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How Is The Justice System Responding To COVID-19's Spread?


By now, we all know of the need to avoid crowded places and to practice social distancing, but there are some places and situations where that is basically impossible, like prisons or jails. In New York City alone, at least 132 inmates and 104 staff members have tested positive.

Keri Blakinger is a reporter for The Marshall Project, and she covers conditions inside prisons and jails. And she joins us on Skype. Thanks so much for being with us.

KERI BLAKINGER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So you have been investigating the current situation inside correctional facilities across the country when it comes to COVID-19. What have you found?

BLAKINGER: I mean, I think I found a lot of things that are not surprising to people that are covering and paying attention to what's going on in prisons and jails. And that's simply that it's just not a good situation. Aside from the fact that social distancing is pretty much impossible, you have people coming in with high medical needs. The medical treatment is not good, typically. It's really just sort of a recipe for disaster.

MARTIN: So what are these institutions doing? I mean, what kind of measures, if any, are prisons and jails taking to stop the spread?

BLAKINGER: Well, it varies a lot based on, you know, based on the facility and the prison system or the jail system. They're taking a lot of different approaches. In some cases, they're - they've actually allowed things like hand sanitizer. That's rare. But a few places have allowed some of those sort of basic disease prevention measures that are typically not available to people in jails and prisons.

And then some places, I'm still getting reports that people are not getting regular access to soap. Some places have done things like suspend transfers into the facilities from, say, county jails to state prisons. But then in other systems, I'm still getting reports that they're moving prisoners around within the system.

And some places have made moves to try to release people. What that looks like turns out a little differently whether we're talking about a jail or prison. And then you've got places like Texas, where the governor yesterday decided to start fighting efforts to release people in order to reduce the population and, hopefully, stop the spread of the disease behind bars.

MARTIN: Can you just explain? The suggestion is, and what we're seeing in some places happen, is that there's an assessment happening of which prisoners, who are very vulnerable, should be released in this moment.

BLAKINGER: Yeah. So in some of the county jails, there's been discussion of releasing people who were detained pretrial. That's sort of the easiest population to look at because these are people that are accused and have not yet been convicted.


BLAKINGER: And in some cases, there's discussion of releasing people that are convicted of, you know, low-level, nonviolent offenses and are being detained until they're determined to be guilty or not. On the other hand, on the other end of things, you have, you know, people in prisons who might be considered for compassionate release if they're in vulnerable categories and, perhaps, nearing the end of their sentences.

MARTIN: What about inside juvenile detention facilities? Are things any better there?

BLAKINGER: I would imagine that things are going to end up worse in juvenile detention facilities. But as of now, I mean, I think it's a little hard to say. We did have the first case here. I'm in Houston. We did have the first case in Harris County Juvenile Detention Center recently.

But, you know, I mean, kids are obviously going to, you know, be a little more difficult to get to practice some of the sort of, like, basic hygiene and social distancing that you might get adults to do. But there's also less oversight, in some sense, because so much information about youth who are detained is protected. So it's a little bit harder to know what's going on there.

And I also think that reporters tend to pay a little less attention to it. So you might see a lot of coverage of adult prisons and, you know, adult detention facilities, but juvenile justice tends to get a little less attention to begin with. So I think for a few reasons, it's going to be a lot harder to know what actually ends up happening in there. And, you know, some of these places were really out of control to begin with before there was a pandemic.

MARTIN: Right. Keri Blakinger, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us. She is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Thanks again.

BLAKINGER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.