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May 6, 2020

ABC News reporting "Over 5,000 corrections officers have contracted COVID-19" ... which is surely an undercount

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this new ABC News piece marking a notable grim milestone that highlights yet another consequence from a global pandemic coming to incarceration nation.  Here are excerpts:

As the novel coronavirus ravages prisons around the country, over 5,000 state and federal correctional officers have tested positive for the virus, data compiled by ABC News shows.  There have been 5,002 cases, including over 4,600 state correctional officers that have contracted the virus, with New York being the state with the most correctional officer cases.

"If you look at how it's tracked across the globe, you'll see that this thing runs through a correctional facility like a brushfire, and it doesn't stop until it runs out of people, basically," Andy Potter, the executive director of the Michigan Corrections Organization and the founder of the One Voice Initiative, told ABC News.  "We've always said we believe that we were behind the eight ball to begin with."  Potter, whose union represents over 6,000 officers in Michigan, stressed that governors weren't doing a bad job, but they could "lead a better plan of conversation and communication with those corrections front-line staff."...

Federally, over 350 officers have tested positive for the virus. Shane Fausey, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals, told ABC News that there are likely more federal cases of officers, but they aren't reported because of the lack of testing. "They're not testing everybody," Fausey said.  "As a matter of fact testing is extremely limited."

The Bureau of Prisons told ABC News that they "have developed a letter for staff who are in close contact of a COVID-19 positive individual to provide to the local health department to ensure such persons receive priority COVID-19 testing.  Because staff are typically tested in the community, we are unable to provide the total number of correctional officers that have been tested."

On the state level, testing in Michigan is also a problem, officials say. "We're struggling with getting officers tested," said Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Organization. "We believe that the state ... [should] be proactive and kind of try to get in front of this too, so the rest of our facilities aren't impacted. We're advocating for staff to be tested."...

Another problem that has been plaguing both federal and state institutions is severe understaffing, a problem that is only amplified by the pandemic.  "The pandemic has completely overrun the system; the system wasn't operating normally," said Fausey, who represents over 30,000 officers at prisons around the country.  "Now you've completely overrun its limited staffing resources.  And that's not even including the staffing shortage we had in medical positions. We've had that for quite a few years."...

Across the country, 38 corrections officers have died due to COVID-19, according to the One Voice Initiative. In one instance of a possibly missed case, Fausey said there should be no debate as to whether or not a 39-year-old case manager at United States Penitentiary, Atlanta died due to COVID-19.  Robin Grubbs died late last month after being promoted at the facility.  The bureau stopped short of calling her death related to COVID-19, because the virus was found during the autopsy but the autopsy was incomplete, BOP said.

The union, however, said that this was a definite case of COVID-19 and it should be recognized. "Instead of saying we've lost somebody -- it's terrible, it's heartbreaking -- the bureau puts out this press release, 'Well the autopsy was inconclusive and we're not really sure how she died,'" Fausey explained.  "Why would you put out a defensive statement to all the employees that are grieving the loss of a young lady that they love dearly?  Ms. Grubbs' friends and family deserved compassion and understanding.  Robin deserved better."...

The front-line workers are the backbone of these institutions, Potter said, and they are the people who are holding facilities together and stressed that the only way that it can be solved is for corrections staff across the country to come together. "I'm telling you, if you're tracking what's going on around the United States, it's just going to get worse before it gets better," Potter said. "Just because it clears up in one facility doesn't mean it's not going to spread. We know we know how aggressive it is."

I am pleased to see this article highlight the limits of testing and the fact that stated numbers of officers infected with, and numbers dying from, COVID-19 are surely undercounts. I fear that widespread testing of prison guard would often produce a depressingly large percentage of infections as we have often seen when inmates are widely tested.

Meanwhile, I am disappointed that this article does not discuss more how modern mass incarceration, persistently overcrowded prisons, and the failure of authorities to thin prison populations have all contributed to this ever-growing public health disaster.  With far too many prisoners to manage, far too little space for social distancing, and far too little help coming from Governors and other executive officials, correctional officers and their families are yet again victimized by our country's persistent carceral cancer.

The Washington Post is also covering this beat via this recent article headlined "As virus spreads in jails and prisons, correctional officers fear for themselves and their loved ones."

May 6, 2020 at 10:44 AM | Permalink

Comments

My observations of official data in Texas and Indiana are that testing of inmates is very limited indeed and probably confined only to those with clear and maybe severe symptoms. What about those who are asymptomatic? Both these States have taken a very cavalier approach to the ongoing dangers of corovirus, with early relaxation of restrictions within their territories. Of course, they are not the only ones. In Indiana there are 27000 inmates in Corrections facilities and only 844 have been tested, 500 positive. Some would say criminal neglect. They claim to have tested 889 prison staff of whom 234 have tested positive.

Posted by: peter | May 6, 2020 4:00:28 PM

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