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How Prisons Across the Globe Are Dealing With Coronavirus Outbreaks

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  • Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons are a growing threat that could entirely overwhelm the healthcare system and seriously harm efforts to flatten the epidemic curve.
  • Inmates are a high-risk group for an outbreak because they live in cramped, unsanitary conditions, have notoriously bad medical care, and a high percentage of them are old or have pre-existing conditions.
  • Workers and visitors are in-and-out of prisons and similar detention facilities frequently, which also increases the risk of spread.
  • In response, some states and countries are releasing prisoners to pre-empt the spread, while prison breaks over coronavirus fears and anger continue to occur in other places.

Incarceration and the Coronavirus

With the influx of constant news about the coronavirus, there is a huge population of people who are being left out of most mainstream conversations— prisoners.

But here’s the thing: it is incredibly important to include prisoners in discussions about coronavirus and public health for a number of reasons.

This is especially true for the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rates in world by far, holding around 2.3 million people in prisons, jails, psychiatric hospitals, immigration detention centers, and other similar facilities.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, even the states with the lowest incarceration rates still lock up more people than nearly every other country in the world.

This is not just a human rights and criminal justice reform issue, but a public health issue as well.

Incarceration facilities are exceptionally high risk when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus. Just think about it: the vast majority of incarcerated people can not social distance. In U.S. prisons, multiple people share cells, bathrooms, eating areas, and laundry facilities.

On top of that, most inmates live in highly unsanitary conditions. Oftentimes toilets do not have lids and double as sinks where people wash their hands and brush their teeth. In some places, soap might only be available for purchase at the commissary.

That in itself discourages proper hygiene, and it is exacerbated by the fact that most prisons do not allow hand sanitizer because of its alcohol content.

These circumstances are made worse by a number of other structural issues. Prisoners are notoriously underserved medically. In many places, basic medical care is often delayed or denied.

Those factors make it even more likely that there could be a situation in which the virus is either rapidly spreading undetected or brushed off as the flu.

Further complicating matters is the fact that a large percentage of prisoners are already considered at-risk populations. 

According to the New York Times, around 40% of incarcerated people suffer from chronic health conditions — meaning some of them are immunocompromised — and there are about 274,000 people that are 50 or older in state and federal prisons.

Risk to the Curve & Public Health

Another major concern with the coronavirus and prisons is the high potential for spillover to the communities outside of facilities if there were to be an outbreak.

At most prisons, there are countless people going in and out everyday including employees, health care workers, vendors, visitors, educators and more. In some towns, the local jail or prison is a major employer.

Even beyond that, the jail population itself is exceedingly transitory: more than half of the people in jails are only in there for two or three days.

There is also significant overlap between incarcerated and homeless populations. 

“Someone released from a jail, then, could infect people in a homeless shelter, or vice versa, causing an outbreak that could bounce back and forth between both places, infecting far more people than would be in a jail or homeless shelter alone,” said Tyler Winkelman, a doctor and researcher at the University of Minnesota who focuses on health care and criminal justice.

As a result, an outbreak in a prison or similar facility poses a serious threat to public health and efforts to fight the coronavirus.

“Coronavirus in these settings will dramatically increase the epidemic curve, not flatten it, and disproportionately for people of color,” said Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system.

Failure to flatten the curve could prolong the need for everyone to practice social distancing and isolation.

Previous coverage on flattening the curve

Examples in States & Other Countries

Unfortunately, when it comes to coronavirus outbreaks in prisons, most experts believe it is a matter of when not if— but there is still time to prepare. 

Most experts suggest pretty basic solutions, like making hand washing and other good hygiene practices easier and more accessible. Others also recommend canceling activities and non-medical visits, especially near areas that already have an outbreak.

Some experts also point to recent guidance by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. In addition to increased screenings, the guidance also recommends some more unconventional possibilities, like releasing some inmates either permanently or temporarily and asking police to consider scaling down arrests for certain crimes to avoid adding more people to the mix.  

There are already some places that are taking precautions. Last week, the Federal Department of Correction announced visits from family, friends, and attorneys will be stopped in all 122 federal correctional facilities in the U.S.

After an employee at a correctional facility in Pennsylvania tested positive, 34 inmates and staffers were quarantined. 

The New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) is screening people for flu-like symptoms and looking at other measures. Those practices will likely be increased, as it was reported Monday that a NYCDOC investigator died from the coronavirus.

Some places have even started releasing inmates. Hundreds of inmates were released from a county jail in Ohio over the weekend.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also announced Monday that it is also releasing some inmates as well as cutting down on how many people it puts in custody.

Iran, which has the third-highest number of confirmed cases after China and Italy, has temporarily released a total of 85,000 prisoners since last week.

There is pressure in other countries too. Last week, Italy experienced several jailbreaks, specifically in Milan, after prisoners rioted over concerns that they were not being properly cared for amid the outbreak.

According to reports, 16 prisoners were able to break free and are still at large.

In Brazil, hundreds of prisoners escaped from four different prisons on Monday, reportedly over fears of coronavirus and anger over Easter holidays and visits being canceled.

As more countries consider their options, experts hope that the U.S. will learn from the actions they take.

“We can learn what works in terms of mitigation from other countries who have seen spikes in coronavirus already,” said Winkelman. “But none of those countries have the level of incarceration that we have in the United States.”

See what others are saying: (Vox) (The New York Times) (CNN)

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Lincoln College to Close for Good After COVID and Ransomware Attack Ruin Finances

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Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.


One of the Only Historically Black Colleges in the Midwest Goes Down

After 157 years of educating mostly Black students in Illinois, Lincoln College will close its doors for good on Friday.

The college made the announcement last month, citing financial troubles caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a ransomware attack in December.

Enrollment dropped during the pandemic and the administration had to make costly investments in technology and campus safety measures, according to a statement from the school.

A shrinking endowment put additional pressure on the college’s budget.

The ransomware attack, which the college has said originated from Iran, thwarted admissions activities and hindered access to all institutional data. Systems for recruitment, retention, and fundraising were completely inoperable at a time when the administration needed them most.

In March, the college paid the ransom, which it has said amounted to less than $100,000. But according to Lincoln’s statement, subsequent projections showed enrollment shortfalls so significant the college would need a transformational donation or partnership to make it beyond the present semester.

The college put out a request for $50 million in a last-ditch effort to save itself, but no one came forward to provide it.

A GoFundMe aiming to raise $20 million for the college only collected $2,452 as of Tuesday.

Students and Employees Give a Bittersweet Goodbye

“The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense,” David Gerlach, the college’s president, said in a statement.

Lincoln counts nearly 1,000 enrolled students, and those who did not graduate this spring will leave the institution without degrees.

Gerlach has said that 22 colleges have worked with Lincoln to accept the remaining students, including their credits, tuition prices, and residency requirements.

“I was shocked and saddened by that news because of me being a freshman, so now I have to find someplace for me to go,” one student told WMBD News after the closure was announced.

When a group of students confronted Gerlach at his office about the closure, he responded with an emotional speech.

“I have been fighting hard to save this place,” he said. “But resources are resources. We’ve done everything we possibly could.”

On April 30, alumni were invited back to the campus to revisit the highlights of their college years before the institution closed.

On Saturday, the college held its final graduation ceremony, where over 200 students accepted their diplomas and Quentin Brackenridge performed the Lincoln Alma Mater.

Last year, 1,043 schools in the U.S. were the victim of ransomware attacks, including 26 colleges or universities, according to an analysis by Emsisoft.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Herald Review) (CNN)

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U.S. Tops One Million Coronavirus Deaths, WHO Estimates 15 Million Worldwide

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India’s real COVID death toll stands at about 4.7 million, ten times higher than official data, the WHO estimated.


One Million Dead

The United States officially surpassed one million coronavirus deaths Wednesday, 26 months after the first death was reported in late February of 2020.

Experts believe that figure is likely an undercount, since there are around 200,000 excess deaths, though some of those may not be COVID-related.

The figure is the equivalent of the population of San Jose, the tenth-largest city in the U.S., vanishing in just over two years. To put the magnitude in visual perspective, NECN published a graphic illustrating what one million deaths looks like.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the White House predicted between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans would die from the coronavirus in a best-case scenario.

By February 2021, over half a million Americans had died of COVID.

The coronavirus has become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. behind heart disease and cancer.

The pandemic’s effects go beyond its death toll. Around a quarter of a million children have lost a caregiver to the virus, including about 200,000 who lost one or both parents. Every COVID-related death leaves an estimated nine people grieving.

The virus has hit certain industries harder than others, with food and agriculture, warehouse operations and manufacturing, and transportation and construction seeing especially high death rates.

People’s mental health has also been affected, with a study in January of five Western countries including the U.S. finding that 13% of people reported symptoms of PTSD attributable to actual or potential contact with the virus.

Fifteen Million Dead

On Thursday, the World Health Organization estimated that nearly 15 million people have died from the pandemic worldwide, a dramatic revision from the 5.4 million previously reported in official statistics.

Between January 2020 and the end of last year, the WHO estimated that between 13.3 million and 16.6 million people died either due to the coronavirus directly or because of factors somehow attributed to the pandemic’s impact on health systems, such as cancer patients who were unable to seek treatment when hospitals were full of COVID patients.

Based on that range, scientists arrived at an approximate total of 14.9 million.

The new estimate shows a 13% increase in deaths than is usually expected for a two-year period.

“This may seem like just a bean-counting exercise, but having these WHO numbers is so critical to understanding how we should combat future pandemics and continue to respond to this one,” Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious diseases specialist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not linked to the WHO research, told the Associated Press.

Most of the deaths occurred in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

According to the WHO, India counts the most deaths by far with 4.7 million, ten times its official number.

See what others are saying: (NBC) (U.S. News and World Report) (Scientific American)

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Official Says Missing Alabama Convict and Corrections Officer Had a “Special Relationship”

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Authorities have also said they now believe the officer willfully helped the inmate escape.


New Information on Missing Inmate & Officer

Authorities in Alabama revealed Tuesday that Assistant Director of Corrections for Lauderdale County Vicky White, who is accused of helping a murder suspect Casey Cole White escape from jail, had a “special relationship” with the inmate.

“Investigators received information from inmates at the Lauderdale County Detention Center over the weekend that there was a special relationship between Director White and inmate Casey White,” Lauderdale County Sheriff Rick Singleton said in a statement. “That relationship has now been confirmed through our investigation by independent sources and means.”

Officials have previously said that the two are not related, despite their shared surname.

Singleton elaborated on the nature of the relationship while speaking to CNN later on Tuesday. He said it took place “outside of her normal work hours” and added that although it did not include “physical contact,” he still characterized it as “a relationship of a different nature.”

“We were told Casey White got special privileges and was treated differently while in the facility than the other inmates,” Singleton said.

Also on Tuesday, the Marshals Service issued a statement confirming that authorities believe Officer White had helped Mr. White escape. The authorities described her as a “wanted fugitive” and offered a $5,000 reward for any information on her whereabouts. Earlier this week, the Marshals Service also offered a $10,000 reward for any information that could lead to Mr. White’s capture.

Singleton echoed the belief that Officer White’s actions were intentional while speaking to Good Morning America Wednesday.

“I think all of our employees and myself included were really hoping that she did not participate in this willingly. But all indications are that she absolutely did,” he said. “We’re very disappointed in that because we had the utmost trust in her as an employee and as an assistant director of corrections.”

Mysterious Escape

Vicky White and Casey White were last seen leaving the Lauderdale County jail just after 9:30 a.m. Friday. The officer told other employees that she was taking the inmate to a mental health evaluation at a courthouse just down the road, and that she would be going to a medical appointment after because she was not feeling well.

Officials later said her actions violated an official policy that required two sworn deputies to transport people with murder charges. In 2020, Mr. White was charged with two counts of capital murder in connection to a fatal stabbing he confessed to and was awaiting his trial in Lauderdale County.

Mr. White was also serving time for what officials said was a “crime spree” in 2015 which included home invasion, carjacking, and a police chase. He had also previously tried to escape from jail, police said.

It wasn’t until 3:30 p.m. on Friday that a jail employee reported to higher-ups that he was not able to reach Officer White on her phone and that Mr. White had never been returned to his cell.

During a press conference that same night, Singleton told reporters that there had never even been a scheduled mental health evaluation. At another briefing Monday, he announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for Vicky on a charge of “permitting or facilitating an escape in the first degree.”

At the time, Singleton said it was unclear “whether she did that willingly or was coerced or threatened” but added, “we know for sure she did participate.” 

See what others are saying: (CNN) (ABC News) (NPR)

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