Coronavirus: Outbreak in US prisons inevitable as workers panic over shortage of hand sanitizers, soaps

Coronavirus: Outbreak in US prisons inevitable as workers panic over  shortage of hand sanitizers, soaps
(Getty Images)

With the number of coronavirus cases increasing globally, the focus has now turned on American prisons and whether enough is being done to protect inmates and staff as well as prevent mass outbreak of the disease.

As studies surrounding the novel coronavirus are on the uptake, researchers have found that the virus appears to be spreading at a different rate in different countries. For instance,  in Switzerland, the virus seems to be capable of transmitting from one person to up to five people. In Japan, however, the virus is less active as only two people, on average, are contracting the disease from a single infected person. The US has an RO (Reproduction number or R naught measuring the degree of spread) that averages between 2 and 4, meaning the virus is spreading to up to four people from an infected person.

With the number of cases in the US increasing and New York declaring a state of emergency, prisons across the country are on high alert stepping up inmate screenings, sanitizing jail cells and urging lawyers to scale back in-person visits to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading through their vast inmate populations.

People walk through Manhattan with surgical masks. Travel, business, schools and other aspects of American life are beginning to be affected by the virus as new cases emerge (Spencer Platt/Getty Images) 

Among the precautionary measures, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests includes regularly washing hands, using hand sanitizers with more than 60% alcohol, and avoiding close contact with others.

However, most prisons do not seem adequately prepared to deal with the virus if cases are detected. As MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes pointed out on Twitter, a visitor noted that "MDC Federal Prison in Brooklyn where there was ***no hand sanitizer or soap*** and a guard begged the visitor to send word that they are in danger if the virus hits the facility."

Further, as the Marshall Project points out, hand sanitizer is considered contraband in prisons because of the high alcohol content and the possibility for abuse (the alcohol can be separated out from the gel). A spokesman told the Marshall Project that the Texas prison system now sells sanitizer on commissary, though it is a non-alcohol-based alternative, as opposed to CDC's recommendation. 

While there are reports of jails and prisons taking precautions to contain the disease should it affect inmates, not nearly enough is being done. The incarcerated population is more likely to have asthma, heart disease, and other conditions that increase the risk of catching even a mild virus and with the added effect of the medical staff stretched thin, many are calling for the release of prisoners.

Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) shared examples of "common-sense policies" which could slow the spread of the virus among the prison population, including, releasing medically fragile and older adults, stopping the charging for medical co-pays in prison, lowering jail admissions, reducing unnecessary parol and probationary meetings, and eliminating parole and probation revocations for technical violations.

In a letter to the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) asked about the policies and procedures that they have in place to prepare for and manage a potential spread of the novel coronavirus in federal prisons. She also urged federal agencies to suspend all immigration enforcement actions in and around hospitals and other medical facilities as the nation prepares for potential outbreaks of coronavirus disease.

In a statement to MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), a spokesperson for the BOP said, "Out of an abundance of caution, the BOP provided guidance to health care professionals throughout the system and has a screening tool in place for use in the event an inmate or staff member is exposed or symptomatic. The BOP has an internal web-based system for reporting infectious diseases and outbreaks, allowing access to health care and correctional professionals system-wide."

Washington State Department of Corrections also responded to MEAWW, saying: "All individuals received at a Washington Dept. of Corrections facility, including community supervision violators, receive an initial health screening," adding that they have been urging visitors "not to visit or take part in programming if they feel sick with a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing."

Across the world, the impact of the outbreak on the prison systems is being observed. Iran had announced that it was temporarily freeing 70,000 prisoners in an attempt to prevent an outbreak in detention facilities throughout the country. In Italy, protests in multiple locations broke out after measures imposed in the jails to contain the country's coronavirus outbreak ignited tensions among inmates leading to six deaths and dozens of inmates escaping.

The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. With the lack of availability of testing kits and the number of reported cases on the rise, it is imperative that the criminal justice system and the political system take proper action to prevent a potential pandemic within the prison system.

In its daily update on March 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the virus has now infected people in 109 countries with over 113,700 cases confirmed worldwide. Over 4,000 people have died from the COVID-19 infection.

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