Yesenia Lara spoke to her uncle on the phone nearly every day until May 1. Raul Rodriguez, 61, who was in a Texas county jail after a DUI conviction, had struggled with alcoholism but was a loving man who was “outgoing, always laughing,” she said.
He told her there were about 15 to 20 other inmates in his cell and that they cut up shirts to use as face masks. He mentioned his throat hurt.
And then she didn’t hear from him again. A little more than two weeks after their last conversation, she said authorities notified her family he had died of Covid-19.
“My uncle was a strong man,” Lara said. “He still had life in him. And I feel like that was just taken from him.”
Rodriguez is one among hundreds of thousands of people who have been infected with Covid-19 inside the country’s jails and prisons – and among hundreds who have died.
There have been more than 330,000 cases among prison inmates, according to the Covid Prison Project, which tracks Covid-19 across the nation’s correctional facilities, and more than 1,900 deaths. Thousands more cases have been detected across the nation’s jails, where experts say Covid-19 data is scarce and hard to track. And it’s not just inmates: More than 77,000 prison staff tested positive and more than 110 have died, according to the project.
“If we just purely look at the epidemiology of Covid-19 where the outbreaks have been, it’s really hard to ignore jails and prisons,” says Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-founder of the project. “They’ve really been the epicenter in many ways.”
As the pandemic enters a new chapter, with two authorized Covid-19 vaccines on the US market, leading public health professionals have called for incarcerated people and corrections staff to be prioritized in vaccinations. It’s the nation’s moral responsibility, several experts told CNN, but also a move that will help in the recovery of other communities.
“Prisons and jails are not a place apart, they’re very connected to the communities that they’re in,” Brinkley-Rubinstein said. “We have staff and people who are released from jail and prison, moving out of the correctional space into their home communities. And if you have exposure in prisons or jails, then you’re likely to bring that exposure into the surrounding community.”
In its vaccine-allocation recommendations, the CDC’s advisory committee listed corrections officers in Phase 1b, alongside other groups the agency deemed frontline essential workers. And while incarcerated populations aren’t explicitly mentioned in any of the phases, the group said jurisdictions may choose to vaccinate them at the same time as staff.
But weeks into vaccinations across the US, state leaders have offered few details on the vaccination of corrections facilities – and their prioritization differs vastly across the country.
Many worry that – amid an already slow vaccine rollout – hard-hit jails and prisons, and those who live and work inside, will again be left behind.
Small cells, little PPE and rampant infections
Since the pandemic’s start, jails and prisons have served as petri dishes for the virus.
The Covid-19 case rate reported in state and federal prisons was more than four times the rate of cases in the general population, according to a September report presented to the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice. The death rate was double the rate of the general population, the commission said in December. In Texas alone, the University of Texas at Austin in November found there had been more than 230 Covid-19 deaths in the state’s correctional facilities, including both staff and incarcerated people.
“If you look at the housing areas – cells, for example – there may be a 45-foot square foot cell with two people in it. You can’t socially distance in a cell that size,” Michele Deitch, the study’s lead author, previously told CNN. “It’s an open toilet next to the bunk bed. All of the things that you want to do to take precautions in the outside world, you can’t do there.”
But that’s not all. While jails and prisons struggled with proper isolation protocols, many did not provide adequate personal protective equipment, the commission’s report said, and testing and contact-tracing strategies varied by area.
Nonprofit Essie Justice Group and online racial justice organization Color of Change surveyed more than 700 people with an incarcerated loved one and found more than half of responders said their loved one had at least one underlying health condition the CDC deems at higher risk for Covid-19 complications. About 30% said their loved one did not have access to medical care. Only 16% said their loved one’s corrections facility practiced any kind of social distancing.
“The conditions inside are abhorrent,” said Rena Karefa-Johnson, director of campaigns and advocacy at the Essie Justice Group. “Incarcerated people should have the same access to the vaccine, level of care and timeliness as people outside.”
Protective gear wasn’t sufficient for staff either and it’s often “still a fight” to get some, said Jeff Ormsby, executive director for AFSCME Texas Corrections Union.
“We’re hearing issues all the time of officers having to wear the same mask for 10 to 15 days,” he said. “Being sent into quarantine units without the proper gear.”