Prison health needs greater priority in Indiana


Nursing homes have been major sources for COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths. A nursing home is a perfect storm of congregant living, a highly infectious novel virus, asymptomatic infections, and elderly individuals with chronic health conditions … the very people most at risk for serious coronavirus illness and death.

There is another congregant population with vulnerable individuals in crowded conditions, which is also a brew pot for COVID-19 outbreaks: correctional facilities.

These outbreaks not only affect prisoners and staff but may also extend to communities and have the potential to overload our healthcare system. Aside from some high-profile individuals being released from prison due to coronavirus risk, the problem in correctional institutions has garnered relatively little attention. At least 10 of the 15 largest coronavirus “clusters” have occurred in correctional facilities.

For example, in Ohio, the Marian Correctional Institution generated more than 2,400 cases. In Indiana, the National Guard was deployed to Westville Prison during a COVID-19 outbreak. Although no Indiana data is available for jails, as of June, 323 state prison staff and 715 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus (with only 7% tested); two staff and 20 incarcerated people have died. Nationally over 44,000 infections and 462 deaths have occurred among prisoners and correctional personnel.

Most jails and prisons possess less-than-optimal healthcare services and are encumbered with an at-risk population including older inmates and many with chronic diseases at rates much higher than the general population. Many are African-Americans and other minorities who are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis through essential-services employment, poverty, and higher chronic disease rates. Prisons are also generally lacking in COVID-19 testing and mitigation resources.

It is virtually impossible to socially distance in prisons or jails with overcrowding and facilities that were not designed to accommodate coronavirus-necessary living conditions to prevent spread of infection.

Beyond improving medical care and living conditions, necessary reforms include reducing correctional facility admissions and increasing releases to decrease population density. Medically-vulnerable prisoners and inmates with nonviolent offenses and other crimes that did not threaten public safety should be the focus. Older inmates and those with chronic diseases are more apt to get seriously ill and require more in-hospital services including critical and ventilator care.

Because one-third of incarcerated people are in local jails with short stays, "jail churn," the traffic of admissions and releases, promotes infection and spread to communities. Admission-reduction strategies include reclassifying non-public-safety-related misdemeanors to non-confining offenses, utilizing citations rather than arrests for minor offenses, and diversion when possible to mental health and substance abuse treatment. Similarly, reducing parole and probation revocations for “technical” violations, such as violating curfew or failing a drug test, would go a long way in reducing correctional populations.

Home detention, furloughs, parole, community service, or even commuting sentences are incarceration alternatives.

Indiana has yet to release a single inmate to help prevent coronavirus spread. Some states including Kentucky have developed release programs in response to COVID-19.

The public has little interest in prison health and politicians don’t win elections based on advocacy for those who have offended society. But correctional facilities are not isolated from the community-at-large with inmates, staff, vendors, and visitors entering and leaving these facilities and potentially serving as vectors for COVID-19 community spread.

How we treat prisoners is a measure of our society’s humanity. Action is warranted. If not for them, then we should do it for the common good.

Dr. Richard Feldman is an Indianapolis family physician and the former Indiana State Health commissioner. Send comments to [email protected]

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