Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pandemic's Deadly Toll Behind Bars Spurs Calls For Change In U.S. Jails And Prisons


Coronavirus is spreading fast through U.S. jails and prisons. In California, advocates for prisoners rights are calling for some action, including the release of people who are medically vulnerable. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Inmates, some in poor health, packed into overcrowded aging buildings have combined with stunning missteps to help the coronavirus continue to hammer America's inmates. California, Ohio and Florida have among the highest number of cases in jails and prisons. Nationally, nearly 1,400 inmates and correctional staff have died so far. Attorney Jamie Popper works on prisoners rights issues in South Carolina and California.

JAMIE POPPER: Things are as bad as ever. It shows that the government's just failing to protect the most vulnerable people who can't protect themselves because of their status as incarcerated people.

WESTERVELT: The coronavirus has ripped through California's prisons, infecting about 17,000 inmates and killing at least 82 prisoners and 10 staff so far. And nine months into the pandemic, not enough prison staff or inmates are wearing masks often enough to protect against the spread of the deadly virus. That's the conclusion of a recent report by the prisons office of the Inspector General. IG Roy Wesley also found that employees on the front lines of protecting anyone entering the state's prisons simply were not prepared.


ROY WESLEY: Most screeners had received no training on their prison screening process.

WESTERVELT: Other failures would seem almost comical if people's lives weren't at stake. About two-thirds of prison screeners told the IG key tools were broken or faulty.


WESLEY: Many staff reported to us that thermometers they were using stopped working because they ran out of battery power and screeners did not have fresh batteries available.

WESTERVELT: How the virus continues to harm and kill behind bars says a lot about the ticking time bomb mix of public indifference, aging infrastructure, poor oversight and weak health services in America's prisons and jails. In California, the blunders continue six months after the state's bungled transfer of inmates from another state prison to San Quentin, prisoners who inexplicably were not tested before or after arriving. Twenty-nine inmates and one staff member died after that transfer. State Assemblyman Marc Levine's district includes San Quentin.

MARC LEVINE: The ticking time bomb went off when they botched the transfer. This was the worst prison health screw-up in California history.

WESTERVELT: In a scathing rebuke, a state appeals court last month ruled that San Quentin's handling of the pandemic amounted to, quote, "deliberate indifference" to the safety and health of inmates. The court called the prison's lack of urgency on the virus morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable. It ordered San Quentin to cut its inmate population in half by either releasing or moving some 1,500 inmates. But California's prisons are the subject of long, ongoing litigation and court action due to overcrowding. And during the pandemic, the state has released some 20,000 inmates. But inmate rights attorney Jamie Popper says so far, the state has largely ignored the appeals court's ruling on San Quentin. She says the prison system overall is backsliding on early releases.

POPPER: Early release programs are decreasing in the number of people released dramatically, and the one specifically aimed at releasing people with the high medical risk was stopped at the beginning of October.

WESTERVELT: A spokeswoman for the state's prisons declined NPR's interview requests. As infection rates rise nationally and creep back up again in California, Assemblyman Levine worries the state is failing to reduce the prison population fast enough. And he reminds people that San Quentin's outbreak had a profound impact outside the prison's walls.

LEVINE: The prison system was calling 911 every single time an incarcerated individual needed hospitalization. This was not efficient.

WESTERVELT: The crisis severely taxed the area's emergency response system, Levine warns, and could well again. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.