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Crime Coronavirus outbreak behind bars: Advocates fear inmates will hide symptoms

15:51  23 march  2020
15:51  23 march  2020 Source:   sfchronicle.com

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Violence broke out in the prison out of inmates ' fears that authorities are not doing enough to prevent coronavirus inside overcrowded prisons. The government has taken a handful of initial measures, including barring relatives from visiting inmates .

The 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic is an ongoing pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Adnan Khan recalled the hot and cold flashes, the relentless shivering, and the pain so excruciating that he struggled getting out of his bunk.

a couple of people posing for the camera: Adnan Khan, a former San Quentin inmate, worries that prisoners will avoid reporting symptoms of the coronavirus. © Re:store Justice

Adnan Khan, a former San Quentin inmate, worries that prisoners will avoid reporting symptoms of the coronavirus.

He refused to tell the staff at San Quentin State Prison how sick he was.

“Instead of going to medical because of fear of being sent to solitary confinement and having my stuff taken away and no TV — to be punished for being sick — I chose to just be in my cell,” he said.

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Khan, who was incarcerated for 16 years, is the executive director of Re:store Justice, the Oakland nonprofit he founded while in prison to advocate for criminal justice reform. He’s still haunted by memories of convulsing for three days in prison, with an ailment that was never diagnosed.

Now that coronavirus is in the prison system, with three prison workers in the state testing positive as of Saturday, Khan fears that many inmates will hide symptoms for the same reason he did. That raises the possibility of a pandemic overwhelming an insular space, putting everyone — guards, health staff and other inmates — at risk.

Coronavirus frightens many people, but it poses a particularly dire threat to incarcerated folks who cannot practice social distancing. As the mysterious disease spreads across the country, a growing chorus of civil rights advocates and health professionals is calling for the release of people held in local, state and federal lock-ups. That’s because people in prison share cells and dormitories. They use the same tables, chairs and bathrooms, and the same phones to call home.

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The Coronavirus Outbreak . debugid:204. The New York subway will be disinfected every 72 hours, officials say. Iran frees 54,000 inmates to avoid spread in prisons. A researcher developing coronavirus testing kits at a lab in Nutley, N.J., last week.Credit Kena Betancur/Getty Images.

They do everything we’re being told not to do.

Jail environments are ripe for transmission, Christopher Warren, an epidemiologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, told me. Lawyers, deputies and other support staff enter facilities daily. And people are still committing crimes that warrant arrests.

“Even with the best possible sanitation, there’s just no way to really truly lower the risk of transmission to a sufficient degree to protect public health,” Warren said. “Right now, we have no idea how many people have COVID-19 in the jails, because testing has not been widely implemented yet.”

For an idea of how the coronavirus might impact correctional facilities, look at how another contagious illness, the norovirus, has circulated in California’s jails and prisons for more than a decade.

In October, about 70 people at the California Institution for Men in Chino (San Bernardino County) required treatment for stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea — symptoms associated with norovirus, which is commonly called the stomach flu. In May, a norovirus outbreak at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin sickened more than a dozen people.

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In 2008, as norovirus swept through the Correctional Training Facility, a prison in Soledad (Monterey County), Sam Lewis disinfected his cell and stopped going to the cafeteria. Still, he woke up one night with severe diarrhea.

“Your body is convulsing,” said Lewis, the executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. “I remember asking the night man if he could call someone.”

He told Lewis he had to wait until the morning.

I asked Warren how norovirus compared with coronavirus.

“You would expect similar rates of spread,” he said.

But there’s a conspicuous difference: People with norovirus don’t end up in hospitals on respirators. Or dead.

Public health is at risk everywhere but prisoners, like those living in homeless encampments, are shackled by their inability to create an isolated space for themselves. They’re stuck.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for setting violent felons free. But older inmates — people with serious health problems, people who committed nonviolent offenses and people with just a few months left on their sentences — should be candidates for release. This is about clearing space so officials have room to maneuver if there’s an outbreak.

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“We have spent the last few decades finding ways to send people to jail, and especially prison, for longer periods of time and at younger ages,” said Keith Wattley, an Oakland attorney and founder of UnCommon Law, a nonprofit that specializes in helping prisoners with a potential life sentence win parole. “We have lacked any imagination or will to find safe pathways to bring them back home, and as a result we have thousands of people who are stuck in these very difficult circumstances.”

Last week my colleague Megan Cassidy reported that elected prosecutors in San Francisco, Contra Costa County and more than two dozen other jurisdictions across the United States called for jails and prisons to release people. Alameda County released 300 people. About 2,300 remain incarcerated in the county, and Alameda Public Defender Brendon Woods wants more released.

“There is a vulnerable population that will be in jail and prison, and they will die,” Woods said.

In Contra Costa County, only 20 people were released last week, according to the Sheriff’s Office. A spokesman told me the office is searching to identify those “who could potentially be released if the facilities become impacted by coronavirus.”

The speed isn’t matching the urgency required to respond to this situation. Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton told me that her office is working to identify cases for early release. There were 994 people in county jails on Saturday.

As of March 18, there were about 123,000 people held in state prisons. Of the three prison employees who have tested positive, one is at California State Prison, Sacramento, and two are at the California Institution for Men.

Khan said the incarcerated people he’s talked to sense the danger.

“The best I can do is empathize and listen,” he said. “That is such a helpless feeling.”

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Otis R. Taylor Jr. appears Mondays and Thursdays. Email: otaylor@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @otisrtaylorjr

Harris County to release about 1,000 'non-violent' inmates, calling jail a 'ticking time bomb' .
Calling the Harris County Jail a "ticking time bomb," County Judge Lina Hidalgo said about 1,000 "non-violent" inmates will be released. Hidalgo said this drastic action is necessary so they can practice social distancing to stop help stop the spread of coronavirus inside the jail. One Harris County inmate has tested positive for COVID-19. "New cases will spread like wildfire if we don't take quick action," Hidalgo said Tuesday. She will issue aOne Harris County inmate has tested positive for COVID-19.

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