What do we do about prisoners?
Dr. Dave Campbell, Chief Medical Correspondent
Dave Aronberg, State Attorney for Palm Beach County
Surging past 83,000 cases, the viral tsunami in the United States has surpassed the total number of infected with coronavirus in China and Italy. At the same time, some prisons and jails across the world are opening like flood gates to allow the incarcerated to flee.
We have seen this before. Between the spring and fall of 1980, Cuba opened its locked cells to release scores of prisoners imprisoned Cubans so they could jump on boats and rafts navigating the open waters to arrive on the shores of the United States. The impact on hospitals like Jackson Memorial in Miami was profound. Even in 1981, when a much younger Dave Campbell started medical school in Miami, the population of former prisoners launched and freed from Mariel Harbor the year before was evident all through the halls and hospital beds of that university-based teaching hospital.
As the coronavirus has spread across the globe, prisons and jails have consistently been huge problem spots in places where the outbreaks are intense. As with any “congregate setting,” environments where groups of people are gathered in close-proximity, infectious diseases thrive. But the difference in jails and prisons is that residents cannot determine their own self-quarantine program. They can’t just leave and be quarantined elsewhere. And it’s not just the incarcerated who are at risk: guards, doctors and other prison staff returning to their communities after their shifts may carry the virus back to their families. Those in jail for only a few days or weeks rotate in and out of the community.
The most surefire way to avoid a COVID-19 breakout in a correctional facility is to temporarily release incarcerated people, as has occurred in Iran. But indiscriminate orders leading to mass jail exits could jeopardize public safety at a particularly tenuous time. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who leads the largest office of state prosecutors in the country, recently announced that her office will delay the filing of new cases against nonviolent offenders who do not pose a risk to the community, and will allow defendants who violate their probation or parole on nonviolent and non-serious crimes to be sent home instead of returned to custody. Her office will also consider whether a defendant is at high risk from exposure to COVID-19 when making bail recommendations.
Defense lawyers, criminal justice reform advocates and even some prosecutors have been calling for more widespread action. The Federal Defenders of New York want anyone who tests positive for the virus to be quarantined in hospitals rather than prison, and that arrestees be detained only under “extraordinary circumstances” to avoid any new cases from entering prisons or jails.
“My ten years in state taught me a lot,” said Michael C. Knecht, who entered the Department of Corrections in the State of Florida at the age of 19. “Counter to what I see in the media, prisons will better control COVID-19 before the streets. They can lock down and isolate the inmates for as long as needed. The precedent for quarantine occurred with Scabies. While I was in, there were three- to four-day quarantines to rid the facility of an outbreak.”
At our request, Michael C. Knecht developed a strategy for COVID-19 Prison Outbreak Containment. Tens years inside has given him insight that most of us thankfully do not have. It is his unique and original opinion and has not been validated by any studies but is nonetheless innovative and intriguing.
COVID-19 Prison Outbreak Containment
1.) Mandatory prison lockdown nationwide
2.) No visitation
3.) Stop all nonessential inmate Jobs.
4.) Continue but closely monitor essential inmate jobs
- a. Inmates who work in medical with staff
- b. Canteen workers
- c. Maintenance workers
- d. Cleaning crews
- e. Food service workers/Kitchen
- f. Laundry workers/Staff
5.) Lower cross-contamination risks by training inmates on proper handling of:
b. Inmate clothing
c. Food trays going in and coming out of the cells
d. Requests and Forms
6.) Shared Bathroom Facilities MUST to be sanitized after each use
7.) Prisons need to use the Scabies Containment Model to quarantine and/or isolate the individual infected or showing symptoms until medically cleared
8.) All inmates and staff need to be trained how to put on and take off gloves
“Current non-violent prisoners may be best suited to serve their sentences outside the system to minimize any prison overcrowding,” Charlie Orlando, Captain (ret.) Greenacres Department of Public Safety told us. “Early prisoner release is not an uncommon occurrence, therefore during this particularly unusual coronavirus outbreak, such measured precautions are clearly understandable and acceptable.”
Concerned about public safety risks during a state of emergency, Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw opposes such releases, noting that his county’s jails are only at 50% capacity and without any reported case of coronavirus. Every inmate is screened by medical professionals upon admission and anyone with symptoms is immediately sent to the hospital. Visitors are not permitted. The Sheriff has two locations in the county to communicate with inmates via video conferencing.
Knecht, the former inmate, takes a nuanced approach. On one hand, keeping prisoners inside a secure, sterile facility could also prevent the further spread of this contagious disease. “They are set up for containment,” he said. A prison lockdown will stop the virus from spreading rapidly. Inmates showing signs can be immediately quarantined and given the proper healthcare treatment.” But in Knecht’s view, “minimum custody inmates who have been tested for the COVID-19 virus should be released to lighten the burden on the system. Fewer inmates means the staff can do their job more efficiently. It will also lighten the burden on our government during this economic downturn. We spend millions incarcerating non-violent offenders. This would be a stimulus. We can get inmates out on probation and put them to work.”
Many district attorneys, however, remain skeptical of blanket proposals. A spokesman for New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told local reporters that “we review bond-reduction motions on a case-by-case basis and oppose them when appropriate in the interest of public safety. This is hardly the time to encourage lawlessness.”
In Palm Beach County, where co-author Dave Aronberg is the top prosecutor, his office also reviews each request on a case-by-case basis to balance public safety with a desire to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in a confined location where it is difficult to accomplish social distancing.
Aronberg is also monitoring reports that two Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office deputies who work in the jail division have tested positive for COVID-19, although no inmates have shown any symptoms. So far, 40 total Sheriff deputies have been on self-quarantine after a possible exposure to the virus, and all but one of them have been cleared to return to work.
We are experiencing a pandemic. Although it is often said that desperate times call for desperate measures, policymakers within the criminal justice system are constrained by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and are kept in check by the voters who elect their sheriff, district attorneys and public defenders. The ultimate power to decide which strategy to pursue during this state of emergency will come from the people themselves, as these are decisions made at the local level. In the midst of all the questions around the novel coronavirus, one certainty is that the debate over which approach better protects public health and public safety will remain uncertain.