April 13, 2021 07:23

COVID-19 Prison Staff Shortages Prompt Closures Across the U.S.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage behind bars, prison facilities across the country are shuttering their doors — with some facilities closing permanently — mainly due to low staff numbers and poor conditions, according to the Texas Tribune, the Associated Press, and WRAL

Advocates welcome the temporary and permanent closures and cite that this will allow for staff “reshuffling” so that units are no longer struggling to get by, while others worry about what relocating current prisoners will look like — begging the questions of where they will be moved to and if they’ll create new overcrowding conditions, the Texas Tribune explains. 

In the Lone Star State, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is permanently closing Scott prison and shuttering two more at least temporarily with a goal of emptying out the facilities by the end of the year so the staff can be transferred to nearby facilities, according to the TDCJ.

This news comes as the TDCJ already closed 3 different facilities in September, citing budget cuts and a low inmate population, totaling the number of closed prisons to 6 by the end of 2020, the Texas Tribune writes. 

Based on the latest data from October, the agency was short by more than 5,500 officers, or about 22 percent, according to an agency report cited by the Texas Tribune. 

Many prison units are short hundreds of officers as some are sick with COVID-19 and others left the job, leaving several units across the agency less than 50 percent staffed.

And although it’s unclear if the prison population will rebound as housing and booking restrictions of the pandemic are lifted, having less active prisons means the agency can “try to stanch the bleeding of its corrections workforce” — considering the TDCJ has long struggled with dangerous and chronic understaffing in some locations. 

“These [facilities] all make sense to close. … It will help in a lot of ways,” Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs and law school told the Texas Tribune.

“The one piece that really worries me, though, is that by needing to presumably consolidate the population of two facilities into one, you’re going to increase the density of the population in the other facilities, which is exactly not the approach you want in COVID,” Deitch concluded. 

State prisons in North Carolina are facing the same uphill battle, which has now forced the state to close three prison facilities over the last 13 days to “reshuffle staff and address an upswing in COVID-19 cases,” WRAL outlines. 

While the closures were deemed temporary out of medical necessity, Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee told reporters on Monday, that due to the possibility of state budget cuts next year, it’s hard to guarantee that they will ever reopen their doors. 

“We need extra staff and extra medical staff,” Prisons spokesman John Bull said. “The nursing shortage is serious. … We need to use them where their professional capabilities are maximized.”

In Wisconsin, corrections officials are also closing part of the Waupun prison due to a lack of staffing, considering that since the start of the pandemic, 119 Waupun staff members have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19, the Associated Press details. 

Officials will be closing the maximum-security hall, and transferring the 220 inmates to other prisons in order to reduce the overall inmate population by 20 percent, hopefully easing the strain on corrections officials, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr explained.

While Carr told reporters that staffing shortages are “not tied to any one, particular factor and did not happen overnight,” he thinks closing the maximum-security hall to spread staffing among other inmate populations “is a step in the right direction.” 

Is a Vaccine the Answer?

As growing research and anecdotal evidence proves that prisoners are at a disproportionate risk for getting infected with COVID-19 due to facility conditions and an inability to social distance, some advocates and lawmakers alike have been pushing for prisoners to be a priority for vaccination. 

Several groups, including the American Medical Association, are voicing support to give a coronavirus vaccine to inmates and employees in prisons due to the “unique risks to people in confinement — and the potential for outbreaks to spread from correctional centers, straining community hospitals,” the New York Times details. 

In North Carolina where 3 prisons have just closed, the state’s vaccination rollout plan deems prisons – especially the staff and older and sicker prisoners – to be “top priorities” to receive vaccines when they become available, WRAL details. To that end, other public officials are more skeptical about the idea of giving inmates a potentially life-saving vaccine ahead of the public.

According to the Denver Post, Colorado Governor Polis’ spokesperson clarified an earlier statement the Governor made, saying, “The Governor believes that no human being, including those in custody, should be denied the vaccine. So too, no prisoner should be placed ahead of others just because they are a prisoner.”

Additional Reading: Will Inmates Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Priority?

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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