In summary

Staff members of California prisons have reached out with descriptions of inadequate PPE and fear for their lives.

By Naomi Sugie, Keramet Reiter and Kristin Turney, Special to CalMatters

Naomi Sugie is an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, nsugie@uci.edu. Keramet Reiter is an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, reiterk@uci.edu. Kristin Turney is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, kristin.turney@uci.edu. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

As we learn more about COVID-19 daily, it is increasingly clear that impacts are largest for individuals with health risks, the economically disadvantaged and people of color. Prisons concentrate these vulnerabilities in a single institution. And institutions with concentrated vulnerabilities put us all at risk.

As scholars of prisons and inequality, we urge our leaders to recognize the importance of centering prisons, and especially prison staff, in the ongoing public health response to COVID-19. 

Prison staff have reached out to us with descriptions of inadequate PPE, confusion about how and when to social distance, and fear for their livelihood and lives. 

Currently, nine of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s 35 facilities have incarcerated people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Thirty-one facilities have employees with self-reported positive tests. Where testing has increased, cases of prisoner infection have skyrocketed to 214 and 454 cases at prisons in Avenal and Chino, respectively.

Avenal and Chino, like most of California’s “prison towns,” have population densities one-tenth, or less, that of California’s major urban areas. But these rural prisons are at the epicenter of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Though often hidden and easily forgotten, prisons are not isolated institutions. Apart from the hundreds of prisoners released every day in California, prisons employ more than 60,000 workers as correctional officers, physicians, social workers and others – often as the primary employer in rural counties.

Concerns about prison vulnerabilities, especially overcrowding, prompted efforts to reduce capacity through early releases and alternatives to incarceration. At best, these efforts will reduce institutional populations by a few percentage points. 

We need to take immediate, concrete measures to support staff, who both work inside these overcrowded and under-resourced facilities and come home to our communities.

Staff are overworked and “under tremendous stress” right now, according to a recent report by a rare external monitor in Washington state. Even apart from COVID-19, the challenging conditions of their jobs are linked directly to higher rates of chronic diseases: high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. These COVID-19 health vulnerabilities, combined with emerging evidence that death rates from COVID-19 are higher in crowded places, mean the death toll of prison outbreaks in places like Lancaster and Chino will soon surpass those in nursing homes.

We need to act now, to stem the spread at current hotspots and prevent acceleration elsewhere.

Every prison employee – not just medical staff – should be treated like a frontline worker, with access to critical supplies like PPE and encouragement to take advantage of Emergency Paid Sick Leave

Widespread testing of asymptomatic incarcerated people and employees is vital to understanding and containing infection. Prison employees need clear, consistent communication encouraging use of all available resources, and the Corrections Department must be transparent about possible PPE and testing supply shortages to activate community and state support. Without these interventions, staff will be unable to safeguard themselves, let alone the prisoners and communities they protect.

Prisons are uniquely vulnerable settings ripe for extensive and prolonged outbreaks. Though the Corrections Department is acutely aware of these issues, remedial efforts are uneven across and within facilities, depending on individual leadership.

Closing the gap between policies and practices is challenging but critical. Promising efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 infections have been undertaken at other vulnerable institutions, such as hospitals and nursing homes. Prisons must be the “third” institutional wave of attention. Prisons, and especially their staff, are as critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting our communities as our hospitals.  

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Naomi Sugie is an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, nsugie@uci.edu. Keramet Reiter is an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, reiterk@uci.edu. Kristin Turney is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, kristin.turney@uci.edu. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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