ACLU seeks info on COVID-19 risk in jails and prisons

Highlighting new epidemiological models that show as many as 200,000 inmates could die from COVID-19, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has joined the ACLU National, the ACLU Foundation and more than 30 affiliates in filing public records requests to get information about coronavirus outbreaks in prisons and jails.

The Freedom of Information Act requests are seeking information from the Trump Administration and state governors as to the steps the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the state Departments of Correction took to protect incarcerated individuals and staff from COVID-19. Within Indiana, the ACLU has requested information from Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Department of Correction.

“Public health experts have rung multiple alarm bells about the spread of COVID-19 in our prison system,” Jane Henegar, executive director of the ACLU of Indiana, said in a Wednesday statement. “Despite those warnings, the depopulation of jails, prisons, and other detention facilities continues too slowly to avoid catastrophe.”

Responding to a request for comment from the Indiana Lawyer, Gov. Holcomb’s office said it regularly receives public records requests and fulfills them according to the law.

The governor did issue a directive Thursday in honor of an Indiana correctional officer who died of COVID-19. All flags in Greene and Sullivan Counties and at all IDOC facilities and parole district offices should be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset May 1 to honor Wabash Valley Correctional Officer Gary Weinke. 

According to the ACLU’s request sent Wednesday to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the ACLU National said the Bureau is reporting that, to date, 1,314 inmates and 335 staff members across the country have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 30 have died.

“BOP’s reports are almost certainly an undercount,” the ACLU said. “The need for full transparency about BOP’s slow and inconsistent response to COVID-19 is dire and urgent.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons declined to comment.

According to data compiled by the ACLU, five have died in Indiana prisons because of the coronavirus as of April 28. Fifty-two individuals being held in county jails across the state have tested positive, while another 321 inmates in state prisons have been found to have the virus.

The ACLU of Indiana has requested communications, including emails, among senior officials about when the first infections and deaths occurred within the Department of Correction and complaints or grievances filed by staff and inmates in relation to the pandemic.

Also, the nonprofit wants documents to see if Holcomb understood the magnitude of the risk that COVID-19 posed to state prisons, if the models of projected infection rates failed to accurately account for the spread among the incarcerated and if any recommendations to prevent contamination were ignored.

“Our FOIA requests will show that Gov. Holcomb and IDOC knew about the impacts of COVID-19 on our prison system ahead of its spread, and what they failed to discover by relying on faulty models,” Henegar said.

In an undated video posted on the IDOC’s website, Dr. Kristen Dauss, chief medical officer for the department, outlined some of the measures instituted to protect staff and inmates. These include continuing supplying soap and hand sanitizer to all correctional facilities and deep cleaning all the facilities.

Staff who are sick have their temperature taken and are sent home if they have a fever. Also, offenders are “constantly monitored for virus-related symptoms,” and staff who interact with offenders have reviewed plans for isolating inmates who exhibit coronavirus symptoms.

In a study on the impact of COVID-19 in jails, the ACLU National asserts the government models of deaths from coronavirus do not take the incarcerated population into account. The ACLU’s “first-of-its-kind epidemiological model” estimates that the number of deaths will actually be doubled to 200,000 from what the Trump administration has predicted.

Overcrowding and substandard conditions in jails could fuel the growth of the pandemic and increase the mortality rates among the incarcerated, according to the ACLU’s report. Moreover, the broader community is at increased risk because the churn of individuals arrested then released from jail either on their own recognizance or after posting bail along with the jail staff coming and going each day could transmit COVID-19 to their families and neighbors.

The ACLU is advocating for a halt to arrests for all but the most serious offenses and to double the rate of release for those already detained. Doing this, the organization asserts, could save as many as 23,000 people in jail and 76,000 in the broader community.

“Bringing to light what federal and state governments knew about the impacts of COVID should motivate bolder action immediately across the country to avoid more preventable deaths in prisons and will be the foundation upon which we hold these leaders accountable for any inaction in the months and years to come,” said Taylor Pendergrass, senior campaign strategist with the ACLU National.

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