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INSIGHT: Helping Inmates Cope During Covid-19

Aug. 18, 2020, 8:00 AM

For those incarcerated, there is an expectation of diminished rights and privileges. Now, in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the most basic of concessions have dropped even further.

Safety for an inmate is always a concern, but never more so than now. Covid-19 has led to some temporary changes (i.e., face masks, more hand sanitizer readily available, minimal testing mostly focused on those over age 50), but it is not nearly enough. Major changes are needed immediately.

In many prisons, the corrections officers (COs) aren’t even wearing masks, yet inmates are mandated to wear masks.

It seems unlikely any improvement in prison conditions, nor any permanency to the temporary measures taken, will result from this crisis. Except for the for-profit prisons, prisons are funded by the federal or state government, and most, if not all, are financially despondent right now. This means even less future funding to the prisons, so improvement aren’t expected anytime soon, if ever.

Changes in Inmates’ Rights Due to Covid-19

Currently, there are no changes.

In fact, lockdowns, where inmates cannot leave their cells or cubes, have become more frequent. Yards have been closed. Mess halls have been shuttered leaving inmates to eat in their cells/cubes. Vocations have been canceled. Visits have also been suspended.

Inmates are relying on their lawyers, legal services, and social workers more than ever. Below are some ways to help inmates cope during the coronavirus pandemic:

If an Inmate Is Ill: Non-Emergency Situations

It is important to understand the process for when inmates fall ill. In non-emergency cases, the inmate notifies the on-duty CO and fills out a sick call request. The “sick call slip” gets completed and dropped in a mailbox inside the inmate’s dorm which gets picked up once per day. After the request is submitted, the inmate is usually seen within 24 hours to 48 hours by the facility’s nurse or nurse practitioner.

It is highly unusual for a doctor to respond to a non-emergency sick call. More often, medication is not prescribed. An over-the-counter like Tylenol or Sudafed may be given instead.

Inmates often must make repeated attempts to request medication before it is prescribed and then after prescribed, it can take another 24 hours to receive.

Emergency Situations

In the case of an emergency, the inmate will be accompanied to the medical unit by one or more COs and will be seen by the nurse or nurse practitioner on call. Depending on the severity of the situation, the inmate will be treated at the facility’s medical unit or be transported to the closest nearby hospital.

If hospitalization is required, the inmate will travel to the hospital in handcuffs and leg shackles and remain in handcuffs, or both, while being treated.

A criminal justice adviser and advocate (a prison consultant) can intervene to ensure the inmate receives proper medical care.

How to Stay Healthy

There are steps inmates can take to stay as healthy as possible:

  • Frequent hand washing. Inmates should wash their hands in the sink and turn the water off with tissues or toilet paper so as to not risk touch germ infected faucets with their clean hands.
  • Most dorms, which are cleaned by inmates, have disinfectants available and inmates can spray down their cube area or cell to try and keep it sanitized. However, this is not possible in many jails/prisons, and even where it is possible, disinfectants are not available on a daily basis.
  • Inmates should not touch anything that doesn’t belong to them. Other inmates’ possessions are not to be touched, as general prison protocol; if adhered to, this cuts down on germ spreading from other inmates’ possessions.
  • Do not share food.
  • Avoid getting a tattoo in prison.
  • Shower daily, or as often as permitted. In many maximum-security prisons, daily showers are not permitted, but rather three showers per week.
  • Inmates should do laundry and keep clothes clean to the best of their ability, even if that requires washing clothes in a sink and drying in their cell or cube.
  • Have a fitness routine that can be adapted to lockdown circumstances.

During Covid, Access to Phone/Computers

During the Covid-19 pandemic phone time as remained unchanged. And computer access is often reduced if the facility is under lockdown. This applies to both legal and non-legal access.

New York State and other facilities have adopted the following policies during the epidemic:

  • Phone Calls: Each incarcerated individual will receive three free calls per week up to 15-minutes per call. Free calls are available beginning at 7 a.m. on Saturday and are associated with the first three calls made during each week and do not carry forward from week to week. Phone hours vary by prison, but are typically from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Secure Message Stamps: Each incarcerated individual with access to a general confinement tablet and kiosk will continue to receive two free stamps to use for secure messaging per week. In order to send an email, prisons charge a stamp (prices range depending on how many are purchased, but can be as low as $0.24 per stamp). Stamps are added to your account on Friday afternoon and do not accumulate and replenish on a weekly basis based on use.
  • Free Pre-paid Reply Wednesdays: Every secure message sent by a friend or family member on Wednesday will be accompanied with a free pre-paid stamp that will allow the incarcerated individual to reply to the sender, through Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (The date has been extended with no end date now—it will be reassessed when Covid abates.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Craig Rothfeld is s a criminal justice adviser and advocate (certification pending) at Inside Outside Ltd., the company he co-founded. He is a former broker-dealer executive who has served time in correctional facilities. He advises individuals, their families, and their legal defense teams on pre -and post- criminal sentencing mitigation strategies and incarceration. You can follow him on Twitter @craig_rothfeld.

Seema Iyer is a journalist and attorney. She previously served as a prosecutor in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney with her own law firm in New York City, and as a local and national news anchor. You can follow her on Twitter @seemaiyeresq.

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