‘An acute catastrophic crisis’: UC researchers seek to curb COVID-19 in jails, prisons

San Quentin State prison in San Quentin, California.
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To improve COVID-19 responses at San Quentin State Prison, researchers from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and UCSF recommend structural changes as well as reducing prison population by at least 50% of the prison's current capacity.

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Researchers from the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and UCSF are working to improve COVID-19 response in California state prisons.

According to UC Berkeley associate professor of public health Sandra McCoy, prisons make up nine of 10 top COVID-19 outbreak hotspots in the United States. Poor ventilation, lack of sanitation and cramped spaces in jails contribute to creating a “perfect environment” for the virus to spread, McCoy said.

“Prisons are sort of a central epidemiological link in how COVID will move through communities,” McCoy said. “They’re really worthy of attention.”

McCoy added that many incarcerated people are medically vulnerable. According to a June 15 report from the team, about 1,400 of 3,547 inmates at San Quentin State Prison had at least one COVID-19 risk factor.

According to Dr. Stefano Bertozzi, campus professor of public health policy and management, the team was first assembled to assess the coronavirus risks of San Quentin State Prison.

During a visit June 13, the researchers witnessed a “rapidly evolving” outbreak, according to the report. McCoy added that inmates were shouting at the team for help.

The report also found the prison’s resources to be “profoundly inadequate” in preventing a local epidemic.

The team’s recommendations include a number of structural changes, such as creating smaller inmate communities, encouraging people to spend more time outside and improving indoor ventilation. According to Bertozzi, these strategies reduce the number of people breathing the same air.

The team also encouraged San Quentin to reduce its prison population by at least 50% of its current capacity.

“One of our central recommendations is reducing the number of people in the facility,” McCoy said. “The core public health strategies we use to control COVID — like isolation and contact tracing — are just not possible in a place that is so overcrowded.”

According to Bertozzi, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to release up to 8,000 inmates by the end of August, prioritizing facilities that the team was most concerned about.

Bertozzi said the proposal is a “very important step in the right direction.”

“Our moral obligation is to make sure that we’re not punishing people who are in prison with sickness and death,” Bertozzi said. “That’s what we promise to do as a society.”

Viruses do not stay inside of prisons, according to Bertozzi.

He added that when prison employees leave work every day, they return to their families and communities.

“Keeping a prison safe keeps the community around the prison safe,” Bertozzi said. “Prison health is community health.”

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd.