DOJ: Fears Of COVID-19 In Prisons Are ‘Unsubstantiated and Unwarranted’

Jessica Schulberg
DOJ prosecutors call concerns about contracting COVID-19 in prison "unsubstantiated and unwarranted,” despite overwhelming evidence that people who are incarcerated are at an exceptionally high risk of contracting the virus. (Aitor Diago/Getty Images)

Prosecutors at the Department of Justice have repeatedly argued in recent weeks that being incarcerated does not put individuals at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus — despite overwhelming evidence that detention facilities are among the most dangerous places to be during the current public health crisis. 

The federal prosecutors’ arguments came in response to motions from federal public defenders in San Diego, California, on behalf of several of their clients requesting modified bail conditions in response to COVID-19, which is spreading rapidly through the country’s crowded jails and prisons.

The defendants seeking modified bail have not been convicted of a crime in connection to their current imprisonment and are currently facing nonviolent immigration or drug charges. Most are at high risk of becoming severely ill or dying if infected with COVID-19 because of their age or health conditions. 

It is impossible for most incarcerated people to follow guidelines on social distancing, hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces. People incarcerated at San Diego’s Metropolitan Correctional Center and the Western Region Detention Facility (a private prison run by the GEO Group) have told defense lawyers they sleep in shared cells, often on bunk beds. They report inconsistent use of gloves and masks by guards and having access to neither. They don’t have reliable access to soap and are sometimes forced to buy their own from the commissary, which isn’t always well-stocked. They have observed other prisoners with severe coughs and fevers who have been unable to get timely medical care or are reluctant to report symptoms out of fear of losing their jobs. 

“I feel like I’m going to die here,” one GEO detainee told federal public defender Joshua Jones. 

When COVID-19 enters jails and prisons, it has spread much faster than in even the hardest-hit cities. At Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, the rate of infection is nearly...

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