Prisons and other detention facilities face a whole host of emergencies from environmental and technological hazards, such as tornados or earthquakes. In this expert blog for PRI, as part of our Global Prison Trends series, J. Carlee Purdum, an expert on hazards, disasters and prisons, reflects on how plans need to be developed and adapted in times of COVID-19, drawing on her experience in disaster risk reduction in the United States.
On 23 April 2020 a tornado severely damaged the structure of a federal prison in the U.S. state of South Carolina. In response, 900 persons detained in the prison were evacuated as they were classified as medium security, while 188 minimum security-classified persons were left to remain. Those evacuated were taken more than 700 miles away in Pennsylvania to be housed in a special institution the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had intended to use to quarantine incarcerated persons in the process of being transferred to new institutions. When the tornado damaged the federal facility in South Carolina, those plans were put on hold. While this would be an extraordinary circumstance in regular times, with the coronavirus pandemic there are added issues. For instance, all of the people transferred needed to be quarantined for 14 days in case there had been exposure to the coronavirus during the move. While necessary to move them to a safe facility, challenges emerged including a lack of enough telephones to allow for the evacuees to communicate with their loved ones, the absence of work programs, a lack of air conditioning, and smaller cell spaces. Coupled with the quarantine, conditions have led to increased anxiety among incarcerated persons and their family members. Those who were left to remain in the damaged institution have reported deteriorated living conditions including leaking roofs, an increased presence of mould, and high risks to contracting COVID-19.
This case, among others, illustrates how governments across the globe attempting to respond to the overwhelming impacts of the novel coronavirus in prisons need to not forget and ensure they are prepared to handle other emergencies arising from environmental and technological hazards such as earthquakes, wildfires, severe weather, extreme temperatures, hazardous materials incidents etc. The ongoing COVID19 pandemic is complicating efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from such emergencies and disasters in prison settings, as seen in South Carolina. This is compounded by the fact there has been little time to adapt planning and preparedness efforts to reflect the emergent needs brought about by the global pandemic. Prison administrations must adapt emergency operations to maintain social distancing, screen for symptoms, distribute protective equipment, implement quarantine, restrict movement, and provide critical medical care in the context of major institutional damage and human casualties. Evacuations of prisons to protect personnel and incarcerated persons will continue to be especially challenging, as limiting movement between institutions has been critical to mitigating exposure to the coronavirus.
The ongoing COVID19 pandemic is complicating efforts to prepare for, respond to, and recover from such emergencies and disasters in prison settings… such as earthquakes, wildfires, severe weather, extreme temperatures, hazardous materials incidents etc.
Authorities should also prepare for how the pandemic may impact external resources and access to aid, should an emergency or disaster occur. Governments and institutions should begin stockpiling personal protective equipment as well as testing materials to prepare for disruptions in the supply chain or failure within transportation infrastructure. This may prove especially challenging given that reports have continued to emerge of prisons not adequately testing and isolating exposed individuals, including both personnel and incarcerated persons, in addition to not having access to adequate medical care for those with symptoms. Furthermore, the fear of exposure to the coronavirus may impact the efforts of local emergency responders and prison personnel who are tasked with providing immediate emergency care to incarcerated persons. Local health care systems that would typically be available during a prison emergency may also be overwhelmed with COVID19 patients and be unable or unwilling to respond to meet the needs of those injured.
The ongoing crisis of the COVID19 pandemic has led to changes in prison regimes, programs and services. Rehabilitation, training, education and recreational programs have been cancelled, visitations with loved ones have been reduced or suspended, processes that facilitate release have been delayed, movement throughout institutions has been restricted with many prisons implementing lock-downs on the grounds of containing and isolating the virus. These restrictions and the corresponding anxieties among people in prisons have brought higher levels of violent incidents and even prison riots or ‘prison disturbances’. Although such incidents are often blamed on those detained, extensive research has shown that such disturbances are often related to restrictions of rights and the deterioration of conditions within prisons. In the midst of the ongoing crisis of COVID19, many prison environments reflect such conditions, as incarcerated persons fear exposure to a deadly disease and a lack of adequate medical care and resources.
Prison systems are also built into how governments respond to local and regional emergencies and disasters. Prisons are looked to as critical infrastructure while personnel and incarcerated persons can form part of the essential workforce. COVID19 outbreaks in prisons could impede the use of institutions to be used to store or distribute critical resources and the ability for prison personnel to contribute to disaster efforts. The dependence on vulnerable incarcerated workers has also notably hampered efforts to contain emergencies. As wildfires have raged out of control in the Western U.S., lockdowns in prison camps housing incarcerated firefighters have been blamed for a shortage of workers to fight the fires. The release of eligible incarcerated persons to mitigate the impact of COVID19 in state prisons has also been blamed for reducing the access to incarcerated workers who the government relies upon to fight the fires and respond to disasters. The use of incarcerated workers for emergency response efforts has been argued to place them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus especially as they are relied upon for manufacturing PPE in factory settings. The intersection of the pandemic and other compounding emergencies like the U.S. wildfires, makes the vulnerability of incarcerated workers even more visible and gives further credence to the argument that such labor practices are exploitative.
The dependence on vulnerable incarcerated workers has also notably hampered efforts to contain emergencies. As wildfires have raged out of control in the Western U.S., lockdowns in prison camps housing incarcerated firefighters have been blamed for a shortage of workers to fight the fires.
The coronavirus pandemic has made clear that the extent to which we incarcerate people and how we incarcerate people creates conditions of vulnerability for those we incarcerate, prison personnel, and even the communities where such facilities are. Many of the issues plaguing prisons including overcrowding, a lack of adequate resources to provide for basic needs, a lack of staffing, and the vulnerable characteristics of those reflected in incarcerated populations have contributed to the disaster that the coronavirus has become. As much as we would like to focus all of our attention on solving this current crisis, the vulnerability of prisons and incarcerated persons to other hazards has not ceased. Instead, they are more vulnerable than ever facing compounding disaster impacts. In response, the best immediate strategy to mitigate the risk of such harm is to drastically reduce the size of incarcerated populations. This could be immediately accomplished without threats to public safety by suspending arrests for certain crimes such as low-level nonviolent offenses or for technical parole violations which would reduce the influx of new admissions to prisons or by expediting the release of eligible persons in detention. Such mass releases are not altogether unprecedented and would reduce harm not only from the devastation of COVID19 but also from other environmental and technological hazards as well.
Yet, at a time where advocates and policy makers have called for the release of incarcerated populations, many governments have either failed or refused to implement such policies in a significant way. As the crisis continues, and the impact of other hazards compounds the harm that incarcerated persons, prison personnel, and host communities experience, we must continue to hold governments accountable for their failure to act and work to support policies and efforts that reduce harm and protect the rights of those incarcerated.
Read more on the issue of natural hazards and emergencies and the impact on people detained.
Further reading from the author
Purdum, J. Carlee. 2020. “Disaster Work is Often Carried Out by Prisoners—Who Get Paid as Little as 14 cents an Hour Despite Dangers.” The Conversation, September 15th. https://theconversation.com/disaster-work-is-often-carried-out-by-prisoners-who-get-paid-as-little-as-14-cents-an-hour-despite-dangers-145513
Purdum, J. Carlee. 2020. “States Are Putting Prisoners to Work Manufacturing Coronavirus Supplies.” The Conversation, April 21st. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2020-04-21/states-are-putting-prisoners-to-work-manufacturing-coronavirus-supplies
Purdum, J. Carlee and Michelle A. Meyer. 2020. “Prisoner Labor Throughout the Life Cycle of Disasters.” Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy.
Purdum, J. Carlee. 2019. Hazardous or vulnerable? Prisoners and emergency planning in the US. In Emerging Voices in Natural Hazards Research (pp. 179-209). Butterworth-Heinemann.
Freeman, Robert, 1996. Strategic Planning for Correctional Emergencies. American Correctional Association, Lanham, MD
McCullough, John M., 2006. Managing Correctional Crises. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, MA.
Savage, Meg, M. O. Russ Savage, and Eugene Atherton. 2014. “Preventing and Managing Riots and Disturbances: Using the Incident Command System for Corrections.”
Schwartz, Jeffrey A., Barry, Cynthia, 2005. A Guide to Preparing for and Responding to Prison Emergencies. The National Institute of Corrections and the U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.