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As COVID-19 spreads, experts call for the release of the most vulnerable people in prisons and jails.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore. Welcome to this episode of [inaudible 00:00:12] also.
Recently there’s been a ton of news on prisons and prisoners locked down based on this coronavirus. The fact is that prisoners are in probably the most vulnerable positions of any other people in society. Now America has over 3 million people locked down either in prisons or jails, and we need to look at what’s happening here in America with the prison system itself and we also need to look at what’s happening around the world.
In Brazil, there has been riots and mass escapes. In Italy, there’s been at least 27 riots. At some point Italy had decided to let some prisoners out. In Iran they let out 70,000 prisoners, temporarily released. And then other places around the world, prisoners are now in jeopardy.
So joining me today to look at what’s going on here in America, is Sarah Vert, who was the former head of the Federal Prison Program Disease Infectious Unit. Also with me is Tyrone Walker, who works for the Justice Policy Institute and he spent some time inside the prison system, so he can give us some insight. And also we’re being joined by Keith Wallington, who is the statewide strategy coordinator for Justice Policy.
So I want to start off talking to Sarah. First place, thanks for joining me, all three of you. [crosstalk 00:02:29] Sarah, can you basically give us an overview of what the conditions are in the prison system itself in terms of disease prevention and while you’re doing that, give us an understanding of what prison officials across the country should be doing?

Sarah: Sure, Eddie. You characterized it beautifully. Back in 2007, I was working on the pandemic influenza plan for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and I felt like I was the only person in the world thinking about this problem. It just is stunning what is now happening is coming true, all those imaginings I had. When you cram as many human beings together in one place as we do in this country, it’s a setup for serious infectious disease issues. This has just gone unrecognized, I think. The public health consequences of mass incarceration are very significant, and I lived with that every day with TB outbreaks and norovirus outbreaks. And now here we are with pandemic flu.
At this point, CDC has not yet issued guidance with regards to correctional management for COVID-19. We’re awaiting it. It should be out in the next three or four days. In that vacuum, I’ve been working with a private correctional healthcare company that is a very progressive company, and have written a plan with the former medical director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Viola Riggins, the head of this company, has now distributed that to correctional health officials in every state. So they may have something.
Let’s talk about what should be done. First, Eddie, I think you’re absolutely right on thinking about releasing inmates that are low risk and are older or have those medical conditions that place you at risk, things like diabetes, heart disease and lung disease. We have a brief window of time where that will work before it gains entrance into our facilities. We will unlikely to be able to release people once it’s in there because then the released prisoners will become vectors of the disease. But right now we have a very brief window of opportunity. So that goes well beyond my experience how you do that, but this is the moment in time when we need to address mass incarceration head on and figure out how to release people quickly.
That said, once in the prison, there’s basic fundamentals of election control and so the plan that we wrote covers that. You got to have good administration and coordination to make sure that you’ve got good planning and that you’re communicating effectively with inmates, with staff and with families of incarcerated persons.
You’ve been hearing about shutting down visits, volunteers, lawyer visits, and that’s an effort to try to prevent this from coming in. And yet has potentially dire consequences in terms of mental health. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons for the riots in these other places. As they do that, they really need to figure out ways to keep folks engaged and busy with other things when they don’t have their usual access.
Employee screening is now being recommended by the Federal Bureau of Prisons for all employees who work in places where there’s community transmission of the virus. So, in California, New York, Washington state, employee screening is recommended.
So new intakes should be screened and hopefully you’re really reducing your number of new intakes. I read yesterday that LA has reduced the number of arrests from 300 to 60. I know that Baltimore is doing some similar things. And this is really sensible to reduce the number of intakes to only those people that really pose a risk to society.
And then once you’ve identified the people that potentially have respiratory symptoms among the incarcerated population, we need to immediately put a surgical mask on them and evaluate them for COVID-19. And ideally isolate them from the rest of the population while awaiting a workup. As you know the testing is really iffy and so each correctional facility across the nation is going to have to be working with their local health department, I can’t emphasize that enough, so that they can figure this out together.
Also figuring out plans for where you’re going to send these people, so if people get severely short of breath. So making arrangements with your local hospital so that you have direct access when you need it to transport an incarcerated person to the hospital.
The personal protective equipment crisis is truly a crisis, and one of the reasons for this whole thing that you’ve been hearing about, flattening the curve, is so that production of mass respirators and gowns and gloves can be ramped up because we have nowhere near enough. I was just astonished that CDC had released guidance to use bandanas, homemade masks. I’ve never seen such a thing in all my career. And so once you’re isolating inmates with this disease, they need to be evaluated regularly to make sure that you’re picking up if they have symptoms that are severe to get them out.
And then quarantine is another strategy for incarcerated prisoners that are known to be exposed. So let’s say you have a case in a housing unit, you pull that case out, you isolate or cohort them with other people with similar illness. Then you need to protect the rest of the population from getting it. So quarantine is another strategy to … And I strongly recommend that if it’s possible that we have some kind of masks for these people so that if somebody gets sick they’re not infecting the rest of the population. So that’s a really quick overview of what’s involved in a correctional pandemic plan.

Eddie Conway: Okay, all right. I will come back to you. Keith, in the state of Maryland, I understand that Governor Hogan recently made a statement that prisoners were the safest of all populations because they were already quarantined. How do you address that statement and what’s the reality of prisoners in the state of Maryland?

Keith Wallingto…: I think it’s somewhat of an irresponsible statement because the governor himself could order release plans that safely allows these folks to come back into the communities. So to say that we’re keeping these folks incarcerated because that’s where they’re safest to me is a cop out. You’re just punting the ball on that.
I agree with your other guest 100% on a lot of the things she said, particularly with the plans on the inside. But there are other things that we can be doing as well. Particularly Maryland, as you know just to be blunt, has a broken parole system. There are things we could do, like the other guest said, you could begin, right now, release medically vulnerable and older incarcerated people in Maryland.
Maryland has too many senior citizens in prison. Really we’re talking about releasing people who should have and would have already been out if Maryland had a well functioning parole system. The state can use this opportunity to give priority to releasing older individuals who are at risk and are vulnerable or who suffer from chronic illnesses, making them more susceptible to COVID-19. Then obviously give priority to those who fit the medically vulnerable criteria and who are set to be released on parole or mandatory release within the next five years.
These recommendations are not unique to us. These are recommendations that organizations like us, who have a great understanding of the corrections system, are putting forth around the country. I think because Maryland has a pretty substantial geriatric population, it obviously creates a bigger risk for the individuals and all it takes is one case. One case to get inside and it can devastate an incarcerated community.
I just really think this … I hate to keep [inaudible 00:12:24] but I think this issue [inaudible 00:12:28] speaks to Maryland’s need for a better functioning parole system. Like I said, if that were the case we would not be talking about having so many geriatric individuals that are inside now that could be potentially exposed to this.
Maryland has a large population of individuals over 60, 70 and even 80 years old. Maryland has a handful of individuals that are 80 years old, who can barely walk to the bathroom or do anything else on their own [inaudible 00:13:04] pose a threat to public safety.
I’ll stop there, I don’t want to get too far out in left field. But, again, this issue with COVID-19 highlights the larger issue that Maryland’s parole system is broken and particularly those that suffer the most as a result of this parole system right now is the older geriatric population, those that are also the most vulnerable out in society.

Eddie Conway: Okay, Ty, can you give me the World Health Organization basically suggested that everybody maintain a social distance of six feet or so apart from other people. From just looking in prisons, how crowded and how close are people in their proximities in terms of eating, be locked in the cells, et cetera? Is this something that’s going to eventually … If one case happens, like in Rikers Island there was a case and now probably there’s a case for the guard, there’s a case for inmate and now there’s even additional cases popping up. How do you get social distance in that crowded situation?

Tyrone Walker: Thank you for that question, Eddie. With approximately 2.3 million people in our prisons across the nation, there is no such thing as social distancing. Either you’re going to be housed according to your security classification level. If you’re in a maximum security, you will be housed with another individual. If you in a medium security, you will be housed with probably two or three people. But when you get to a lower level institutional custody classification, you could be housed with anywhere from 4 up to 200 different people in one living setting. So to have social distancing, that is not possible.
As I know right now today, those individuals who are living within those housing units, whether it’s 75 people or 200 people, they are all going to the dining hall at the same time or with another unit. So you’re saying coming into the dining hall where people are lined up behind each other to get their food who are two or three feet away from each other, not six feet, two or three feet away from each other getting their food. They’re all sitting at these tables where it’s nothing less than four people per table. So there can be no social distancing. And they’re also limiting recreation too. As we know they keep them all inside where we need to have social distancing and it’s a really trying time.
As you point out [inaudible 00:16:25] of Rikers Island, and right now here today in DC we have quarantine of 67 [inaudible 00:16:32] who may have been infected with this disease. So we spread out throughout the jails not only our geriatric population but people who are diabetics, hypertension and people who have some type of respiratorial issues. They are at risk of being infected once it spread throughout the prison system.

Eddie Conway: Sarah, can you tell me … Obviously the CDC, that’s responsible for the health of everybody in America, what are they doing? What efforts have they put forth to look after the prison population? What are they advocating?

Sarah: Eddie, I have been so frustrated and dismayed in general with regards to CDC. That said, there’s been many individuals that I’ve worked with at the CDC over the years who have been wonderful. But as an institution, the CDC has failed to provide public health support to our nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated. It is just stunning to me that when you think of the public health consequences, my job every day was preventing and controlling infectious diseases for 150,000 inmates in 122 prisons. And every day there was something crazy going on with regards to disease transmission because of how closely combined people are.
The CDC does not have one full-time equivalent staff person that os dedicated to corrections. So there is a nicely functioning new little corrections subcommittee where everybody’s volunteering their time to work on it, but it’s not their full-time job, and I just think it’s wrong. There’s a huge infrastructure for supporting hospital infection control. And there is zero infrastructure for supporting correctional infection prevention and control.
And this goes back, this is not a Trump administration problem. This goes back to the Bush era, to the Obama era and now currently. And I think it’s the reason at March 20 that we still don’t have guidelines out, because there just hasn’t been dedicated staff that their whole focus is how do we prevent and control disease transmission in corrections.

Eddie Conway: My concern, and I’m going to stick with you on this, Sarah, is that eventually we know that cases are going to pop up in the prison system and it’s going to be transmitted back out to the community through the guards’ constant interaction in terms of interacting with the prisoners and ultimately going home to the communities and families. And I heard you say that they were going to screen the personnel, but is there testing? Is there even tests available? I understand that people outside are having problems getting tested even when they show clear signs and symptoms because there’s a lack of tests. How devastating is this going to be if this spreads like wildfire through the prison system and then eventually back out via the guards?

Sarah: It’s going to be devastating on all levels. So you’ve got the devastation on the inside, which is that people may not make it. And then you’re right, correctional officers are going to come in. If we’ve got an outbreak going on in a prison they’re going to be potentially bringing it home.
Testing is not particularly useful nor recommended for people that don’t have symptoms. And so, at this point, CDC has a fairly strict criteria for testing and it only includes people with symptoms. It wouldn’t be useful to test. The recommended screening for correctional officers when they come in, if they’re in one of these sustained transmission communities, is a temperature and a screen for respiratory symptoms, which will be somewhat helpful.
It’s likely that this will be brought in not only by new intakes but also by correctional officers, by staff, by visitors. But then you’re absolutely right, Eddie, it’s going to … Maybe that’s a good argument for being serious about reducing population is that the effect on the guards.
Another huge issue is correctional officers are not the happiest group of employees in general in my experience, and they are going to probably just not come in. And then what do we have?

Eddie Conway: Yeah. Keith, can you tell me what families can do or should be doing? What can be done right now if you’ve got a family member, a loved one, a friend or somebody that you care about locked away in the prison system if they are over 60, if they have respiratory or other illnesses? What can the families do and what should they be doing?

Keith Wallingto…: That’s a great question. The short answer is I don’t know because with visitation being cut off and until there’s some type of communications policy put in place, whether that’s video or phone, whatnot, that’s a great question. One would be to call the governor. This is a very unorthodox time and unfortunately our loved ones are being cut off from [inaudible 00:23:15] right now. I can’t imagine how traumatizing it is not being able to communicate both from [inaudible 00:23:22] inside but for the families also to not knowing what’s going on and also knowing that our incarcerated population are all probably sitting … They’re the most vulnerable. In terms of sitting ducks they are the most vulnerable population right now.
My thing right now is reach out to the governor and to let the governor know that saying that prison is the safest location [inaudible 00:23:48] right now is we’re not going to accept that. That’s just not true. The governor, like I said, has the authority to [inaudible 00:23:55] reentry plans for these individuals.

Eddie Conway: Ty, can you weigh in on that? What do you think family members, friends and associates should be doing now to try to bring some relief or protection to prison populations?

Tyrone Walker: As Keith echoed that the governor has the authority to create these release plans for these individuals, which he’s not interested in doing. But in the meantime we can stay in close contact with our family via [inaudible 00:24:38] I know the times are trying for everyone. Making sure they got money so they can get all the necessities, because know how the prison population as far as medical care is at a zero. So making sure that they’ll be able to get vitamins and making sure that they got money to buy water and all the other extensions that they need to survive while they are there. I think that’s [inaudible 00:25:10].
As I say this this morning, I sent my loved one money, made sure he had all the other things that he needed. I asked him if he needed anything else to let me know, and I would do my best to make sure he get those.

Eddie Conway: Any organizations or groups or activist movements that can be contacted so people can maybe join together and put pressure on government officials or even local officials to see if at least the most vulnerable of the populations can be released? I’m not opposed to them being parole, but that’s a long process. It seemed to me that they could find a different way if there was some mass support. I know it’s difficult to have mass support when we are sheltering in place, but there seems to be organizations that could put some pressure on somebody. Are you aware of any?

Tyrone Walker: Well, yes. Just this morning I was on the call with it’s called the Thrive@25 Coalition, and there’s been letters drafted up. FAM was also part of that call, FAM has been sending out initiatives for all the federal officials to urge them to safely release people in the community who can be safely released into the community who are not a public safety threat. And DC Thrive@25 Coalition has been lobbying out officials here in DC to the same call. And it’s so many other organizations that I seen, Black Lives Matter is out, the Sentencing Project, [inaudible 00:27:08] Book Club, all these people, these organizations are coming together pushing these officials to make some type of release plan for those who can be safely released into the community.

Eddie Conway: Okay, all right. Thank you. We’ll probably have some of that information at the end of this video hopefully. Sarah, you get the last question, and it’s an open-ended thing. What do you think we should be doing now from this point going forward?

Sarah: Again, it’s outside of my purview as an infection preventionist, but it’s this getting the vulnerable out of the system as fast as we can. Most people are going to get this illness, most of our younger inmates are going to do fine. But the older inmates, the ones with these underlying conditions, are at very high risk of dying and that’s really unacceptable.

Eddie Conway: And it should probably be our priority in terms of advocating for release. That should probably be the top of our agenda in terms of local and state officials. Okay, thank you for joining me, Sarah, Ty, Keith. And I’m going to continue to follow this and we might have to come back again and talk some more about it.

Tyrone Walker: Absolutely, Eddie.

Keith Wallingto…: I would be happy to. Thank you so much for having us.

Sarah: Thank you, Eddie.

Tyrone Walker: Thank you, Eddie.

Eddie Conway: All right, and thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars for the Real News Network.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.