Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, prisons are still grappling with how best to control a virus that is intensifying. COVID-19 has continued to spread widely in detention facilities, despite officials taking measures to stem it. Prisons have released thousands of inmates to ease overcrowding, stepped up health screenings among visitors and adopted protocols such as mask wearing for inmates and staff, the Wall Street Journal reports. Between April and June, prisons recorded an average of 17,700 new cases a month. That climbed to more than 30,000 in July and August, before dipping slightly in September to 25,031, and 26,290 in October, says the Covid Prison Project, made up of public health scientists tracking the virus in correctional facilities. Through mid-November, the federal prison system has recorded 20,000+ cases, putting it on track for the highest number of monthly cases since the pandemic began. Health experts worry that COVID-19, combined with flu season, could soon overwhelm prison health resources.
Limiting ways in which a virus enters an enclosed environment like a prison is a focus for officials. The transfer of 121 inmates may have been to blame for a severe outbreak over the summer in California’s San Quentin State Prison in which 75 percent of inmates caught the virus. California has required all prisoners transferred between institutions to complete a quarantine. Some prisons without cases are conducting random testing of inmates and mandatory testing of staff every two weeks. At facilities with increasing cases, staff is tested weekly and movement between housing units is limited. An outbreak at the Utah State Prison in Draper is believed to have been caused by a visiting medical professional. Early in the pandemic, to reduce risk, some prison systems sent low-level offenders and elderly or sickly inmates home. California released more than 21,000 people, resulting in the lowest prison population in decades.