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As COVID-19 spreads, public health officials are telling people to stay home if they feel sick. That's not an option in jails and prisons. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, there's concern about protecting inmates, staff and the public.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Robert Greifinger's a doctor who spent the last 25 years working on health care issues inside prisons and jails, and he says this social distancing advice we're all hearing right now is not that simple behind bars.
ROBERT GREIFINGER: There are crowding issues, ventilation issues, security issues, where people have to be checked and monitored fairly frequently. So it's really hard to do.
KASTE: But he says if jails and prisons are complacent about coronavirus, they run the risk of becoming, as he puts it, incubators.
GREIFINGER: Since jail and prison staff and prisoners tend to be younger, one thinks initially that it's not going to be a big problem. But remember, that staff work shifts, they come in in and out of the facility, and they may be bringing that infection home to people who have compromised immune systems.
KASTE: When NPR first started asking jails and prisons what they were doing about coronavirus, most of them pointed to their existing plans for other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. But now some of them are taking extra, specific steps. One of the earliest to do so is the South Correctional Entity, or SCORE. It's a jail with almost 600 inmates near Seattle.
DEVON SCHRUM: Four times a day, we're wiping down the entire jail, including the cells, and were wiping down before and after inmates come that.
KASTE: Devon Schrum is the jail's director. She says they're orienting their inmates to practice good hand hygiene, and she's considering giving them supervised access to hand sanitizer. It's usually contraband in jails because of the alcohol content. She says they've also identified holding areas with separate air handling to house inmates when they do test positive.
SCHRUM: We have 24/7 medical coverage. And so at this point, we're prepared to treat in place and to minimize the risk to the rest of the population.
KASTE: Still, just like the outside world, there will be a subset of COVID-19 cases in jails and prisons that will be serious and which will end up adding to the burden of local hospitals. Jose Saldana spent 38 years in prison.
JOSE SALDANA: It's probably going to be deadly for some of the elderly people that I left behind.
KASTE: Saldana is director of an organization in New York called the Release Aging People In Prison Campaign. And he says this crisis is a good reason for clemency boards to be considering which older sick prisoners might stand a better chance of surviving all of this back home.
SALDANA: Let's look at this realistically, for what it is. To keep such men in prison to die, knowing that they're going to die, it's just pure revenge; it's not justice.
KASTE: Of course, there's no way of knowing right now how many older prisoners are actually at risk of dying, but there may be other reasons to let some of them go. Marc Stern used to be the top medical officer for the Washington State Department of Corrections, and he's now recommending that jails and prisons at least consider which of their inmates might be safely released early.
MARC STERN: I think we are at that point because we don't want to be caught behind the ball; we'd like to be ahead of the ball. In other words, we don't want to find one day that a number of officers have called in sick and we're having trouble managing the institution.
KASTE: He thinks it would be better to talk to judges and parole systems now about who could be released in case things get to that point.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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