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COVID-19 is spreading quickly through state and federal prisons, and authorities are not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 in the prisons may not seem like a big deal to some – you did the crime, you do the time, right? Except:

1) No one was sentenced to negligent exposure to a life-threatening illness;

2) The government and prison authorities are responsible for the health and safety of those who are incarcerated; and

3) The unchecked spread of COVID-19 through prison and jail populations allows the continued spread of the virus through the communities where the prisons and jails are located, through arrests and releases at local jails and through staff and volunteers who have regular contact with inmates before returning to their family and community.

What can prison authorities do to prevent the spread? Test. Test everyone and test them often. Isolate all who test positive even if they are not showing symptoms.


Just over a month ago, the SC Department of Corrections (SCDOC) was reporting there were no cases of COVID-19 in the prison population. Less than a week after that, SCDOC reported there were only 13 cases of COVID-19 in the prisons.

One month later, the SCDOC is asking for help from the National Guard:

The South Carolina Department of Corrections is asking for National Guard troops to help prevent the spread of coronavirus in prisons, according to the department.

The corrections department will request 20 to 30 troops to help screen and monitor inmates for COVID-19 at three prisons: Allendale Correctional Institution, Lee Correctional Institution and the Kirkland intake center, spokesperson Chrysti Shain said.

What will the National Guard do?

SCDOC wants to monitor inmates at two prisons for symptoms of COVID-19, but they don’t have enough staff available:

At least twice a day, about 1,600 inmates at Kirkland and Allendale must be monitored by taking temperatures, pulses, and checking for other symptoms, according to Shain. The prisons don’t have enough medical staff to do the daily checks of inmates for coronavirus.

Sounds reasonable, right? Check inmates for symptoms of the virus, then isolate them if they are showing symptoms…

Except we know that as many as one-third of COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic. If inmates who are not showing symptoms of infection are, nevertheless, infected and spreading the virus to other inmates and staff, testing and isolating only those inmates who show symptoms does nothing to stop the spread of the virus.

It does not tell authorities who is infected or how they became infected. At best, it tracks the inmates who are both 1) infected and 2) symptomatic. The only way to isolate those who are infected and contagious (which includes asymptomatic carriers as well as people who are showing symptoms) is to test every inmate regularly.

SCDOC, like the federal prisons and the civilian authorities, are not testing everyone, and are allowing the virus to continue to spread through the prisons and local jails, and then into the local communities through prison staff, visitors, volunteers, attorneys, and court personnel.


The federal prisons are not doing any better than SC state prisons – last week, the BOP said that 70% of federal inmates that have been tested are positive for COVID-19.


So, how many federal inmates have been infected with COVID-19? They have only tested 2700 out of a total of approximately 153,000 federal inmates. How many more inmates have contracted COVID-19 but were not tested? How many are unknowingly spreading COVID-19 because they are asymptomatic and have not been tested?

More than 70 percent of federal inmates who have been tested for the coronavirus have COVID-19, the Bureau of Prisons said Wednesday.

About 2,700 inmates have been given tests, and 71 percent of those came back positive.

In the federal system, as many as 130 inmates are hospitalized each day due to complications from COVID-19:

Allen said as many as 130 prisoners require hospitalization due to the virus on any given day. High-profile cases include an inmate who died after her baby was delivered through caesarean section while the woman was on a ventilator.

343 guards and prison staff have tested positive for COVID-19 as well:

At least 343 Bureau of Prison staff have also tested positive for the virus, and another 132 have recovered, according to the agency.

Are state and federal prisons doing enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 through prisons and jails?

Why SC and Federal Prisons are not Doing Enough

What are prison authorities doing to stop the spread of the virus? They are testing and isolating any inmates who show symptoms of COVID-19:

Inmates with the coronavirus are being isolated and treated at the Kirkland and Lee prisons, where inmates, “cellmates and any other offenders who present as symptomatic also are being monitored,” Shain said in a statement.

They are ignoring the likelihood that many asymptomatic carriers are spreading the virus, and the BOP has tested less than two percent of the prison population so far:

Officials say they expect the overall number of cases to rise since testing so far has covered less than 2 percent of the 153,000 inmates in the federal system, The Wall Street Journal reported

“When I hear numbers like that, my thoughts are there is massive under-testing, there are probably thousands of additional people who are infected that they may not have captured yet, and it really feels like a public health crisis in the making,” Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, told the Journal.

What could they do?

Instead of chasing the virus and identifying those who have been infected and are symptomatic, they could test every inmate every day, isolating those who test positive and thereby eliminating the asymptomatic carriers…


The attorneys and staff on the Axelrod team are working hard to prevent our clients from going to jail or prison and to secure the release of all clients who are at risk during the pandemic.

If you have been charged with a crime or believe you may be under investigation in SC, call Axelrod and Associates now at 843-353-3449 or send an email to talk with a Myrtle Beach, SC criminal defense attorney today.

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