Chazidy Bowman’s husband Rufus has had Covid-19 symptoms for two weeks. His labored breathing makes it hard to get words out. He has had a fever, chills, a splitting headache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
But whether he has Covid-19 remains an open question, because Rufus is a 26-year-old inmate at Toledo correctional institution in Ohio, where he is serving a nine-year sentence for assault and robbery.
“My husband could turn critical at any moment, he’s a ticking timebomb,” said Rufus’s wife, Chazidy, who founded the Ohio Prisoner’s Justice League in March, amid the pandemic. “There’s no conversation, it’s him listening because he can’t conjure up the breath to talk to me.”
Jails and prisons continue to be among the largest clusters of Covid-19 in the United States, and experts believe disease will continue to spread inside them and out into the surrounding community without more concerted containment efforts – chief among them, releasing people from confinement.
But the ongoing outbreaks of Covid-19 among incarcerated people come as America is at odds over both policing and how to best control the virus, heading into a cold and flu season that could once again overwhelm hospitals.
“This is almost certainly going to get much worse,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prisons project. The ACLU and its state chapters have launched more than 50 lawsuits against prisons and jails nationally. “The current death count doesn’t reflect the surge in infections we’re seeing in large parts of the country.”
July and August have been the worst months of the pandemic for prisoners, and emotionally taxing for their loved ones. More than 6,000 prisoners were infected each week for six weeks running, leading up to the last week in August, the longest stretch of such high levels of cases.
Over the course of the pandemic, nearly 1,000 prisoners have died of Covid-19 and more than 108,000 have been sickened, according to the Marshall Project.
The US relies disproportionately on these prisons and jails to administer criminal justice, and is responsible for one quarter of the world’s incarcerated population. In 2018, 10 million people were arrested, 5 million went to jail and 2 million were otherwise incarcerated (such as in prison).
The close quarters associated with such high levels of incarceration have proven ripe for the spread of Covid-19. Though the coronavirus has also torn through nursing homes and meatpacking plants jails and prisons have proven especially vulnerable to mass outbreaks. As of 1 September, jails and prisons accounted for 90 of the top 100 outbreak clusters in the country, according to the New York Times. Of the 10 that were not in jails or prisons, all but one – an outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam – were in meat-processing plants.
Bowman’s treatment can further illustrate why it’s so hard to control Covid-19 inside incarcerated settings, and hard for families to get answers. Bowman lives in a cell by himself, but is part of the “general population”, which allows prisoners to be released two hours a day to share showers, phones and socialize.
It was only several days after Bowman began showing Covid-19 symptoms, that he was transferred to a quarantine unit and tested. But neither Chazidy Bowman nor Rufus was ever been given the results of the test, she said, and he was transferred back to the general population still ill without explanation.
“This just isn’t my husband’s story, this is the story of thousands of people fighting this,” Chazidy said. She is now seeking an attorney to help in her husband’s case.
In Georgia, Rhonda Jones, 58, feared for her life when she was the third prisoner crammed into a cell meant for two this July in Clayton county jail in Georgia. She slept on the floor alongside a toilet, which leaked fetid water.
“I have a history of serious respiratory illness and I often have trouble breathing as it is,” she wrote in an affidavit for a lawsuit against the jail. “I am scared I could get sick and die from the coronavirus in this jail.”
Jails, prisons and detention centers also hold the potential to spread Covid-19 into the broader community.
Rural Marion county, Ohio became one of the worst per-capita hotspots in the nation after Covid-19 spread widely inside the local prison. The disease killed 20 incarcerated people and 14 people in the wider community by mid-July, according to the local Marion Star.
In Illinois, researchers found nearly 16% of all the Covid-19 cases could be traced back to the Cook county jail in Chicago, a study published in the journal Health Affairs showed. In that study, neighborhood arrest rates were more predictive of Covid-19 spread than race, poverty or public transit use.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Brendan Solaner, whose recent research has focused on Covid-19 in prisons, and who is an associate professor of health policy management at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Efforts to reduce prison and jail populations could bring down infection rates and prevent the disease from spreading into the broader community. Some states are going to great lengths to try to reduce prison populations.
In New Jersey, state legislators proposed to give prisoners “public health emergency credits” toward early release. In San Francisco, the district attorney enacted a “zero-bail” policy to keep people who were arrested from going to jail in the first place.
But San Francisco also provides a salient example of the controversy surrounding such policies.
In June, just as Covid-19 infection rates nationally were ticking up among incarcerated populations, the San Francisco judicial council ended a broader zero-bail policy, instead allowing counties to decide whether to keep it. In mid-August, the US supreme court has weighed in on coronavirus safety measures in jails. The court’s five conservative justices sided with jail officials.
“What’s going to happen, because it’s already happening, is anything negative that comes out of prison reduction or jail reduction strategies is going to be politicized,” Solaner said. “The public health message gets drowned out because there is so much attention right now on the issues of public safety and law and order.
“People don’t make the best decisions when they’re their fearful selves, on any side of the [political] continuum,” he added, about messages to instill fear about release of people from jail. In the coming months, “We are at risk of making a lot of mistakes.”