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Coronavirus Is Spreading Through America’s Prisons and No One Is Ready

“Whatever gets in here starts spreading, and everyone gets it.”

by Tess Owen
Mar 24 2020, 3:52pm

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Justin Ray Faircloth has started keeping his spoon after meals at Limestone Correctional Facility, Alabama’s largest state prison. He’s not supposed to, but he figures that the fewer people touching his silverware, the better.

Faircloth, 34, has Stage IV colon cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemotherapy so far, and he believes he might die if the coronavirus makes its way into the prison and infects him.

“I don’t have an immune system,” Faircloth, told VICE News in a phone call from prison. “I try to distance myself as much as I possibly can, but in an open dorm it’s impossible.”

While most Americans are under order to practice social distancing to contain the spread of coronavirus, that’s not possible for the 2 million inmates in America’s state and federal prison system. Approximately 40% of inmates in the federal prison system suffer from chronic medical conditions, and the U.S. prison population is aging. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, about 11% of federal prison inmates are aged 56 or over.

Faircloth was taken into custody in October for violating the terms of his probation (including drug possession and resisting arrest) stemming from a 2014 drug offense. He shares a dorm with 120 other men, located across the hall from another dorm housing another 100.

“He’s a non-violent offender,” Faircloth’s wife Amber told VICE News. “All sick, non-violent and elderly inmates should be released home to their family during this time.”

Limestone has one of the biggest healthcare staff in the state, and because of that, has the largest elderly and sick inmate populations. Faircloth estimated he’s one out of about 1,000 others who would be particularly vulnerable if coronavirus got into the facility.

“It’s very sad and scary knowing I may never see him again,” Amber said.

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Justin Faircloth, his wife Amber, and their daughter, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Amber Faircloth)

A growing number of prisons and jails across the U.S. are reporting confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among their inmate populations. New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, a federal prison in Louisiana, and two state prisons in California, have been among them.

Activists have been ringing alarm bells for weeks, warning that the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in most American prisons make them ticking time bombs for the virus to spread very quickly among the inmate population.

In the last week, local officials in New York City, Los Angeles County and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County have taken steps to release vulnerable inmates to decrease their jail populations and mitigate the potential for the virus to spread. On Sunday, state and federal representatives for New York — which is the current epicenter of the virus — joined medical personnel and corrections officers union reps and called on the DOJ to release at-risk inmates from federal jails in the state. That same day, President Donald Trump said that his administration was looking at the possibility of releasing nonviolent, at-risk offenders from federal prisons.

On March 10, Alabama’s Department of Corrections — which is notorious for violence, understaffing, neglect and squalid conditions at its prisons — rolled out a series of measures designed to keep coronavirus out. Those measures mirrored many of those taken by state prison systems around the country, including ending in-person visitiations and suspending vocational classes.

READ: 2 confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey prison that holds ICE detainees

Then, late last week, Alabama’s Department of Corrections said one of their employees tested positive for COVID-19 — but did not reveal who they were, or what facility they’d been working in. They also said that no inmates had tested positive for the disease.

But Faircloth feels like they aren’t doing enough to keep it that way — and that’s particularly concerning with Limestone’s large number of elderly or infirm prisoners.

“They’ve stopped visitation, stopped trade school, stopped chapel services, but the officers still come in on a daily basis, healthcare services still come in on a daily basis,” said Faithcloth. “Pertaining to hand washing, no one has given us literature, given us gloves, or anything.”

“We’re still eating off trays that everyone touches,” Faircloth added.

Faircloth credits his good relationship with the prison nurses for the fact he was given a mask — he only sees some corrections officers walking around wearing masks and gloves. But other than that, he hasn’t seen any marked increase in efforts to sanitize the facility.

“No, they’re not wiping down the walls or coming in here with bleach,” said Faircloth. “We try our best to keep it as clean as possible.” Alabama’s Department of Corrections responded to VICE News’ request for comment with a link to their website detailing measures taken in response to coronavirus.

Faircloth was told on Tuesday he wasn't eligible for medical parole "at this time," and those decisions were solely at the discretion of Alabama's department of corrections.

As of Monday, Alabama officials counted nearly 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, but as the case rate in hotspots like New York has demonstrated, it may be a matter of weeks or even days before that figure balloons. Neighboring Georgia has over 800 confirmed COVID-19 cases — but still, inmates there say that prison officials aren’t acting quickly and decisively enough to keep them safe.

One female inmate at a transitional work center (which allows incarcerated people to get paying jobs in their community while serving their sentence) in Georgia described unsanitary conditions — and said officials were doing little to change that. She asked that her identity be kept anonymous for fear of retaliation.

“Currently we have one working toilet for 100 women,” she wrote in an email to VICE News. “The other three toilets are clogged with feces for weeks now.” She said that there’s just one small bottle of soap that’s left out for everyone to use. (Hand sanitizer is often deemed contraband in prisons because of its high alcohol content)

She says that many of the women she lives with have been laid off from their jobs in recent weeks because of coronavirus. “Absolutely nothing has changed in preparation for protecting us from the virus,” she wrote. “There are quite a few elderly here. I myself am 52 and have asthma.”

She says that next door is a prison that houses pregnant and sick inmates. “There’s only 30 some women there but the conditions are no better,” she wrote.

Other state prison systems sound like they’re a bit more prepared by comparison. Amy Swanson’s husband, who self-surrendered to the Duluth Prison Camp in Minnesota in mid-February, said that people started to panic inside a couple weeks ago when they were hearing more and more about coronavirus spreading on the news. Then, they were told that they weren’t allowed to have visitors for 30 days — and were given 200 free phone minutes.

“He said the first couple of days, they put hand sanitizer right when you go in, soap here and there, mostly just at hand washing stations,” Swanson said. “Then, they started staggering dining times, so it’s one dorm at a time.”

After that, they started taking inmates’ temperatures daily. And one dorm close to the perimeter’s fence that was closed down because of contraband that was getting thrown over, is now being transformed into a temporary medical center, Swanson said. “He’s been watching them get it ready for a quarantine area,” she said.

Swanson says that her husband has high blood pressure and only one functioning kidney, so she’s worried about his ability to resist the virus if it made its way into the prison.

“He called me, I could hear his nose getting stuffed up. He said, ‘I’m OK, I don’t have a fever.’ But then yesterday he called again, and he’s getting worse,” said Swanson. “He said it’s pretty common, whatever gets in here starts spreading, and everyone gets it.”

Cover: Inmates sit in a treatment dorm at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

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