After anticipating jail COVID surges like Comanche County’s, ACLU Oklahoma encourages quick action to impede coronavirus spread
Published: May 28th, 2020
Oklahoma City – The ACLU of Oklahoma this week asked Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow to act quickly to impede the spread of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) in state prisons and jails.
The group encouraged state government officials to “heed public health experts’ advice and immediately commit to full testing for COVID-19 in all correctional facilities, work with communities so that jails across all 77 counties have adopted the ODOC guidelines for COVID response, and work to lower the populations of people in detention.”
Renewing a late April distribution of information on the issue, ACLU of Oklahoma maintained, “Taking these swift actions will ensure that jail and prison COVID-19 outbreaks can be handled safely without unnecessary harm to people who are imprisoned, people who staff custodial facilities, or healthcare workers who serve those populations.”
The ACLU and its partners released an epidemiological model (http://city-sentinel.com/2020/04/aclu-advances-model-to-prevent-covid-death-surge-in-prisons-and-jails/) outlining how correctional facilities can “exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people nationwide than current projections stipulate if the populations are not dramatically and immediately addressed.”
A COVID eruption at the Comanche County Detention Center in Oklahoma, ACLU Oklahoma said in a May 26 press release, “underscores the speed with which this disease can be transmitted. Therefore, no response to COVID-19 can be meaningful or effective without across-the-board testing.”
As early as mid-May, when The Lawton Constitution’s Scott Rains detailed the COVID surge at the county facility, Brandie Holmes (a regional official with the state Department of Health) expressed that officials were “very concerned about what we have seen to date.”
By late last week, state officials had removed 140 health inmates from the county facility (https://oklahoman.com/article/5662880/non-infected-inmates-removed-from-comanche-county). Those inmates were transported to state facilities if they had twice consecutively tested negative for the virus.
In the recent ACLU Oklahoma press release, sent to The City Sentinel and other news organizations, the civil liberties group stated, “Many people who carry the virus are asymptomatic and adequately identifying the breadth of the problem or effective solutions without a clear count puts the lives of staff, people who are incarcerated and those living in the surrounding communities at risk. The immediate and universal testing in all state and local correctional and detention facilities and reporting of those results are necessary steps to understand the true scope of the problem.
“Especially in a public health emergency, our government must make every effort to protect the rights of people experiencing illness or at risk of illness. This includes jails, prisons, and other detention facilities in the state facing barriers that often have large numbers of people who are especially vulnerable to the virus.”
Key findings/projections in the national ACLU study, as reported in The City Sentinel last month, included
• If a model that doesn’t account for jails predicts the U.S. death toll will be 100,000, the ACLU model shows that that projection undercounts deaths by 98 percent. Actual deaths, once accounting for jails, could be more than double, rising to 200,000, the study’s analysts conclude.
• Implementing swift, bold reforms to reduce arrests by 50 percent can save 12,000 lives in jails, and 47,000 lives in the surrounding communities.
• Aggressive action and policy change could save as many as 23,000 people in jail and 76,000 in the broader community if arrests end for anything but the five percent of crimes defined as most serious by the FBI — including murder, rape, and aggravated assault — and double the rate of release for those already detained.
• States that have begun to reduce their jail populations are quantifiably saving lives. Colorado, for example, has so far achieved a 31 percent reduction in jail population. The ACLU analysis/model found this likely will save 1,100 lives — reducing total lives lost in the state by 25 percent.
• Delaying action for a week could mean a difference of 18,000 lives lost in the U.S., the ACLU analysts believe.
“The prevailing epidemiological models largely fail to take into account our incarceration rates and the complete absence of social distancing in our jails — which is why we had to build our own model,” said
Lucia Trian, chief analytics officer, for the national ACLU. “We can’t save our community while ignoring our jails.”
In this week’s ACLU Oklahoma release, the group contended: “The actions of ODOC in coordination with the Comanche County Detention Center only act to underscore the need for a system-wide response in jails across the state. We strongly call on all sheriffs to implement the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 response guidelines as stated in their Pandemic Planning Guide, as recommended by the Oklahoma State Department of Health.”