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Incarcerated people face potential disaster during outbreak

With more than 2 million prisoners held in thousands of detention centers across the U.S., advocates for the incarcerated have been sounding the alarm about the dangers posed to this vulnerable population during the current pandemic. Ivette Feliciano spoke with lawyers, activists and families with loved ones in prison, who say detention centers are the perfect breeding ground for the outbreak.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yesterday, the first inmate in federal custody died from COVID-19. A 49-year-old Louisiana man named Patrick Jones died at the same facility where at least two dozen inmates and staffers have tested positive. This follows weeks of advocates for the rights of incarcerated people sounding the alarm about the potential spread of coronavirus in the nation's prisons and jails. PBS NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano spoke with lawyers, activists and one mother with a son in prison, all of whom fear a COVID-19 disaster for both those behind bars, and those who work with them.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    At a time when Americans are encouraged to practice social distancing for the foreseeable future, advocates for prisoners' rights note the majority of America's incarcerated are unable to do so.

  • Nora Carroll:

    This is a public health concern. The point is to get people who are going to get sick and die out of Rikers as soon as possible.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Staff attorneys working at New York's Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn say they're concerned for the health and safety of their clients after hearing stories about what is happening inside the city's detention centers.

  • Alexandra Smith:

    You can't get away from anyone. People are hosed down with their beds. A hundred people in a dorm. People are coughing. You can't get away. There's no soap. It's like a horror movie. It's terrifying.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As of today, more than 200 people have already tested positive for the coronavirus at New York City's detention facilities, including not only the incarcerated, but also corrections employees. Like other courts around the country, New York City's have indefinitely postponed all criminal and civil jury trials due to the threat from the virus. Among other things, that means people who are being held before they've been tried or convicted of anything will have to wait longer in crowded conditions. and most often, those people are poor.

  • Alexandra Smith:

    Well, I think it speaks to poverty and speaks to being able to afford bail. And a lot of our clients just cannot afford to pay the bail.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    This 51-year-old mother from the Bronx says her 25-year-old son has been kept in a Manhattan jail, convicted of nothing, since 2017. His trial date set for this Tuesday was postponed indefinitely. She spoke to us Thursday, telling us what her son, who is diabetic and suffers from seizures, had told her. She asked us to keep both their identities and the details of his case private.

  • Sheila:

    Well he's in a housing unit where the first inmate tested positive for the coronavirus a couple of weeks ago. And I have to tell you, since then, every time he's called, there is quite a bit of confusion and panic and fear and anger. Absolutely no hand sanitizer is allowed there, so they don't have that at all. They've been issued each a mask as of three days ago. So they finally got masks. Yesterday, as a matter of fact, three more inmates fell sick, got a fever and were removed and taken out. My son has not been proven guilty of any crime. They're simply awaiting trial. Therefore, you can kill someone there. They can die there. And it would have been for no reason other than this person just hadn't gone to trial and gotten convicted yet.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Last week Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York City would begin releasing some individuals who have been arrested for minor crimes but not yet tried, as well as those whose health problems make them most vulnerable to infection. But as of Thursday, city officials said that fewer than 200 eligible prisoners had been released. Lawyers at Legal Aid say there are thousands of incarcerated people who fit the profile of those who should be released, and that the city is moving too slowly.

  • Nora Carroll:

    What we're encountering in Brooklyn is trying to get individual clients released. And there are so many cases being brought, only one or two judges to handle them. And so cases that were filed last week have still not been heard.

  • Lauren Katzman:

    You know, each attorney is like filing papers and calling this person, calling that person and getting nowhere. It can't be this individual case by case basis. That takes weeks and weeks. In the meantime, people are getting sick. People are going to die. It needs to happen much faster.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Attorneys at the Legal Aid Society filed several lawsuits on behalf of dozens of incarcerated defendants over the last week. Last Thursday a Manhattan supreme court judge ordered the release of 16 additional people, ruling the city and state violated their constitutional rights by detaining them during the COVID-19 outbreak.

    Dr. Amanda Klonsky is an advocate for prisoners rights who has spent the last two decades teaching and running education programs in jails and prisons.

  • Amanda Klonsky:

    It's almost as if we've designed a petri dish to spread the pandemic and to heighten this crisis.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    She recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the dangers the coronavirus poses to those behind bars, and those in contact with them.

  • Amanda Klonsky:

    If there's an outbreak in a jail or prison in a city like Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., it has the potential to overwhelm our hospitals, our medical care systems. Right? How will corrections officers transport sick individuals from jails and prisons to local hospitals safely without infecting themselves and others?

    Klonsky, who is based in Illinois, has been tracking COVID-19 infections in prisons and jails around the country, and says, so far, the disease has entered detention facilities in more than a dozen states.

  • Amanda Klonsky:

    More than 40 percent of people in prisons already have a chronic health condition. Medical care is in short supply. Medication is in short supply. Access to doctors may be impossible. We're simply incapable right now of meeting the demand if there was a major outbreak or cluster. And public health officials and experts are telling us it's not if, but when that happens.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As of Friday, 14 incarcerated people in federal custody have tested positive for the coronavirus and have been isolated. Thirteen prison staffers have tested positive as well.

    The Federal Bureau of Prisons has implemented social distancing measures in its facilities, and incarcerated people there won't be allowed visits from family, friends or attorneys until mid-April. The BOP is also quarantining all new inmates entering its 122 correctional facilities for 14 days.

    Yet Klonsky worries that efforts such as these, which she admits are intended to mitigate the spread of coronavirus inside prisons and jails, could actually come at the cost of the rights of incarcerated people.

  • Amanda Klonsky:

    In some places, we're hearing that people are losing access to phone calls, to letters and to other kinds of communication with the outside. Prisons are already a black box. right. We often don't know, the public doesn't know what's happening and what kinds of inhumane conditions are emerging on the inside.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    On Thursday U.S. Attorney General William Bar issued a directive to the Bureau of Prisons, urging the release of some elderly and chronically ill prisoners in BOP custody.

  • Amanda Klonsky:

    An outbreak in a jail or prison will be a death sentence for many thousands of people. And so we're asking our state and local governments, the federal government, the Trump administration, to take this threat seriously, to release as many people as possible. It's the only way that we can reduce the number of deaths.

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