Editorial: Keep COVID-19 out of our jails, prisons and detention centers

Editorial Board

The world is in a frenzy that our generation has never seen before. Stores are entirely out of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, food is being hoarded, entire states are quarantined, the National Guard has been deployed to deliver food, and travel has been restricted in and out of the United States. We are in a pandemic.  

Over 1,200,000 people worldwide are confirmed as infected by this new strain of coronavirus with a 3.4% mortality rate. After starting in Wuhan, China, the virus has now spread to over 175 countries. As COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to spread across the world, we are actively experiencing the power of Mother Nature.  

No one is immune and we all face risks of contracting the virus; however, we must still recognize how the virus impacts some more than others. Elderly populations and individuals with underlying medical illnesses or compromised immune systems are most at risk for serious or fatal cases of COVID-19. Further, only some people can afford to stay at home and pay for food and supplies to be delivered, while others must risk their health and safety by working several jobs, and still barely afford healthcare, food and shelter. As states issue full “shelter-in-place” orders, some families will simply be unable to make ends meet. Additionally, people in county jails, prisons and detention centers are especially vulnerable, as these locations can easily descend into viral hotbeds of the contagion. 

This is uncharted territory for us all. State and federal governments are forced to weigh the consequences of a nationwide lockdown against people’s health and safety, and then make difficult decisions. What we unequivocally understand, however, is that if we fail to act—and act aggressively—the U.S. alone will suffer millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths. As we all struggle with the loneliness of self-isolation and disappointment of being unable to return to school, let us try to still support our community as best we can. If you are still located in Cleveland and feel comfortable, this support can manifest in the form of helping deliver meals to the elderly or reaching out to non-profit organizations that need remote support. However, for the many of us residing elsewhere for the foreseeable future, our support for the community may need to take the form of phone calls, emails and petitions to ensure our most vulnerable populations are made safe. 

Among these populations are people in the Cuyahoga County Corrections Center (CCCC), other county jails within Ohio, halfway houses and detention centers.

To date, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has taken precautions to prevent the spread of the COVID-19, such as closing down public schools, restaurants and all non-essential businesses. However, in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19 to and within county jails, DeWine has only suggested releasing 38 non-violent inmates. Incarcerated populations are among the most vulnerable to the effects of the virus, especially considering the poor conditions of jails—lack of proper hygiene products—and lack of adequate healthcare. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as local advocacy groups, such as the Coalition to Stop the Inhumanity at the Cuyahoga County Jail (the Coalition), have proposed temporary policies to protect incarcerated individuals. 

For example, the Oriana House, a halfway house on the east side of Cleveland, has tried to downsize by 30%, but 350 residents of all ages and genders remain in multiple rooms of eight bunk beds. The Jail Coalition has called for the Oriana House to comply with physical distancing standards. In January, a case of the flu was spread through the House to nearly all residents; if COVID-19 infiltrates the House, it will spread like wildfire and could be especially deadly. One man at the Oriana House spoke to The Plain Dealer about these exact worries. The day the article was published, the man was taken back to prison. Officials say that it was because the man did not ask permission before speaking to a member of the public. (But, how are people to report abuses if they cannot talk to people in the public, especially members of the press?) 

To address this issue in the Oriana House, as well as similar problems in county jails, we must begin the process of reforming our criminal justice system. Specifically, non-violent criminals should be released from long prison sentences, and violent criminals who remain imprisoned should be treated with respect and dignity. Furthermore, our system should emphasize rehabilitation instead of punishment, such that when a person is released they are not marked with a scarlet letter, unable to find work, housing or pursue education. These efforts can be accomplished by setting the precedent of providing adequate housing, healthcare and work training to those incarcerated. 

Over a matter of months between 2018-2019, nine inmates at the CCCC died. There were many reports of a lack of adequate physical and mental healthcare support and necessary assistance—such as wheelchairs. Additionally, inmates reported overcrowding and claimed they are forced to sleep on the ground. 

All of these systematic failures continue to occur at the CCCC and in hundreds of other jails around the country. To address these issues is to also prepare for the coronavirus. 

This is not to say that nothing is being done. On March 19, Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor urged jails to release vulnerable inmates. The CCCC responded to O’Connor’s suggestion and released nearly 600 low-level offenders, reducing its inmate population to just over 1,300. Currently, six CCCC inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and have since been moved to areas of isolation.

The released inmates are required to cover costs of housing and electronic monitoring—fees of over $56 per week. Additionally, pretrial defendants have been released temporarily while the pandemic continues to worsen. They too are required to pay for electronic monitoring despite being legally innocent. We have a responsibility to help provide low-income or government-assisted housing for these inmates and defendants, as well as to eliminate the monitoring fees. For the remaining inmates, we must again ensure they have access to soap and other hygiene products—without being forced to pay out of pocket for them—as well as access to face and video calls in place of visitation. 

And, as county jail inmates are being released, we should demand the same of immigrant detention centers. Hundreds of immigrants are being held at four county jails throughout Ohio with no indication that they are being considered for release. These too are hotbeds for the virus.  

To affect change in the criminal justice system is difficult to say the least. However, as we continue remote classes from around the world, we can sign our names to petitions put forth by the ACLU and Ohio Immigrant Alliance to keep coronavirus out of courts, jails, prisons and detention centers, and to ensure that even the most vulnerable people among us are protected.\

While these are challenging times, and there is plenty to be overwhelmed by or stressed about, we must also appreciate the small victories.  

A man in Scranton, PA was taken to a local emergency room three weeks ago. Upon discharge, he was handcuffed in the hospital and taken away by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Beyond this local example, major cities—New York, Detroit, Boston, San Francisco—reported major increases in arrests as part of Operation Palladium, which intends to arrest as many undocumented people as possible. Both scenarios are terrifying. If ICE was able to continue surveilling and arresting people at high rates, any undocumented person would surely have been concerned about seeking necessary medical assistance. Fortunately, grassroots protesting combined with a letter from five congresspersons resulted in ICE changing their policy. As of March 18, ICE officers will focus only on individuals who have committed serious, federal crimes. For all others, ICE will “exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis.” While we wait and see whether ICE lives up to their new policy, at least they will, supposedly, allow all people access to healthcare as necessary without fear of detainment or deportation—for now. 

There is no reason anyone should ever be detained for 21 hours a day with limited hygiene products, food and water—whether we are in a pandemic or not. Yet, these conditions are experienced in Cleveland jails and immigration detention centers, alike. As we all do our best to self-isolate, flatten the curve and limit the spread of COVID-19, let us remember how this virus will impact certain populations more than others, and do what we can—even from our couch—to offer assistance.