America’s Crowded Prisons Are About to Create a Coronavirus Crisis in Rural America

The prison economy has been a lifeline for rural communities for decades, but that lifeline has transformed into a vector for coronavirus.

DULUTH, MN - APRIL 28: New inmates in an observation cell block exited their cell one or two at a time and donned face masks to receive their lunch trays at St. Louis County jail on Tuesday. The St. Louis County jail population has fallen dramatically as fewer arrests are made, which has helped keep a COVID-19 outbreak at bay inside the prison. (Photo by Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
New inmates in an observation cell block exited their cell one or two at a time and donned face masks to receive their lunch trays at St. Louis County jail in Duluth, Minnesota on April 28, 2020. Photo: Alex Kormann/Star Tribune/Getty Images

For the past several decades, rural America’s economic lifeline has been the construction and operation of prisons and immigrant detention centers, both public and for-profit. The 1980s saw the collapse of American manufacturing and a farm crisis that ripped through the countryside. Mass incarceration was well-timed to fill the gap, producing jobs where they were needed. 

But those lifelines have transformed into vectors for coronavirus, putting rural communities at risk of outbreaks. For many Americans, the plight of prisoners produces little sympathy. But in a twist on JFK — “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free” — those outside the prison walls are not immune from what goes on inside them. Those jobs that made the campuses so attractive to local communities are staffed by people who go in and out each day — and what they bring with them could make all the difference in communities where hospitals were already shutting down, a trend exacerbated by Covid-19. 

It’s next to impossible to social distance in jails and prisons. “Correctional facilities are overcrowded, often badly,” explained Aaron Littman, a UCLA School of Law professor who focuses on jail conditions. “It’s important to remember that when we say overcrowded, we mean dozens of people sleeping inches within each other’s faces. They’re using the same toilets. Most don’t have access to liquid hand soap. In short, they are ideal sites for incubating respiratory viruses.”

Guards and other jail staff have to share tight spaces and physically handle the prisoners — and then they go home at night. In some rural areas, there are not many other career choices beyond working in a jail or prison. The average national salary for a prison correctional officer is $47,013. 

In an essay titled “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America,” public policy researcher Tracy Huling points out that there are more prisoners than farmers in some swaths of the United States. She notes that in the 1990s, a new prison or jail sprung up in a rural area at a rate equivalent to every 15 days. So it’s not surprising that there have been outbreaks in areas that don’t otherwise have risk factors, such as crowded public transportation in densely populated urban centers. Marion County, Ohio, has 2,332 confirmed cases, in a population of 66,501. The Marion County prison is currently the top cluster site in the country by far, according to a New York Times analysis.  

“When I read about institutions like in Ohio that are able to test a lot of people, of the positive, most are asymptomatic,” Cheshire County jail superintendent Richard Van Wickler said. “My god, how do you possibly protect other inmates and staff?”

Last week, PBS reported that of federal prisoners who had been tested, 70 percent were found to have the coronavirus. 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. 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. As the Marshall Project reported, so-called prison towns like Palestine, Texas, where correctional facilities are a community’s primary employer, have already seen an explosion of cases. An ACLU report released last week estimates that 100,000 more people will die because of America’s crowded jails. “The United States’ unique obsession with incarceration has become our Achilles heel when it comes to combating the spread of COVID-19,” the ACLU concluded. 

When politicians like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hail the heroism of America’s “essential workers”— be they doctors, police officers, EMTs, grocery workers, or bus drivers— prison and jail staff go unmentioned. It’s a strange lapse, but perhaps an unsurprising one, given that the solution — large scale decarceration — remains politically difficult. 

DULUTH, MN - APRIL 28: Corrections officer John Wohlwend donned a mask on Tuesday while working his shift at the St. Louis County jail. The St. Louis County jail population has fallen dramatically as fewer arrests are made, which has helped keep a COVID-19 outbreak at bay inside the prison. (Photo by Alex Kormann/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

Corrections officer John Wohlwend working his shift at the St. Louis County jail in Duluth, Minn., on April 28, 2020.

Photo: Alex Kormann/Star Tribune/Getty Images

Citing concerns about Covid-19 spread, U.S. Attorney General William Barr issued a memo instructing federal prisons to release incarcerated people who are at risk and who have no history of violence after a 14-day quarantine on March 26. But even carrying out that limited mandate has proven difficult due to overcrowding. In some cases, prisoners being quarantined because they were set for release were in proximity to prisoners who were in quarantine because they were sick. 

Governors, too, announced plans to release some prisoners, which prompted President Donald Trump to lash out and threaten to find ways to stop state executives from doing so. “Some states are letting people out of prison, some people are getting out that are very serious criminals in some states, and I don’t like that, I don’t like it,” he said in a press conference. “We don’t like it, the people don’t like it, and we’re looking to see if I have the right to stop it in some cases.” 

Van Wickler, the Cheshire County jail superintendent, wishes that weren’t the case. “You need to review your population and determine who really needs to be in jail. Who’s a danger. You don’t want nonviolent people in jail. And review who has COPD, asthma, is pregnant, has heart disease, you see what to do to release these people and figure out alternative sanctions like electronic surveillance.”

Infections in meatpacking plants have also received plenty of attention, perhaps due to worries about food supply. But as of May 4, there were seven prisons in the Times’s top 10 cluster sites and three food processing plants. A meatpacking plant is the biggest employer in some rural places, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any community, urban or rural, without a jail or a prison. And prisoners and jail staff are more vulnerable to contracting the disease than meatpacking plant workers. “Unlike a meatpacking plant, where in theory, a diligent worker can opt out of coming to work if they’re sick, that’s not an option for people who are incarcerated,” Littman, the UCLA law professor, said. “Once the infection is inside, its spread is unavoidable. And it’s rapid spread.” 

“Another reason jails and prisons are primary sites is that the quality of access to medical care is limited at the best of times and has gotten even worse now that resources are stretched thin. Staff, including medical staff, getting sick. Officers escorting people to medical appointments are getting sick,” Littman said. Nursing home staff have medical training that can help keep themselves and their wards safer; guards and prison cooks don’t.

“We focus too much on viruses going into the prison. But prison is an incubator,” said Dr. Peter L. Scharf, a public health expert at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center New Orleans. “The guards go in and out. Social distancing for correctional officers is a non-starter. They have to directly supervise the inmates. There’s the issue of correctional officers bringing it into prison or bringing it home from the prison and possibly infecting their families and others.”  

Meanwhile, dozens of incarcerated people The Intercept spoke with are terrified. They watched guards come in with masks before they themselves were issued the protective gear. They were given conflicting information about the Barr memo, including the falsehood that they were safer in prison. And they have major concerns about prisons’ ability to keep them, and members of the community, safe. 

“You have to understand that Coleman Prison Complex is the largest in the nation,” a woman at a federal prison in Florida wrote to The Intercept, referring to the low-security women’s prison, where there was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in January. 

“We have nearly 6,000 inmates. … Coleman sits in [Sumter] County, Florida and is next door neighbors with The Villages, a large wealthy retirement community,” she wrote.

“Its residents make [Sumter] County the county with the ‘oldest’ citizens in the State of Florida. C-19 cases have already begun appearing in The Villages. We will overwhelm the hospitals within days. And if it comes down to a ventilator being needed by an inmate or a retired CEO who is the golfing buddy of the doctor who do you think will get it?” 

Even for the golfing buddy, the odds aren’t great. Roughly 80 percent of people who go on ventilators for coronavirus don’t come off alive.

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