There Is Only One Way to Prevent Mass Deaths in Prisons: Let Them Out

There Is Only One Way to Prevent Mass Deaths in Prisons: Let Them Out

There Is Only One Way to Prevent Mass Deaths in Prisons: Let Them Out

A lawsuit about conditions at Danbury prison shows why it is impossible to keep the incarcerated safe.


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In early April, Christina Korbe started to feel sick. She lost her appetite and sense of smell, her head and body ached, and she coughed with such convulsive power that at one point, she thought she may have fractured a rib.

When Korbe, 51, shared her concerns with the medical department at Federal Correctional Institute (FCI), Danbury, a federal prison in Connecticut, officials did not reply as expected. “I was given no treatment,” she wrote in a signed statement. “Medical told me that my vitals were good and that I was ‘healthy.’”

To help with the pain, Korbe purchased Tylenol from the prison commissary and returned to her living quarters at the FSL, one of three facilities within Danbury. The FSL is a low-security, dormitory-style building—closer to a barracks than a cell house—that currently houses around 130 women, who share bathrooms, sinks, phones, computers, and showers.

In the days that followed, prison officials did not offer Korbe a test for Covid-19, nor did they quarantine her. She was not the only person at the FSL who was ill, either: By mid-April, many women had symptoms consistent with Covid-19, and at night the sounds of people wheezing and gasping for breath filled Danbury.

These details come from a lawsuit filed in federal court last month that describes how prison officials failed or were slow to enact basic public health measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It documents how prisoners struggled to access items like soap and sanitizer, and alleges that officials put off or ignored urgent medical requests—and then threatened disciplinary action against those who spoke out.

“Medical would come around and take slips that we fill out for sick call, but [would] never see nobody,” one recently released prisoner told me. “You never got seen. It was fruitless.”

The prisoner, who has a chronic health condition that puts him at higher risk for Covid-19, spoke on the condition of anonymity. He told me that prisoners in his unit tried to take care of one another, but were forced to make masks from socks, long johns, and T-shirts to try to protect themselves from infection. “We knew there was something going on, but they weren’t telling us anything,” he said. “I was just hoping I could make it out in time.”

In some cases, the lawsuit claims that the treatment of prisoners at Danbury went beyond neglect. Officials collected inaccurate data during temperature checks, and sometimes required individuals with elevated temperatures to drink cold water before being tested again. One of the petitioners, Kenneth Cassidy, wrote in a signed statement that even when nearly 50 people in his unit appeared to have flu-like symptoms, a social worker told him to “stop being a hypochondriac…. there’s nothing we can do.” The same social worker, according to Cassidy, remarked that prisoners were “fucking children with nothing more than a flu.”

Even as it became clear that hundreds of people at Danbury were at risk from potentially fatal Covid-19 complications, prison officials were reluctant to use the powers granted to them by the CARES Act to move them to safer conditions. Under that law, the Bureau of Prisons is allowed to extend the maximum amount of time a person can spend in home confinement, which is typically capped at no more than six months. But as of May 4, just 21 prisoners at Danbury had been released to home confinement, and not a single petition for compassionate release had been approved by warden Diane Easter, although incarcerated people had submitted more than 240 requests, according to documents filed in federal court.

Danbury’s officials also failed to sufficiently heed Attorney General William Barr’s warning that there were “significant levels of infection” at the prison. On April 3, Barr’s office explicitly told the Bureau of Prisons to “maximize appropriate transfers to home confinement” and authorized the agency to transfer incarcerated people to home confinement even in cases where electronic monitoring was unavailable as part of its “profound obligation to protect the health and safety of all inmates.”

On May 12, Michael Shea, a federal judge in Connecticut, wrote that conduct by officials at Danbury likely amounted to “deliberate indifference” of the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. In his order, Shea required that Danbury overhaul its procedures for home confinement and other forms of release so “that is both far more accelerated and more clearly focused on the critical issues of inmate and public safety.” He added that the impossibility of social distancing at Danbury meant that incarcerated people remain at great risk of injury.

Danbury is one of many facilities where incarcerated people and their allies have fought to achieve some measure of dignity and safety in the face of a pandemic that has already infected more than 25,000 people living and working in carceral spaces. Ten of the 15 largest clusters of Covid-19 are in prisons and jails, which have been hotbeds of infection not only because their architecture precludes meaningful social distancing, but also because a growing share of their population is elderly and infirm. In 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that about 40 percent of incarcerated people have a chronic health condition and that about 75 percent of those in prison are overweight or obese. The rates of diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular problems—conditions that place people at greater risk of suffering complications from Covid-19—have increased among prisoners over the last decade as well.

Class action suits have had mixed success in federal courts to date. In April, a judge dismissed a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of incarcerated people at FCI Oakdale, the Louisiana prison that was the site of the Bureau of Prisons’ first fatal outbreak; the same day, a different judge ruled favorably in a case brought on behalf of incarcerated people at a federal prison in Ohio, arguing that officials “fight a losing battle” to contain Covid-19 in the face of “shockingly limited available testing and the inability to distance inmates.”

Lawyers from the Department of Justice have consistently moved to dismiss class action cases that would enlarge custody or release incarcerated people at risk from Covid-19 by arguing that federal judges lack the authority to hear them. In most situations, the argument is not a good one, according to Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University and one of the country’s leading experts on habeas corpus. He told me that since 1789 federal courts have been given the right to preserve their jurisdiction in any case that may come before them, a right that is sometimes invoked to halt pending executions. What’s more, he says, “the whole purpose of habeas corpus is to ensure that there is not a maze of legalistic barbed wire standing between a prisoner and justice.”

But incarcerated people are not the only individuals at Danbury who are at risk. Prisons officials have not provided Covid-19 tests to correctional officers, who must go to their own care providers for evaluation, according to Patrick Wynne, a union representative who has worked at Danbury for almost 14 years. At first, “No one knew what to do if they got sick,” he said. “The powers that be…weren’t ready for it.”

Wynne told me there was anxiety when reports surfaced of Covid-19 in prisons, and added that while the Bureau of Prisons has distributed various plans to officers, there were few resources to back them up. PPE remains in short supply, and around 50 staff members at Danbury have contracted the virus, he said. But because correctional officers may not have sought out treatment or received testing until after they became symptomatic, they may have unwittingly spread Covid-19 within Danbury. Some officers even came to work despite experiencing symptoms, according to signed statements filed by incarcerated people as part of the lawsuit.

While the Bureau of Prisons has tried to limit contact among those incarcerated, these measures have done little to contain the disease. As Shea noted in his order, “By failing to make meaningful use of her home confinement authority, the Warden [of Danbury] has failed to implement what appears to be the sole measure capable of adequately protecting vulnerable inmates…in favor of measures that, even if they were fully and painstakingly implemented, would still leave vulnerable inmates subject to a grave risk to their health.”

Brie Williams, a professor of medicine and the director of the criminal justice and health program at University of California–San Francisco, told me that few correctional institutions are capable of safely isolating more than 10 people in any given unit. “It’s hard to imagine how you can mitigate risk, realistically, in a congregate living environment if you have more people than that,” she said. “Once the disease enters…it is incredibly efficient and is most likely to affect the vast majority of people.”

For now, Williams said, the objective should be to release as many people, and as quickly, as possible. She emphasized that decarceration should be regarded as not a political ploy but a public health policy that will save lives. Unless more people are released, she said, rural and local health systems will likely become severely overburdened. Fairfield County, where FCI Danbury is located, already has more than 13,000 cases, giving it the highest infection rate of any county in the state. To help prevent such outbreaks, the ACLU recommends immediate action: According to its estimates, the deaths of 23,000 incarcerated people and 76,000 in the broader community could be prevented by doubling the current rate of release and halting most arrests.

“Everybody can fight later about who comes back,” Williams says. “But right now what we need to do is get people out.”

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