GUEST COLUMN:

Handling of COVID-19 in Nevada prisons and jails ‘grossly inadequate’

A surge of COVID-19 cases in correctional facilities is not only endangering the lives of tens of thousands of people behind bars in Nevada, it’s threatening the health and well-being of everyone in our communities.

State and local officials must get more serious about protecting incarcerated people and staff members in prisons and jails, not just because it’s the humane thing to do but because public health is at stake.

Thus far, the state’s treatment of COVID-19 in correctional facilities has been grossly inadequate.

In June, the Nevada Department of Corrections not only failed to mandate mask use by residents and staff, it issued a policy prohibiting incarcerated people from wearing face coverings, citing “the risk of escape.” This cruel and misguided logic fails to protect those under the department’s charge and actively sabotages people’s ability to protect themselves.

As of Monday, there were 408 unique confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nevada’s correctional facilities — 170 residents, 214 staff and 24 transfers. And that’s just static volumes. Jails continue to have a revolving door — something to consider given that Las Vegas Detention Center recently reported a spike in coronavirus cases.

Recently the Department of Corrections announced that a private, for-profit company, Prison Industries, would be “manufacturing alcohol-free hand sanitizer and face coverings for offenders.” It did not specify whether the masks would be issued free of charge or sold back to the very people who constructed them.

On June 24, Gov. Steve Sisolak issued an executive order mandating the use of masks in all public spaces in Nevada. Excluded from this mandate, however, is the prison and jail population. While the state has increased testing in prisons and jails (not including federal detention facilities like Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE), it does not mandate masks for employees or people behind bars. In fact, half of U.S. states do not require correctional staff to wear a face covering, and less than a third require masks for incarcerated people.

This is no way to curtail, let alone stop a viral pandemic.

Fifteen of the largest coronavirus clusters in the country are in correctional institutions, and Nevada’s incarceration rate is higher than the national average. More than half of the state’s correctional population is supervised by state agencies; more than a quarter of inmates are housed in local jails awaiting trial or transfer; while the rest are under federal supervision, in youth facilities, under involuntary commitment, or under Native American jurisdiction.

Recently, Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., and Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., visited the Southern Nevada Detention Center, a federal ICE facility in Pahrump that saw an outbreak of COVID-19. The visit came after a man incarcerated there filed a lawsuit against prison administration, staff and Civic Core (formerly Corrections Corporation of America). The suit alleges that the detention center failed to provide personal protective equipment or cleaning supplies; failed to administer COVID-19 tests; failed to properly quarantine incoming transfers; and failed to implement social distancing protocols.

This is problematic for several reasons. Incarcerated people are more vulnerable to contracting the virus than the general population. They have extremely limited access to sanitizing materials and personal protective equipment. They are more likely to have underlying health concerns, and therefore are more likely to die should they become infected with COVID-19. Housed in close quarters, it is impossible for incarcerated people to follow proper social-distancing protocols.

This challenge — combined with overall poor access to health care — makes it imperative to approach the pandemic and the mass incarceration epidemic as interrelated problems that affect prisons and jails as well as the communities where they are located.

The health of our incarcerated neighbors impacts the health of the entire Las Vegas Valley. Prisons and jails are not silos; they do not operate as closed communities. Correctional staff go home to their families and interact with the community.

This means people at high risk of contracting the virus are essentially jumping from one petri dish to another. A coronavirus outbreak in a prison can have immediate effects on the city around it, and can overwhelm the health care system.

As a researcher on a team interviewing the families of incarcerated loved ones, I hear stories from people behind bars who are forcibly exposed to coronavirus without recourse. They cannot go to the grocery store and pick up masks or disinfectant wipes to protect themselves, and when they attempt to make their own, prison staff confiscate the materials.

When officials of the state corrections agency say they are providing masks, that does not mean all inmates have access.

To ameliorate the crisis inside these COVID-19 hotspots, the bare minimum would be to provide face masks and adequate cleaning supplies so inmates can protect themselves.

Sisolak has the power to issue an executive order mandating the use of masks in prisons and jails throughout the state.

It is the ethical and legal obligation of the state to provide face coverings and cleaning supplies, and to properly ensure the use of both. A prison sentence — or even a short stint in jail — should not mean a death sentence.

Elia Del Carmen Solano-Patricio is a researcher, paralegal and honors student at the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. She is an urban studies major, also pursuing a minor in the Brookings public policy program, and a second minor in criminal justice.