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Is the Coronavirus Affecting Inmates at Prisons and Detention Centers in SC?

How is the Coronavirus outbreak affecting inmates at prisons and detention centers in SC?

It's something many people have not considered unless you have a family member locked up in a crowded jail with no opportunity to "social distance," no hand sanitizer, and no face masks...

If someone is arrested for a non-violent crime, should they be punished first with the terror of a potentially lethal virus working its way towards them through a crowded jail, and then with the possibility of death or a protracted, painful illness that may involve intubation and weeks of suffering?

If you are someone who would say, "It doesn't matter - you do the crime, you do the time. Should've thought about that before you bought those drugs," have you considered the effect of a mass influx of sick inmates to the local ER, some of whom will require ventilators to survive, and who in many cases will be entering hospitals in small, rural communities with limited resources?

What is SC doing right now to prevent a catastrophe in our local jails and prisons? What should we be doing?

How is the Coronavirus Affecting Inmates at Prisons and Detention Centers?

As of yesterday, SC is reporting only 13 presumed or confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Department of Corrections.

Just six days ago, the Department of Corrections was reporting that there were no cases of Coronavirus in the prison population, but that a corrections officer at Broad River Correctional Institution had tested positive:

An officer at Broad River Correctional Institution has tested positive for COVID-19 - the first reported case involving any correctional officer or inmate in the state's prison system.

Are the numbers accurate?

A prison official says, "the agency has kits to test inmates and a quarantine plan in place if someone has symptoms and is tested." There is a quarantine plan in place, but the agency declined to say what that plan is "due to security concerns." However,

any inmates suspected of having the coronavirus [will] be tested, put in isolation and monitored for 14 days. Any prisons staff suspected of having the disease would be sent home and any inmate or staff members who came into contact with the person would be isolated and monitored.

What else are prisons and detention centers doing and is it enough?

What are SC Prisons and Detention Centers Doing to Protect Inmates and their Surrounding Communities?

The procedures and response at local jails are determined, in part, by the Sheriff's Offices who are responsible for the facilities, and there have been mixed responses from different counties - some are working with courts, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to release at least some non-violent offenders or inmates who are particularly vulnerable due to age or health conditions.

For others, it's business as usual. Some counties have even been serving old warrants (because they suddenly have time on their hands?), increasing their jail populations...

According to the Department of Corrections, the statewide response in SC prisons as of yesterday includes:

  • A suspension of all visitations at all state and local detention centers in all counties for 30 days;
  • No volunteers from Kershaw County are permitted into any Department of Corrections facility (Kershaw County had nine of the 13 reported cases);
  • All new or sick inmates are checked for symptoms;
  • Any inmates showing symptoms should be "tested, put in isolation and monitored for 14 days;"
  • Any prison staff showing symptoms are to be sent home, and any inmates who had contact with them are to be isolated and monitored;
  • The prisons are "encouraging [their] more than 18,000 inmates to wash their hands frequently;" and
  • Hand sanitizer should be available to inmates in the cells and the common areas.

Is this enough to prevent the spread of the disease through the prison population, the deaths and suffering it will bring, and the potential for inmates flooding hospital ICU's that may quickly become overwhelmed?

Why SC's Response is not Enough

Most viruses, including the Coronavirus, are contagious before the person begins showing symptoms. The person who reports a sore throat and cough tomorrow may be spreading the virus to every inmate and staff they have contact with today...

Additionally, keep in mind that even those who eventually develop major noticeable symptoms may remain asymptomatic but still infectious for a while. For example, a paper that is posted on Medrxiv describes an analysis of data from Singapore and Tianjin, China. The research team estimated that nearly half (48%) of the transmission in Singapore had occurred from people before they had developed symptoms and 62% in Tianjin, China.

Even worse, new studies (one conducted with passengers on a cruise ship and another conducted with Japanese evacuees from Wuhan, China) show that from one-quarter to one-third of coronavirus carriers are asymptomatic.

Although asymptomatic carriers do not show any symptoms of the virus - and therefore will not be tested under SCDOC's current policy - they can still spread the virus to others they come into contact with.

Similar to the seasonal flu (which is not like the coronavirus in many other ways - the coronavirus is more deadly, is more likely to result in hospitalization, there are no proven treatments, has no vaccine, and there is no built-up immunity in the community), this results in "stealth" carriers who unintentionally infect unsuspecting coworkers, family, friends, and inmates...

Without much more widespread and frequent SARS-CoV2 testing, it is impossible to tell who is and isn't infected in any crowd.

Testing only the inmates and prison staff who show symptoms tells us whether a person showing symptoms has the virus. At that point, the only preventive measure available is to isolate every person they had contact with and, according to the SCDOC's statements, they still are not testing those people unless they show symptoms.

It's chasing the virus, always one step behind, until the entire facility's population becomes infected or more serious measures are put into place.

The only way to know who the carriers are and to prevent them from spreading it is to test everyone and to test them frequently.

That's not happening in the community, and it's also not happening in SC's prisons and jails where it is most needed.

As of yesterday, there are not a large number of reported confirmed cases of coronavirus in SC's jails and prisons. But for how long? Are the prisons doing enough? Are the courts, SCDOC, solicitor's offices, and law enforcement doing enough to protect SC's prison population?

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In a few locations in the state, law enforcement and solicitor's offices are working with defense attorneys to reduce bonds or schedule pleas for time-served, often by videoconference, to reduce the jail population and protect inmates who have underlying conditions. But they are not doing enough.

Sheriff's Departments, the SC Department of Corrections, the Governor's Office, Solicitor's Offices, and our state Supreme Court all should be taking extreme, decisive action to 1) regularly test all inmates and staff and 2) release non-violent offenders. Now.

If you have been charged with a crime or believe you may be under investigation in SC, call Axelrod and Associates now at (843) 916-9300 or send an email to talk with a Myrtle Beach, SC criminal defense attorney today.

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Axelrod & Associates, P.A.
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