Prisons countrywide bracing for coronavirus outbreak

New York News

NEW YORK (AP) — American correctional facilities on high alert for COVID-19 are increasing screenings, sanitizing cells, and urging lawyers to avoid in-person visits to limit the potential for the virus to spread among inmates.

There are no reports so far of the coronavirus inside jails or prisons. Still, experts warn that prisons have been flashpoints for contagions before, while pointing out that we have more people are incarcerated per capita than in other countries.

China reports an explosion of more than 500 coronavirus cases in five facilities across three provinces, and Iran temporarily released 54,000 inmates to try to block a potential prison epidemic.

Officials warning for over a decade of a correctional facility outbreak say a cell is the ideal space for an illness to spread, due to long hours spent in close quarters with strangers, and toilets used near to beds.

Hand-washing and other simple hygienic tasks may not happen in such environments, where hand sanitizer is contraband because it contains alcohol. Because so many prisoners are from low-income backgrounds, even released prisoners are crammed into germy public transit when they get out.

Throughout the country, criminal attorneys meet with clients by video and handle legal documents with extreme care.

After the 2009 swine flu outbreak infected hundreds of American prisoners, most prison systems created pandemic preparation plans, which have been updated to include COVID-19 in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Chicago, and elsewhere.

The New York City Department of Correction is cleaning and sanitizing cells, common spaces, showers, and transport buses more frequently. Sick inmates at Rikers Island are screened, with the option of being transported to nearby hospitals or communicable disease units.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon in New York City ordered screenings of inmates at a nearby federal jail, saying they should not come to court with a temperature above 100.3 degrees.

Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons is working to implement a new screening tool, under 9% of the nation’s incarcerated are federally detained. Therefore, local correctional facilities—where someone awaits federal and municipal hearings or arraignments—bear the costs of screening incoming prisoners.

While local prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers are the front lines of a possible outbreak, none so far have the proper medical kits to test for the virus.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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