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'Contagion is Built into the System:' GSU Experts Weigh in on Why Jails are Hotbeds for COVID-19

As shelter-in-place regulations continue to make progress towards flattening the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic, jails and prisons report staggering numbers of inmates and staff testing positive for the virus––and most recently, the death of a Cook County Jail guard to COVID-19.

Cook County Jail is now the largest-known source of virus infection in the nation with nearly 500 testing positive and additional inmates and staff experiencing symptoms. Governors State University experts, Professors Vickii Coffey and Jarrod Shanahan and alumnus Jerry Davis-El, weigh in on why the virus has spread so quickly through the jail and prison system, as well as the limitations of current solutions.

Social Work Professor Vickii Coffey’s most recent research focused on cancer health disparities with populations of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. She was awarded a 2018-19 GSU University Research Grant to conduct a qualitative pilot study on the subject, and views the jails as representative of the potential disaster the virus can have across the nation.

“It’s a microcosm of what’s happening in our communities,” Coffey said.

The Structure of Prison Life

While shelter-in-place orders dominate the state and social distancing becomes the new normal, jails and prisons struggle to accommodate the new protocol. To Coffey this should incite fear. “Imagine being in a situation where you can’t control your movements and your daily activities are governed by those who supervise you. Incarcerated people can’t make social distancing decisions. They can only respond to what they’re told. We’re voluntarily sheltering in place and they’re involuntarily in a place not designed for pandemics, and is now a hotbed of COVID-19,” she said.

The physical and procedural structure of prisons and life in them are not conducive to battling a pandemic. For many, the facilities themselves are a concern. With buildings designed 40-90 years ago, the outdated structures struggle to cope with implementing lifesaving regulations.

“Even air quality and circulation is a problem because you have antiquated heating and cooling systems, and they don’t have the systems in place to control it,” said Coffey.

Exacerbating  the dilemma is daily life while incarcerated which involves constant interaction. In Cook County Jail, detainees live in two-person cells or in a dorm, a sleeping area reserved for model prisoners participating in programs to improve their lives, with potentially 50-100 people. Time during the day is spent in the “common area” with hundreds of people, and upwards of 500 other detainees sharing one toilet.

Jerry Davis-El is a GSU Social Work alumnus as well as co-founder of the GSU club Generating Hope, which seeks to help those affected by mass incarceration. He reflects on his time in Cook County Jail and worries.

“It’s unhealthy to live there and it’s unsanitary. And now with the pandemic, it’s like a death sentence to guys locked up,” said Davis-El, whose criminal record was expunged in 2017 by the Cook County Circuit Court as a nod to his achievements.

Those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, such as fevers, are being isolated, but the process of seeing a doctor is a lengthy procedure. First the detainee must request to see a doctor, an act referred to as “dropping a slip,” which Coffey reports can take 2-5 days to process. Then the detainee will often see a nurse practitioner before it’s deemed necessary for them to see a doctor or be moved to a hospital. Many are worried that the overwhelmed staff won’t be able to cope with the high volume of sick inmates.

“You don’t just go to the doctors. You may see a nurse, but they’re overwhelmed. If you’re in a prison, you pay to see the doctor and you have to ration that allowance you’re given. Many just won’t go for fear they’ll need the money later,” Davis-El said.

To GSU Criminal Justice Professor Jarrod Shanahan, activist and educator on jailing and policing policies, the pandemic is offering a window into the prison system for those unaware.

“Prisons and jails are dangerous for everyone, but especially for sick people. The care they finally receive is abysmal. This is not a reflection of the quality of the healthcare workers who are doing their best, but the conditions in the facilities and the funding allocated to basic health and human services,” Dr. Shanahan said.

“What COVID-19 has done, as it has done across society, is reveal what already existed.”

The Population Profile

The population profile of persons incarcerated can also impact the spread of the virus. Coffey reflects on detainees affected by mental health and substance abuse issues, and worries that these populations won’t understand the danger they are in.

“They are at a disadvantage because the social services provided to the system are now operating under constraints as many employees are working from home and cannot provide the services necessary to the jail. When I talk to these agencies, they tell me they’re short staffed or closed. There isn’t the infrastructure in the jail system to support this population. Those who understand the severity of it don’t have the control to leave a place that was never designed to do more than hold them, and their panic is rising,” she said.

Churning, a situation in which people are frequently detained, released, and returned to jail on a regular basis, presents further danger to detainees and staff. Churning is common in jails, where people are detained for short stays and may return for missing court dates, infraction of house monitoring, or reoffending. This means new and former detainee populations are consistently being re-introduced to the jail and the outside community and potentially exposing more people to the virus.

Davis-El, who alongside his work training social workers throughout high schools in Chicago’s south suburbs, is also in the process of opening his own halfway house in Harvey, details the hazards of being processed in jail.

“It’s dangerous. You’re packed in like slaves on a ship or sardines in a can when you’re being processed. You’re coming from the police station, you haven’t showered, and you’re being transferred from holding cell to holding cell. You could come into contact with the virus at any point,” Davis-El said.

Shanahan views contamination in jails as inevitable.

“Jail is meant to be a short-stay facility with high turnover. Contagion is built into the system.”

The Limitations of Solution

Some jails are releasing inmates who are serving one-year or less sentences on nonviolent crimes to stem the spread of pandemic. To Davis-El, this is key.

“All those in jail for nonviolent crimes should be released. I can’t imagine how they’re feeling right now. You come in with a nonviolent crime and you think you’re coming home. Now you don’t know,” he said.

As the formerly incarcerated people are released, a question has been raised about the validity of the inmates being in the jails at all. For Shanahan this has revealed a larger underlying issue.

“Getting them out should be the first step: release as many people as possible. There are mass releases all over the country, and what that should communicate is that those people being released didn’t belong there in the first place,” he said.

Coffey echoes the call to release prisoners but worries about the future.

“Can we release them and be realistic that they will be received into the communities with no help? We know a lot of transitional programs are not inclined to let in new people in order to protect those currently living there during the pandemic. So where do they go?” she asked.

With her recent focus on cancer research in incarcerated people, Coffey fears a decline in health after formerly incarcerated people are released.

“They are released with no linkages to health care, and if they're lucky, they receive two weeks’ worth of their medications. When it runs out, they don’t have the resources to refill the medications, so their conditions are exacerbated. The populations of people in jail have chronic underlying health conditions and they’re the most vulnerable and susceptible to serious consequences from contracting the virus. Incarcerated people and the system are not prepared for a pandemic of this volume,” she said.

“I think they need to get out, but how they are released is entirely another thing. They need our support.”

While the road to change may seem long, the experts view this as the crucial time to act and assist. For Shanahan, the upsetting of the status quo is an opportunity to create a new normal that suits us better.

“We can say for sure things will not be going back to normal anytime soon. Whether we want that to mean conditions get better or worse for people is largely up to us.”