As of Friday, Dallas County had the most positive COVID-19 cases in the state, at more than 300. At least seven of those cases are in Dallas County Jail.
While those in lockup are confined, they are no less vulnerable to disease outbreaks than others. Indeed, there are unique challenges to protecting inmates from disease compared to the general population, says Keri Blakinger, a reporter who covers criminal justice for the news organization The Marshall Project.
Blakinger told Texas Standard Friday that one of the risk factors for people in jails and prisons in Texas is poor medical care. She said another risk factor is that they aren’t sealed off from the communities around them. Those booked into jail are often bonded out soon after, and go back into the community. And prison and jail staff interact with those in lockup, and then go back to their homes and communities at the end of the work day.
“There’s a lot of flow in and out of our communities and our prisons. And if we see an outbreak in a prison or a jail, it’s going to continue to affect the community, and the community health,” Blakinger says.
Disease outbreaks are fairly common in the correctional system. Blakinger says mumps, flu and norovirus can spread through dorms and even entire correctional facilities. But those facilities aren’t experienced with COVID-19, which is a new disease that spreads rapidly and can be dangerous for older people and those with compromised immune systems.
The main protective behavior against COVID-19 for the general population is social distancing, but Blakinger says that is almost impossible when you’re incarcerated.
“You can do the best you can … but there’s simply not space in a lot of these dorms,” she says.
That problem rang true at Lychner State Jail outside Houston, where the first person detained in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility fell ill with COVID-19. The agency confirmed the case earlier this week.
“The guy had been living in a 58-person dorm,” Blakinger says. “So they put the whole dorm on medical restriction.”
Some criminal justice reform advocates say releasing some detained people is the best way to manage the spread of the coronavirus in the criminal justice system. Blakinger says there could be some truth to that, saying that medical care and social isolation is likely better at home than in a jail or prison.
Life in a correctional facility is likely to get harder as the pandemic progresses. Blakinger says those in lockup usually don’t have access to protective measures like hand sanitizer, and soap can even be hard to come by. Plus, she says, if facilities lock down dorms, that will mean less communication with the outside world.
“It’s really hard to know what prisons do,” Blakinger says. “The more this progresses, it might be harder to figure out what’s going on.”
Written by Caroline Covington.