Idaho Prisoners and the COVID-19 Virus

Eight people in IDOC custody have been tested for COVID-19. The results for all eight tests were negative. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any facilities operated by IDOC. 

Yet.

The scientific name for COVID-19 is “SARS-CoV-2“. Coronavirus is a form of SARS. We have seen fatality rates as high as 27% in older populations. 10% in Italy across the board. Over 4% in China. The United States has implemented wide-spread precautions such as social distancing and stay-at-home orders to reduce transmission and fatality rates to less than 2%. We applaud these measures.

The Idaho Department of Correction has implemented several strategies that we applaud to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 inside our prisons. They are moving prisoners to isolate at-risk offenders. They are disinfecting surfaces in the facilities frequently.

IDOC continues to take other measures to protect the health of its staff, the people who are in the department’s care and custody, and people under community supervision. They are conducting health screenings to monitor staff entering the facility for symptoms. All of these measures are helpful in preventing the introduction and spread of the virus in our state’s correctional institutions.

In spite of these measures, COVID-19 is highly contagious. It lives on surfaces for days. It spreads easily through the air. Most importantly, a person can carry the virus without symptoms for days. Corrections staff could go into the prison infected with the virus and not exhibit fever or cough for days. A case inside one of Idaho’s correctional facilities is inevitiable.

Idaho’s prison system is severely overcrowded. Nearly every housing unit is currently over its original design capacity. In housing units were designed for 40 inmates, there are 80 living there. In buildings where there are over 2,000 prisoners, ventilation systems were designed for residence for 1,200.

In normal circumstance these conditions are difficult but manageable, mostly because prisoners are not confined solely to their housing unit. They have opportunities for work, recreation, religious activities, education and dining. Under current circumstances, nearly all offenders are confined to their housing unit. There are not enough showers, toilets, sinks or tables for them to use. They are confined in cells or cubicles where three and sometimes four persons are in a space that is 7’x7′. This is not an environment that is conducive to preventing the spread of highly transmittable infectious diseases.

When a case of COVID-19 arrives in a prison facility, the results will be hard to contain. Due to the close proximity the virus will spread like wildfire.

With some luck, many of the prisoners will only have mild symptoms much like a cold or flu. Some will be worse but not require hospitalization. Some will die.

The medical staff within the Department’s facilities are all employed by a private contractor, Corizon, which is paid over $40 million each year to provide for the regular medical needs of the inmate population. Corizon is a nationwide corporation that has no less than 50 active lawsuits alleging cruel and unusual care and treatment.

The Idaho Department of Correction, in spite of its valiant efforts is surely not up to the task that COVID-19 presents. The United States government has done its best and has failed in some regards. Idaho’s hospitals are not up to the task of widespread infection. We don’t have enough ventilators, masks, gloves or other basic equipment. Models predict that our hospitals would be overwhelmed by the quantity of cases that states like Louisiana and New York have seen. Luckily, we are unlikely to have that level of spread. Idaho is rural. We are already up to the task of social distancing. But the virus has only begun to reach Idaho.

Source: John Hopkins University

We believe that we are still in the beginning of the epidemic here in Idaho. New cases continue to be diagnosed exponentially every day.

COVID-19 Infection Projection Model for the United States
Source: John Hopkins University

While the outbreak is a serious public health concern, most people who contract COVID-19 do not become seriously ill, and only a small percentage require intensive care. Older people and those with existing health conditions, like heart or lung disease, are at higher risk. In a prison environment, those persons are at increased likelihood of death due to inadequate medical personnel and training as well as inadequate facilities.

The Idaho Department of Correction has an extremely limited quantity of isolation cells for quarantine of infected prisoners. Temporary buildings may be erected in conjunction with the National Guard but when the conditions are deemed to require that, it will likely be too late.

For those prisoners who are undergoing chemotherapy, are infected wit HIV/AIDS or hepatitis, are immunosuppressed due to medical reasons, are elderly or have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and are currently eligible for release under Idaho statute, should be released to home confinement. Their lives depend on it.

Prisoners who have already been granted a release date in the near future should be released now. Their lives may depend on it.

The State of Idaho can prevent an expensive health disaster for men and women in Idaho’s prisons who are already eligible for release by releasing them to parole or home confinement in an effort to save their lives. If the statistics for other states are any indicator, Idaho will have dozens of deaths. For those at the highest risk and in prison, their chances of succumbing to the COVID-19 virus is extremely high.

BarNone believes that the Governor, in conjunction with the Idaho Commission for Pardons & Parole, and the Idaho Department of Correction should determine which prisoners are currently eligible for release under Idaho statute and quickly release them on parole or home confinement to give them a greater chance of avoiding a COVID-19 infection and the likelihood of death that comes with it for those who are at highest risk. Prisoners shouldn’t have to die in a makeshift hospital tent if it can be avoided. The most cost-effective way to do move forward for the most at-risk prisoners is to simply release them if they are not a danger to the community. We believe that those who are terminally ill, chronically ill, or elderly are some of the least dangerous prisoners we can think of.


If you would like to reach out to the Idaho Governor’s Office regarding this issue, Governor Little can be reached by email, phone or mail:

governor@gov.idaho.gov

Office of the Governor

Idaho State Capitol

PO Box 83720

Boise, ID 83720

(208) 334-2100


This article was written by BarNone, Inc.'s President and Executive Director, David Lund.

Author: BarNone, Inc.

BarNone, Inc. is a Boise, Idaho-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose purpose is threefold: 1. Awareness: holding Idaho Reentry Summit events, conducting social media campaigns and speaking to Idahoans to encourage communication, collaboration and education of the criminal justice system, statistics, and the men & women who are impacted by incarceration. 2. Advocacy: working with members of the Legislature, municipalities and agencies to impact policy. 3. Resources: connecting men and women with community resources and support when they are returning to their community after a period of incarceration and centralizing the information for those resources.