America’s Prisons Are Breeding Grounds for COVID

“If you have an outbreak in a dorm setting, where you have five or six people who test positive, then the question is, well, there are 80 other people in that dorm setting, do you separate them into specific spots?” Wurcel said.

Communal showering can cause coronavirus-laden droplets to float through the air, increasing infection risk, Wurcel said. Dining rooms often require elbow-to-elbow crowding during mealtimes.

Beyond the crowding, inmates often are unable to practice protective hygiene due to prison rules, Springer and Wurcel noted.

Some jails and prisons do not supply soap, hand sanitizer and tissues, but instead require inmates to buy supplies necessary to prevent the personal spread of germs, experts said.

Correctional facilities also dole out fresh clothing and bedding sparingly, the journal article noted. Viruses are better able to spread if they cling to soiled cloth and pass via contact.

“In the era of this pandemic, I hope those policies can be readdressed to give everyone in jail who is incarcerated access to free soap,” Wurcel said.

Jail officials may not be able to catch an outbreak quickly because inmates are loath to report their illness, Wurcel and Springer added.

“Sometimes people who have symptoms in jail, because of mistrust of the medical system, are reluctant to identify and talk about their symptoms for fear of being put into isolation, which further takes away a lot of the limited privileges they have to begin with,” Wurcel said. “In a lot of ways there’s a disincentive for people who are incarcerated to identify when they have symptoms, which is really the key to finding and containing an epidemic, finding people who present with symptoms.”

More than a half million corrections officers work in U.S. facilities, and their health is at risk from any outbreak that occurs in their jail or prison, experts said.

“The people who work in jails and prisons are essential workers who unfortunately are often left out of the conversation,” Wurcel said.

Corrections facilities need the same sort of protective equipment used by health care workers — surgical masks and gloves — but finding a steady supply can be difficult these days, Wurcel said.

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