higher than the Russian Federation (413), Iran (284) or China (118).
Although Mississippi has a penchant for locking up people, it has no penchant for paying those who guard them. The starting salary for a correctional officer is less than $26,000, the lowest in the nation.
Johnson said staffing levels inside Mississippi’s prisons were already “alarmingly low before this pandemic.” (Current vacancy rate? 50 percent.)
If correctional officers wind up being quarantined, “there simply will be no one left to tend to our prisons and jails,” he said. “The consequences of this are terrifying.”
Mississippi Department of Corrections officials say in a release they are doing what they can to prevent the spread of disease inside the prison system. For instance, they say they will screen all inmates and that any officer with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher won’t be allowed to work.
If COVID-19 does make it into the prison system, “MDOC has extensive protocols in place to address those who show symptoms, including immediate quarantine,” the release says. “Protocols are in place to address scenarios when illness is present. This includes treatment at facility infirmaries or outside hospitals, as necessary.”
So far, no prisoners have been diagnosed with the disease. MDOC officials have yet to say how many inmates, if any, have been tested.
Mississippi and other states have halted visits to prisons as well as stopping the transfers of inmates from prison to prison.
But such measures alone may not stop the spread of infection. A CDC investigation found that staff members at Life Care Center nursing home spread the coronavirus to other Seattle-area nursing homes.
Several civil rights organizations have sent a letter to Mississippi judges, calling for the immediate release of pretrial detainees.
‘What do we do with an inmate diagnosed with COVID-19?’
Of the more than 5,200 pretrial detainees incarcerated in the state’s county jails, the vast majority are too poor to afford bail, Johnson said.
“Mississippi sheriffs will be the first to tell you that they do not have the expertise or resources to deal with a pandemic like COVID-19,” he said. “Our county jails have few, if any, full-time licensed medical providers, no proper isolation rooms, and woefully inadequate equipment and training specific to dealing with infectious diseases.”
The MacArthur Center has identified about 2,500 pretrial prisoners in Mississippi jails that have been there more than 90 days. More than 575 have been held there over a year.
“Our broken public defender system creates a class-based system in which poor people languish in jail awaiting trial while people with money are out within 48 hours of being arrested,” said State Public Defender Andre DeGruy.
Will Allen, lawyer for the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association, said sheriffs are working to reduce their jail populations in anticipation of the epidemic, including the release of any inmates they can on bond.
Most sheriffs are not equipped to handle COVID-19, with few able so far to obtain safety equipment such as gloves, masks and gowns, he said.
The most important thing is keeping jails free of COVID-19, he said. While incoming inmates can be tested for temperature and asked health questions, some may have the disease but have yet to show symptoms, he said.
“What do we do with an inmate diagnosed with COVID-19?” he asked. “Some sheriffs may or may not have a place for them. Most counties will not have a negative pressure room (which keeps airborne contaminants inside the room).”
The costs alone for treating these patients “add to a ballooning cost problem” of medical treatment of inmates, he said.
Stern suggests the right approach would be to release some inmates early for public health purposes. Doing so would make it easier to provide social distancing, easier to provide cleaning supplies to inmates and easier to wash towels and clothing, he said.
“All these steps can slow or stop the spread of infection,” he said, not only of the inmates, but of the staff, their family and friends.
Corrections officials could also release the elderly or those with underlying health conditions, all of whom have the highest risk of suffering severe complications from the virus, he said.
This is important, he said, when health care resources are scarce as they are now during a pandemic.
A group of civil rights organizations suggested in a letter to Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves that he release older inmates, pregnant inmates and the “medically fragile” from prison.
In addition, the prisons should release any children in custody to their families, the letter said. “If release is not possible, systems and facilities should take additional precautions to prevent illness among these high-risk populations.”
The letter recommended the elimination of parole and probation revocations for technical violations.
‘This is an urgent matter’
“In 2016, approximately 60,000 people nationwide were returned to state prison …, not because they were convicted of a new criminal offense, but because of a technical violation of probation and parole rules, such as breaking curfew or failing a drug test,” the letter said. “Reducing these unnecessary incarcerations would reduce the risk of transmitting a virus between the facilities and the community, and vice-versa.”
The organizations urged the governor to reduce inmates in prison, jails and juvenile detention centers. “This is an urgent matter,” the letter said. “Having an appropriate, evidence-based plan in place can help prevent an outbreak and minimize its impact if one does occur. Not having one may cost lives.”
Although the CDC recommends frequent hand washing, the state Department of Health’s 2019 inspection of Parchman prison found that dozens of sinks in inmates’ cells weren’t working. Many were missing or had broken knobs. In some, only the hot water or cold water worked, or the sink wouldn’t drain.
Ann Sheets, whose loved one is housed at the Yazoo County Correctional Facility, said she believes Mississippi prisons are failing to keep inmates safe from the coronavirus pandemic.
Recommended hand washing and proper hygiene is difficult when inmates aren’t given enough soap, much less cleaning supplies, she said.
If the virus made its way inside Mississippi prisons, many would fall ill, she said. “You have dozens of inmates in close quarters in every prison, and the lack of proper hygiene on top of that.”
In the end, she said, “it’s a death sentence.”
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters.