The Mercury News Weekend

States shutting prisons, moving inmates because guards are sick

- By Brendon Derr

From California to Missouri to Pennsylvan­ia, state and local officials say that so many guards have fallen ill with the virus and are unable to work that abruptly closing some correction­al facilities is the only way to maintain community security and prisoner safety.

Experts say the fallout is easy to predict: The jails and prisons that stay open will probably become even more crowded, unsanitary and disease-ridden, and the transfers are likely to help the virus proliferat­e both inside and outside the walls.

“Movement of people is dangerous,” said Lauren Brinkley- Rubinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, who has been tracking coronaviru­s cases in correction­al settings. “I think it really is not advisable to consolidat­e people in spaces that we know are really risky and will lead to greater rates of Covid there.”

There have been more than 480,000 confirmed coronaviru­s infections and at least 2,100 deaths in prisons, jails and detention centers across the nation, according to a New York Times database.

Early in the pandemic, many states tried to head off virus outbreaks by reducing their jail and prison population­s, releasing some offenders early and detaining fewer people awaiting trial, but those efforts often met with resistance from politician­s and the public.

More recently, staffing shortages and strains on prison medical facilities have pushed states toward more concentrat­ion and crowding, rather than less. For example:

North Carolina closed the Randolph Correction­al Center in Asheboro, along with three minimum security facilities, in late November and early December, and has not ruled out more closures. “It feels like we’re holding this together with bubble gum and packaging tape,” Todd Ishee, the state commission­er of prisons, said in a recent interview.

Wisconsin has closed a cell block at its prison in Waupun and started moving its 220 inmates to other prisons, despite warnings that similar prison transfers elsewhere have sown deadly outbreaks, including at San Quentin State Prison in the Bay Area. More than a quarter of Waupun’s guards have been infected since the start of the pandemic, according to state data.

In Missouri, Howard and Pike Counties shut down their jails. In a terse Facebook post, the Howard County Sheriff’s Office wrote: “The jail is temporaril­y closed due to shortness of staff due to illness.”

Matt Oller, the Audrain County sheriff, said he had accepted some two dozen inmates from Pike County, and would not have agreed to do so had he not been confident that he could ensure some measure of social distancing and adequate cleaning in his jail.

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