Are we ready to deal with Coronavirus in jails? It doesn’t appear that way. An inmate from the King County Jail located in downtown Seattle was given medical attention in a hospital for coronavirus infection. According to the county, there are currently no cases of the coronavirus in jails within King County. However, the discovery of the coronavirus in a correctional facility within the county is a huge cause for concern as the infection can spread rapidly in such locations. What’s even more troubling is the fact the county is known to be a hotspot for the coronavirus with 85 confirmed cases.
Coronavirus in Jail: An Inevitable Threat
According to the co-director at the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute, Minneapolis, Tyler Winkelman, the spread of Coronavirus in US prisons is inevitable. He has cautioned all prison authorities to expect the imminent arrival of coronavirus in jails and urged them to take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread and fear of Covid-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019). Winkelman said that prisons should have a plan in place to monitor infections and provide treatment for anyone with symptoms of the disease.
One of the challenges associated with jails is that all kinds of people enter and leave such facilities, besides all the inmates. There is the jail staff that enters jails and leaves them on a regular basis, in addition to daily visitors. Jails are vulnerable to infections since there are multiple entry points through which viruses can enter these facilities. Therefore, outbreaks of diseases and the flu, in particular, is a common occurrence at jails. During the swine flu epidemic of 2009, jails in the US had to deal with a high rate of infections.
Winkelman says the coronavirus is known to spread fast in indoor spaces of nursing homes, cruise ships, and jails. Once inside, the virus can spread rapidly. Hence, the concern about the spread of coronavirus in jails is real.
Compounding the issue further is that many incarcerated persons also suffer from medical conditions, such as HIV and diabetes, which are known to increase the mortality rate of the disease.
How to Stop the Spread of Coronavirus in Jails
Winkelman has provided a few suggestions to address the situation in jails and make the inmates and staff less susceptible to coronavirus infections. One step is to stop incarcerating people convicted of low-level offenses.
An example of this can be seen in Iran. Authorities in the country have temporarily released tens of thousands of inmates who are deemed not to be a threat to public security. This temporary release was ordered to curb the spread of coronavirus in jails.
There may be other moral arguments to justify this temporary release. Winkelman argues that poor people should not be kept in prisons merely because they are incapable of paying their bond amount. Doing so will exacerbate the risk of spreading the coronavirus in jails. At such a critical occasion, it is best to keep as few people as possible in prisons to mitigate the risk of coronavirus in jails.
Jail authorities in Sonoma County, California, are questioning incoming persons about their travel history, contact with infected persons and checking for symptoms of the illness. Winkelman says that taking such measures is imperative in the prevailing circumstances. He said that it is vital that jail staff take all possible measures to ensure that no infected enters their facility.
Lack of Resources to Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus in Jails
Some prisons and correctional facilities in the US are sufficiently equipped to monitor, screen and even treat persons found to have symptoms of the disease. However, many jails lack the amenities for such necessary steps. At these prisons, the healthcare facilities are short in terms of both equipment and staff required for screening and treatment of infected persons. This raises the risk that incarcerated persons and jail staff will not be monitored as frequently as they should be. Another risk is that cases of coronavirus may go undetected due to the lack of amenities.
Winkelman says that screening and monitoring should be a continuous process rather than something that is done just once or twice a week. But even if coronavirus cases are discovered, there is the possibility that there may not be enough rooms for quarantine. For instance, the Hennepin County jail possesses just 4 rooms for quarantine. Other spaces have been arranged for the purpose of quarantine, but this is clearly meager. There may be other jails that are short on facilities for quarantine, such as the Hennepin County jail. This will increase the threat of coronavirus in jails.
Covid-19 Preventive Measures
Homer Venters, who was formerly the chief medical officer within the New York City Jail, said it is incumbent on prison facilities to take preventive measures to stop the spread of coronavirus in jails. He said that persons exhibiting symptoms of the disease should all be placed together in an isolated, enclosed space.
Homer is of the opinion that the reason the swine flu spread extensively in prisons was because of the location of inmates. The location was determined by security factors and not by the state of their health. To stop the spread of coronavirus in jails, we need to learn from the past and make sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes again.
During disease outbreaks, standard preventive measures like flu vaccines become even more indispensable, according to Winkelman. Although flu vaccines cannot prevent the spread of the coronavirus directly, they do provide one critical advantage that can help avert the spread of coronavirus in jails. Flu vaccines mean fewer people in medical facilities and thus a greater capacity available to handle coronavirus cases. Flu vaccines can also prevent complications and difficulties that arise with handling two different epidemics at the same time.
Unfortunately, many US prisons do not administer flu vaccinations. Even after they became available, more than half of all US prisons did not provide swine flu shots to inmates. In the Maine Correctional Facility, for instance, just ten percent of the inmates received flu shots. This was one of the reasons behind the spread of the epidemic in prison.