The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate and largest systems for locking people up. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began, experts and advocates warned the virus would be amplified by prisons and jails, where social distancing is impossible, ventilation is often poor and people are more likely to have underserved medical needs.
The virus, they warned, would spread quickly both inside and beyond prison walls. They were right.
As new cases and deaths surge nationwide, the combined number of confirmed cases among people incarcerated in immigration jails and state and federal prisons has surpassed 250,000, according to federal data and the Marshall Project. The number of cases has more than quadrupled since July, and infection rates have steadily grown since September. During the week prior to December 8, 2,224 new cases were reported nationally, an increase of 10 percent from the week before.
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At least 1,665 incarcerated people have died due to the virus, although that may be an undercount, because testing and reporting practices vary wildly across various prison systems.
In the spring, activists demanded that local sheriffs, prison officials and immigration jailers release as many people as possible — if not everyone — and implement clear pandemic protocols, but advocates say decision makers did not move fast enough. Instead, prison officials and local sheriffs downplayed or simply ignored the crisis, some of them wrongly believing their facilities would be immune from a virus impacting the entire globe.
There were modest dips in incarceration rates during the initial months of the pandemic, in part because some wardens and sheriffs refused to take new prisoners or judges ordered the release of the medically vulnerable. However, the decarceration process has been slow and inconsistent across various prison systems, often prodded along by court orders, frustrated state governors, media scandals, and the sheer reality of the pandemic.
Now incarceration rates appear headed in the opposite direction, even as the pandemic reaches its most intense phase to date. Population drops at state prisons slowed or reversed over the summer, and the number of people held in local jails is the highest since April, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Public health experts are pushing to prioritize prisoners as vaccines become available, but activists say we must rethink mass incarceration altogether.
“If incarceration stopped violence, the U.S. would be the safest country in the world,” said Lewis Webb, a healing justice coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). “Instead, we have 2.3 million people in cages while our communities lack access to quality health care, education, employment, addiction and mental health services, and an approach to justice that actually addresses the root causes of violence.”
More than 66,000 prison and immigration jail staff have tested positive, and at least 112 have died, according to reports and available data. These workers return home to their families every day, potentially bringing the virus with them. Prisons and jails topped the New York Times list of largest outbreaks in late summer and early fall, and research now shows that the virus has spread much faster in parts of the country where prisons and immigration jails are located.
The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that mass incarceration added 500,000 COVID cases over the three months of summer as outbreaks behind bars spread into surrounding communities. People released from jail and prison often return to lower-income communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Academies of Sciences.
Between May and August, jails run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its contractors alone were responsible for about 245,000 cases across the country, according to a new report from the Detention Watch Network.
“The consequences of ICE’s callous disregard for the health of people detained and its own staff were magnified many times over by the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in communities across the country,” said Gregory Hooks, co-author of the report, in a statement. “Counties with ICE facilities were more likely to experience outbreaks of COVID-19, both small and large; in the spring, and over the summer, the impacts rippled outward, extending to nearby communities and counties.”
The number of people caged in ICE jails ballooned under the Trump administration’s harsh crackdown on immigration and set the stage for a COVID crisis. In April, a federal judge in California ruled that ICE delayed its pandemic response with dangerous results and ordered the agency to review its decisions to incarcerate people at particular risk of COVID-19 complications due to health problems. In October, the judge issued a terse clarifying order after finding that ICE had “fallen short,” and its review of custody decisions was a “disorganized patchwork of non-responses or perfunctory denials.”
Other courts also rebuked ICE and the private contractors that run many of its jails. In August, a federal judge ordered ICE to stop transferring people to an immigration prison in Farmville, Virginia, after the facility saw an outbreak of 339 cases, according to Detention Watch Network. In late October, a judge in California ordered an ICE prison in southern California to reduce its population by 250 people to make room for social distancing. The list goes on. At least 1,909 people have been released from immigration jails under court orders, according to ICE.
ICE now reports that 16,163 people are incarcerated in its jails across the country, down from an average daily population of over 50,000 before COVID hit in 2019. However, ICE reports that it has released only 900 people with medical conditions that put them at risk of COVID-19 complications, after reviewing their immigration histories and criminal records. The population drop is likely driven by pandemic restrictions at the border preventing asylum seekers and migrants from entering the country and being detained in the first place.
Maru Mora-Villalpando, an organizer with La Resistencia, a group led by undocumented people that works to end the deportation and incarceration of immigrants in Washington State, said the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma only recently began releasing immigrants under the court order from April. The immigration jail is run by GEO Group, a for-profit prison company whose revenue is shaped by the number of people incarcerated under a contract with ICE.
“They really didn’t do anything, until maybe now,” Mora-Villalpando said in an interview.
Mora-Villalpando said it’s unclear how officials at the Northwest Detention Center decide who is released. One man was recently released in the evening, after a trailer put in place by volunteers to house people waiting for a ride after their release had left for the night. The man slept in a tent left by volunteers until Mora-Villalpando found him in the morning, shivering in winter weather without enough warm clothes. The man suspected he was released late in the day in retaliation for raising complaints and helping others file immigration paperwork, according to Mora-Villalpando.
“We have seen a lot of releases of … people who are in really bad shape medically [and] should have [been] released months ago, and people who are not sick,” Mora-Villalpando said.
Mora-Villalpando said at least four people are now on hunger strike at the facility in protest of conditions during a pandemic. One man, Victor Fonseca, has been on strike for at least 12 days, and three women announced they would join him this week. Immigrants have launched more than 100 protest actions and hunger strikes in ICE jails across the U.S. Earlier this year, Mora-Villalpando said people caged at the Northwest Detention Center formed an “S.O.S.” with their bodies in the jail yard that was visible from the sky.
“I can’t eat this food — it has gotten worse in here since the pandemic started,” said Gloria, one of the hunger strikers, in a phone call to supporters. “I’m afraid of eating the food and getting COVID-19 because the virus is all around us.”
ICE reports that one person has tested positive for COVID at the Northwest Detention Center, but Mora-Villalpando says her group has reports of an additional case inside the facility. A man was recently put in medical isolation after suffering chills and a fever, but a report submitted under court orders due to ongoing litigation claimed the man was asymptomatic, according to La Resistencia.
Mora-Villalpando said this is another example of ICE attempting to cover for its inability to control the virus — and why people still incarcerated at the jail fear for their lives. Now that ICE is finally releasing people from the Northwest Detention Center and other immigration jails across the country to make room for social distancing more than six months into the pandemic, Mora-Villalpando said it goes to show that thousands of people were needlessly incarcerated under the Trump administration’s border crackdown. The population at the Northwest Detention Center has dropped from more than 1,500 to 300 in recent weeks.
“Thousands of people are in immigration detention — including people who recently came to the U.S. seeking asylum and those who have lived here with their families for years before getting caught up in the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies,” said Kristin Kumpf, AFSC’s director of Human Migration and Mobility, in a statement.
“I think it shows that there was no need in the first place for these huge numbers in detention centers,” Mora-Villalpando said.
The hunger strikers and La Resistencia are demanding that the remaining 300 people be released, starting with the most medically vulnerable. Activists across the country are holding actions this week calling for the release of prisoners during the pandemic and pushing new visions of public safety under the hashtag #FreeThemAll.