My Turn: Steps must be taken to prevent COVID-19 prison outbreak

For the Monitor
Published: 5/12/2020 6:00:09 AM

New Hampshire has done relatively well in containing the COVID-19 outbreak compared to many other states.

So far, this is true in our correctional settings as well, but there are reasons to worry that this will not hold in the longer run. Just like long-term care facilities, correctional facilities have conditions in which rapid spread of COVID-19 will be more likely. This could lead to a disastrous outbreak in correctional facility residents and spread among the staff, who may then spread disease back into the community.

The pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic shedding of this virus will sustain an even larger risk into the coming months as the lockdown of public gatherings eases.

With adequate testing and contact tracing, new outbreaks in most places can be kept small, reducing the risk of spread to the most vulnerable people. But all kinds of congregate living facilities will present risks for explosive disease outbreaks.

To prevent the sort of prison outbreak that has happened in Ohio, proactive steps must be taken soon.

In Ohio, the state was quick to embrace social distancing with stay-at-home orders when there were very few cases, as New Hampshire has also done quite well. However, despite this, more than one prison outbreak has occurred leading to serious illness and even deaths among inmates and staff (40-plus inmates and two staff have died so far in Ohio prisons).

To avert this happening here, several processes should be occurring.

1) Enable social distancing by reducing census in each facility. The governor should commute sentences where appropriate. This can be done safely and has been done by both Republican and Democratic governors in other states, e.g. Oklahoma and Kentucky.

2) Expedite probation and parole proceedings for inmates. To do this, it may be necessary to expand GPS monitoring and at home confinement.

3) Avoid increasing prison populations by finding different remedies than incarceration for new offenses and probation/parole violations.

4) Remove vulnerable individuals from crowded correctional settings. If it is deemed inconsistent with public safety to release some of these older adults, immunocompromised individuals and others with serious co-morbid illness, less contact with other prisoners and staff must be assured without putting them in the severely punishing setting of solitary confinement. Perhaps they could be moved into settings with direct staff contact only being with those who have recovered from COVID-19 and have returned to work.

5) New Hampshire must begin widespread testing of residents as well as staff in facilities run by the Department of Corrections. To date, 11 staff have tested positive for infection; only 13 inmates have been tested as of May 5, according to the N.H. DOC website. That means that less than 0.5% of inmates have been tested.

More testing is critical to identify those who are asymptomatic in order to prevent further spread among those housed there and among the staff. Staff can be the source of new outbreaks in the wider community as well since some will remain asymptomatic and not know they are exposing their family and other contacts as the state tries lifting some restrictions to reduce social isolation and economic damage.

While state officials have no direct control of county facilities, they should work to help their counterparts who control those facilities to do similar things to reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19 in the resident population and the staff that work there.

Finally, it is critical that more pressure be put on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to grant release on bond of the civilly detained undocumented immigrants that they hold at Strafford County jail. These are not individuals who present any danger in the community. It is a cruel travesty of justice that they are being held in a setting that exposes them to an increased risk of a potentially deadly disease.

(Dr. J.J. Smith lives in Pembroke.)

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