Releases, infections, fear: U.S. coronavirus crisis in jails and prisons looms

So far this week, a total of 23 inmates have escaped correctional facilities.

As the COVID-19 virus continues its relentless march across the nation, the looming crisis inside America’s jails and prisons appears to be deepening, as corrections officials dig in to prevent outbreaks in the nation's more than 6,000 prisons and jails.

So far this week, a total of 23 inmates have escaped correctional facilities in two states after at least one inmate had tested positive at each of two facilities -- and by late Wednesday a dozen remained at large, officials said.

In the past week, judges from coast to coast have ordered thousands of inmates released — both those detained before trial and convicted inmates, but calls for release -- including today from the country's top law enforcement officer -- have broadened to all medically-vulnerable inmates, as reports of medical and cleaning supplies shortages at correctional facilities nationwide climb as well.

In New York City -- America’s current epicenter of infection -- tension is building inside some units of Rikers Island’s sprawling jail complex, where a sharp spike in inmates testing positive for COVID-19 this week is driving fears that the situation will bloom into the nation’s first major outbreak inside a correctional facility.

As of Wednesday, 75 New York City inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 37 city corrections staff members, up from 50 inmates and 30 staffers the previous day, city Department of Corrections officials said.

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Outside jails, federal officials have encouraged citizens to keep at least 6 feet away from each other to better protect against the spread of the virus. Inside, however, inmates are facing crowded conditions in some city jails, including dorm-style sleeping quarters tight enough for an inmate to reach out and touch the next bed over, and in at least one instance, 29 people sharing a single toilet, according to interviews with New York City public defenders with clients behind bars, and friends and family of city inmates.

"The conditions on Rikers were horrific and inhumane before coronavirus. That is nothing new," Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, told ABC News.

"The difference is those conditions have now become imminently deadly. We’ve seen the hell of Rikers. We see human misery. We’re all terrified,” he said. "It's bad and it's only going to get worse. Every day that goes by is only setting us up for more pain and death."

‘I’ve never seen anything like this'

One frustrated New York City woman whose 25-year-old boyfriend has been incarcerated at Rikers for less than a year after violating parole on an assault charge, said conditions in his unit are deteriorating. With two months left to serve and a history of asthma, her boyfriend feels like a sitting duck, she told ABC News.

“When people have been taken out who were tested positive ... they just leave the mattress there and they're like, 'well, if you want to, clean it up,’ [and] basically leave it up to the inmates,” said the woman, who requested anonymity because she said she fears retaliation against him in response to her complaints.

“They’re crammed together in one building,” she said, describing dorm conditions.

PHOTO: The Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background, June 20, 2014.
The Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background, June 20, 2014.
Seth Wenig/AP, FILE

Her boyfriend “was sleeping in the bunk next to somebody who's been infected,” she said. “And when they transferred him to another building, he was handcuffed to another guy who got tested positive, and half of them don't even know their result yet.”

Over the weekend, eight inmates at Rikers Island were reportedly pepper-sprayed while trying to go to the jail medical clinic after an inmate they were housed with was removed from the area for displaying flu-like symptoms.

"I understand everybody's going to want to go to the clinic if they're worried," New York City Department of Correction press secretary Jason Kersten told ABC News on Wednesday. "But there needs to be procedures in place ... I know it's being investigated. We referred it to the investigation division right away." Still, he said, staffers "have to be careful about how people are moved in these facilities."

City corrections officials said they are doing all they can to contain the spread of the virus at Rikers Island and all city facilities.

"This is something none of us has ever faced,” Kersten said. "The longer this goes on, the more staff is going to be out. And the harder you know, the harder it's going to be."

"This is really challenging, a crisis like this -- things start to fray," he continued. "It's really going to test everybody's strength and [the] ability to perform their jobs. So, I mean,” he said, pausing. "I've never seen anything like this."

In terms of cleaning supplies, Kersten said city inmates have supplies to maintain good hygiene.

"There’s plenty of soap and water," he said. "We can’t give them hand sanitizer because it’s very flammable. And it can also be used to distill their own alcohol. But it’s unfortunate because you want to give it to them to make them feel better."

Kersten said that reports of dangerous conditions emerging from the city's jail facilities are isolated and not representative of the entire system.

"These do not paint an accurate widespread picture of what's going on on the island," he said. "We’re following very specific protocols related to containing outbreaks in jails and confined areas. Unfortunately, jail is not a good place to have something like this happen, because it's a confining place, naturally. So we're doing everything we can to separate people. People are working really hard to contain this."

One inmate at the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn has tested positive for the virus and remains in isolation, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Elsewhere, two inmates at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Corrections Center have tested positive, a federal law enforcement sources told ABC News late Wednesday.

There are about 1.3 million people in state prisons, about three-quarters of a million in local jails and less than 200,000 in federal prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Additionally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently detaining about 38,000. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions from ABC News about the agency’s plans for the detainees during the pandemic or whether any detainees had yet tested positive for the coronavirus.

Some inmates released in shadow of virus

While a growing number of states have begun releasing some inmates, advocates said that more needs to be done for the vulnerable behind bars.

On Sunday, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a consent order based on an agreement reached between the New Jersey Public Defender’s Office, state Attorney General’s Office, County Prosecutors Association and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey to release about 800 inmates serving time for low-level offenses in county jails.

According to the consent order some of the inmates may be called to return to complete their sentences after the public health emergency is over.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Sheriff said that about 1,700 inmates — or 10% of the county jail population — has been released so far and more could be released this week.

PHOTO: Inmates John Moore, left, and Mark Garrett one of two cleaning crews at the Vanderburgh County jail clean holding cells, March 13, 2020.
Inmates John Moore, left, and Mark Garrett one of two cleaning crews at the Vanderburgh County jail clean holding cells, March 13, 2020, they have doubled the number of cleaning per day from one per shift to two per shift or six times a day.
Mike Lawrence/Courier & Press via USA Today Network

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said late Wednesday that 200 additional city jail inmates are being released, in addition to the 75 that have already been released.

"That number will keep growing in the short term, with a particular focus on those who are really older, particularly over 70, and inmates who have pre-existing conditions,” de Blasio said. "I think you’ll see substantial number of the next few days.”

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that he has issued new recommendations to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to explore releasing certain at-risk prisoners to home confinement in order to reduce the overall prison population.

He said that of the 146,000 inmates currently serving time in federal prison facilities, one third are believed to have pre-existing medical conditions and roughly 10,000 are over the age of 60 years old.

"I don't want people to think we're doing it out of panic because we feel we've lost control," Barr told ABC News of the home confinement plan in a phone interview after a press conference on Thursday. "We haven't lost control but I'm still concerned that we keep each of these facilities from becoming vectors of infection."

High-risk inmates behind bars

On Monday, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released interim guidance for corrections facilities – though the guidance does not address the issue of releasing some inmates to guard against the spread of the virus.

In separate guidelines issued earlier this month, the CDC identified those at “higher risk” for contracting the contagion: Americans 55 or older, and those with underlying health conditions.

Based on those guidelines, a large swath of the roughly 2.3 million Americans serving time behind bars appears to be at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19.

Among the higher-risk category of inmates are the aging — about 12% of all inmates are over 55, or more than 171,000 -- according to Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative.

A large portion of the nation’s prison population also suffers chronic health conditions including diabetes, high-blood pressure and heart disease. About 65% of state prisoners were smokers in 2016, and 45% of federal inmates, the last year for which data is available, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

PHOTO: Mark Garrett cleans a holding cell at the Vanderburgh County jail, March 13, 2020.
Mark Garrett cleans a holding cell at the Vanderburgh County jail, March 13, 2020.
Mike Lawrence/Courier & Press via USA Today Network

At the federal level, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators took up the call for the care of vulnerable inmates.

“It is important that consistent with the law and taking into account public safety and health concerns, that the most vulnerable inmates are released or transferred to home confinement, if possible,” the legislators wrote in their letter.

Two escapes, fugitives still on the loose

Fourteen inmates in Washington State escaped a correctional facility yesterday and nine female inmates, who fled a minimum-security prison in Pierre, South Dakota on Monday after being housed with an inmate that tested positive, state governor Kristi Noem said at a Tuesday press conference.

Seven of the escaped 14 in Washington were recovered by Wednesday morning, and four of the nine in South Dakota have been recaptured — but seven men and five women remained at large as of late Wednesday.

ABC News' Aaron Katersky, Lee Ferran, Bill Hutchinson and Alexander Mallin contributed to this report.

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