'A Ticking Time Bomb': Advocates Warn COVID-19 Is Spreading Rapidly Behind Bars The spread of coronavirus behind bars is likely much more rampant than what's known right now. In prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, limited testing already shows widespread infection.
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'A Ticking Time Bomb': Advocates Warn COVID-19 Is Spreading Rapidly Behind Bars

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'A Ticking Time Bomb': Advocates Warn COVID-19 Is Spreading Rapidly Behind Bars

'A Ticking Time Bomb': Advocates Warn COVID-19 Is Spreading Rapidly Behind Bars

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Across the country, the spread of coronavirus behind bars is likely much more rampant than what is known right now. In prisons, jails and immigration detention centers, there is very little testing. And in the few places where testing has happened, results show that the virus has infected huge numbers of the confined population. Joining us now to talk about this - Matt Katz, he covers immigration for our member station WNYC in New York; and Jimmy Jenkins, who covers criminal justice for KJZZ in Phoenix. Thanks to both of you for being here.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel.

JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Of course. Good morning.

MARTIN: Jimmy, I want to start with you. You have been talking with prison inmates. What are they telling you?

JENKINS: Yes. Most recently, I talked with a woman whose daughter is in the Perryville women's prison here in Arizona. And she said all you can hear at night, echoing throughout the dorm, is coughing, just hundreds of women coughing. Most inmates in Arizona prisons live in large warehouse-style settings with no separation, which makes them especially vulnerable. Incarcerated people at all the prisons tell me they're hanging towels over their bunk beds to make some sort of barrier, but, of course, they know it's not enough. And if they try to make their own masks out of their T-shirts, they'll be disciplined for destruction of state property.

MARTIN: Matt, you've had conversations with immigrants who are currently being detained. What's the story from them right now? How are they feeling?

KATZ: They're petrified, and they have been for the last several weeks. They say, if they're going to die, they want to be home. They also watch the news, so they know what they're supposed to do to keep safe, like social distance, which is impossible in jails and prisons. And detainees know they're supposed to have masks, soap and cleaning supplies, which they say is limited and sometimes nonexistent.

I spoke to one immigrant being held at the Essex County Jail in New Jersey, Dan Govender from South Africa. He's staying in a unit with non-COVID-positive detainees, but he cleans the units of the sick detainees and delivers them food in their cells. And he said he's been sick himself. He worries that he's just spreading the virus.

MARTIN: So are they not getting tested? I mean, Jimmy, what have you heard about the testing situation?

JENKINS: No, definitely not in the numbers that we need to get an idea of the true severity of this outbreak. In Arizona prisons, 44 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, but less than 1% of the 42,000 inmates here have been tested. When prisons do test, they are finding a lot of cases. One Ohio prison recently found that more than 70% were positive for COVID-19. But as we've said, most prisons aren't coming anywhere near that level of testing. Felicity Rose from the advocacy group FWD.US says this is leading to a false sense of security.

FELICITY ROSE: Staff are bringing it into and out of the facilities. We know that there are people who are asymptomatic and are able to pass it along, but we just don't know how many.

JENKINS: According to one model FWD.US ran, 99% of the Arizona inmate population will be infected within the next few weeks.

MARTIN: OK, so that's the situation in prisons, but what about reporting of COVID-19 among immigrant populations and ICE detention, Matt?

KATZ: Yeah, there's certainly also underreporting in terms of the extent of the sickness. Overall, just about 2% of 32,000 immigrants detained by ICE have been tested so far. And when they are tested, a lot are coming back positive - about 50% so far. ICE often contracts with county jails. And I spoke to three guys being held by ICE at the Etowah County jail in Alabama, and they said no one had been tested there yet, even though people are sick.

Karim Golding, a detainee there who's fighting deportation to Jamaica, was feeling short of breath. And he worries, with new detainees coming in and with guards who go in and out every day, that he ended up getting coronavirus.

KARIM GOLDING: At the end of the day, I want to be tested because I want to know did you give me the coronavirus? Did you willfully give me the coronavirus and put my life at risk?

KATZ: A spokesman for ICE said there are no suspected cases of COVID at the Etowah facility and that you have to have symptoms in order to be tested.

MARTIN: So speaking of guards, I mean, are the guards at risk? I mean, they must be - right? - other staff in these facilities.

JENKINS: Absolutely, they are. Some officers have died from COVID-19. In Arizona, we don't know how many have been infected. There are 9,000 correctional officers here, and the state's Department of Corrections is refusing to disclose any information about staff testing or results. Union leaders say there are at least 20 officers who have tested positive, but they believe the number is much higher.

At first, the COs were not allowed to wear masks because the director of prisons believed it would scare the inmates or cause a panic. Then after an outcry from the officers, the director changed course. Meanwhile, the inmates in Arizona prisons, who are not allowed to wear masks of any kind, are now being forced to make cloth masks for the correctional officers here.

MARTIN: Wait - what? They can't wear masks themselves to protect their own being, yet they are making masks for the guards?

JENKINS: That's right.

MARTIN: So, Matt, how are prison officials characterizing their own response, their own efforts, if they have any, to protect people?

KATZ: Yeah, they insist that everyone is properly protected from infection and that anybody can get immediate medical treatment. In a lot of places, in order to do this, officials say they've stopped visitation entirely. They've modified operations to avoid the spread of COVID inside, like forcing social distance by locking detainees in cells for at least 23 hours a day, sometimes more, to limit the amount of time that they would spend in common areas with other people.

MARTIN: So we've reported this for weeks, that some jails are actually just releasing people in order to protect them, to reduce the population. Do you think we're going to see more of that going forward? Jimmy, we'll start with you.

JENKINS: Some states, like Arizona, are still holding out. Where we are seeing a difference here is with policing. Officers and sheriffs' deputies are doing things like citing people and releasing them, and the prosecutors are agreeing to hold fewer people in jail who are awaiting trial. And jail populations have declined. Maricopa County, for instance, their daily population has shrunk from 8,000 inmates to just over 5,000 in recent weeks.

MARTIN: Matt, what about ICE? Have they been releasing people?

KATZ: Yeah, ICE has actually released several hundred detainees who are old, medically compromised and considered not to be safety or flight risks. Plus, there have been a bunch of successful federal lawsuits, with judges releasing dozens of immigrants, saying it's excessive punishment to keep them locked up in a place where the virus is raging.

MARTIN: Matt Katz, he covers immigration for WNYC. Jimmy Jenkins covers criminal justice for KJZZ. Thanks to both of you for your reporting. We appreciate it.

KATZ: Thank you, Rachel.

JENKINS: You're welcome, Rachel. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT'S "CHIMES")

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