The state of Colorado and the Colorado Department of Corrections (DoC), with a population of 32,000 within its jails, prisons and immigration detention facilities, announced their COVID-19 plan. In this edition of Insight, Out, Dante Owens shares what inmates like himself have been told by the DoC about the changes taking place in the prison as well as the issues he sees first hand about the facility’s ability to realistically deal with the virus when, not if, it makes its way into the prison.
Everyday I wake up to the news of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, on T.V. trying to understand the effect that it’s hain on the world. It’s really crazy to be sitting behind bars, seeing the world come to a stop. No sports. Kids not going to school. Family members out of work because of the impact of the virus. The only thing on T.V. is the virus.
From the mindset of a prisoner, it’s only a matter of time before the virus hits the prison system and impacts the life of many prisoners. It’s not if but when it reaches behind these prison walls, affecting the majority of people inside. The healthcare system for prisoners is not anywhere near ready for a virus of this kind.
The executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Dean Williams, put out a letter to all prisons that airs across the prison T.V. system along with posted flyers of information about the virus and plan if needed. They have taken action to temporarily suspend all in-person visitation and outside volunteers from entering the facilities. They have also restricted their own staff from traveling between facilities unless absolutely necessary.
They also say they’re prepared to deal with the virus if it makes its way into the prison. They say they are exploring ways to advance telephone and tablet communication with family members during the temporary suspension. But they’re not giving much detail about the plan if the coronavirus hit behind these walls. I guess we will have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
One thing we know is that the prison system healthcare facilities and staff is not ready for a virus. The current state of the facilities are:
– It already takes three to five days after you turn in a sick call request to see a nurse.
– I don’t believe they have the test for coronavirus yet.
– Everything in D.O.C. is a waiting process.
– Being in these close quarters, the spread will be quick and fast.
– The older and high-risk people are in close quarters with the young and healthier prisoners.
– The sanitation is not nearly effective to stop the spread of the virus. Everyone uses the same phone, doors, eat in the same place and use the same showers, etc.
– The lack of respirators and ventilators the prison has access to will be a problem for the system.
I must say so far there has not been a report of any coronavirus cases yet. But as I once said, it’s only a matter of time before it reaches behind these walls.
As we sit in our cells looking at the news and the spread of the virus the anxiety is high, wondering when it will hit here and how the prison medical facility will be able to cope.
I will keep you updated on the spread of the virus if it makes it into Colorado State Penn and if changes are made in the prison.
Since the initial operational changes the Colorado DoC announced, public defenders and a coalition of criminal justice organizations in Colorado made a call for the state, “to act immediately to protect the lives of inmates, correctional staff, court staff, attorneys, probation and parole officers, their families and — ultimately — the Colorado public from community spread of COVID-19 with jails and prisons as ground zero.”
Trevor Nohan from The Daily Show interviwed Governor Gavin Newsom, asking him about the issue with prisons around the country and the world and how they’re dealing with confined living environments and the potential release of people, “Being in a close space is one of the worst things that you can do. Prison is exactly that.” Governor Newsom first acknowledged the sheer size of the incarceration population in California and the country after going through “this incarceration binge” thanks to the War on Drugs laws and legislation from the 1990s. As of March 30 there were four inmates and and 18 staff that tested positive. Similar to other states like Colorado, in-person visitations have been stopped and meals are eaten in their cells while also reviewing all of those that are coming close to their parole date to fast track their release and reduce the population.
California criminal justice organizations, including JusticeLA and the Vera Institute, state that the 15 percent decrease in jail and prison population isn’t enough. Vera Institute released a trends chart of the U.S. counties with the greatest number of deaths caused by COVID-19 based on recent data numbers from local sources.
On March 30, the New York Times reported, “167 inmates and 137 staff members have tested positive at New York City’s jails, including the Rikers complex, which is described as crowded and unsanitary.”
Last week Governor Jared Polis released an Executive Order D 2020 016, establishing a “protocol for state prisons and community corrections facilities.” The order temporarily limits the amount of prisoners it accepts, based on certain criteria, keeping offenders in pre-transfer facilities; awards “earned time credits” to reduce the current prison population; qualifying inmates can be referred to a “Special Needs Parole” program; and a $17 daily subsistence payment required from community corrections clients are suspended.
According to the Denver Post, Rep. Leslie Herod stated, “The Executive Order is a critical recognition that something needs to be done to contain COVID-19 in our prisons and community corrections. The virus will strike there, as it will all of our communities, and I’m encouraged that the governor recognizes this fact and is taking important steps to contain its spread,” Herod said. “This is vital and I support it. We must keep offenders and our correctional officers safe and as healthy as possible.”
Two weeks after the first announcement by Colorado DoC, no changes have been made to improve communication options, including video, between inmates and their families. According to another source housed at a halfway house in Colorado, a transition residence prior to parole, visitors are not allowed but case managers are still making in-person visits, sanitation practices have not been increased, and residents are still required to pay to do their laundry onsite.
Considering the overall lack of healthy food available to inmates and halfway house residents, one wonders just how weak their immune systems are. We’ve learned that it’s not just the elderly or those with conditions like asthma, heart and lung issues that are part of the vulnerable populations. The coronavirus has taken the lives of healthy people under the age of 40.
In a call with Dante, he stated that he’s still concerned that he has not seeing any real increases in sanitation practices of all their living areas, from the cells to the shared spaces. There isn’t any clear protocol on what process the DoC staff are taking prior to entering the prison. In addition to the staff member of the Colorado Public Defender’s Office testing positive for COVID-19 in the middle of March, last week three DoC staffers also tested positive for coronavirus. So far there’s been no news that any Colorado inmates have tested positive, yet.
Other related news:
- ‘Jails Are Petri Dishes’: Inmates Freed as the Virus Spreads Behind Bars
Some jails are releasing people to stem outbreaks, but critics say it is not happening quickly enough to save lives and resources.
- We’re Left for Dead’: Fears of Virus Catastrophe at Rikers Jail
Already, 167 inmates and 137 staff members have tested positive at New York City’s jails, including the Rikers complex, which is described as crowded and unsanitary.
- LA County Must Act Immediately to Prevent COVID-19 Deaths in Jail System – JusticeLA
Over 40 local and statewide advocacy groups in demanding that Los Angeles County takes immediate action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside the county jail system and among our most vulnerable communities.
- Coronavirus Guidance for the Criminal and Immigration Legal Systems – Vera Institute
Adopting the recommendations in these documents will help protect and care for the millions of vulnerable people who make contact with, and the staff who work for, the nation’s courts, police departments, prisons, jails, and detention centers.
- Women in ICE Detention, Fearing Coronavirus, Make Video to Protest Unsafe Conditions – The Intercept
More than 37,000 people are detained in facilities described by government inspectors, nongovernmental organizations, and the prisoners themselves as crowded and dirty.
- Why Jails Are So Important in the Fight Against Coronavirus – The Marshall Project
With about 200,000 people flowing into and out of jails every week, there are great risks not only for the detained, but also for jail workers and surrounding communities.
- Prisons And Jails Worry About Becoming Coronavirus ‘Incubators’
As COVID-19 spreads, public health officials are telling people to stay home if they feel sick. But in jails and prisons, that’s not an option.
About Insight, Out
Insight, Out is a blog series by Dante Owens, an inmate at the Colorado State Penitentiary, with editorial and publishing assistance by Kim Owens. Insight, Out conveys Dante’s personal stories and experiences of his life inside prison in an effort to share them with the world outside. This editorial journey will also provide insights into changes being made and restorative residents programs taking place, some of which are led by Dante, within the Colorado’s correctional system that strive for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. Dante Owens’ writings and opinions are his own and do not reflect or represent that of anyone other than himself.