• Widespread prison testing of staff and inmates
• Gov. Stitt should expedite signing any pending sentence commutations
• Expedite the release of any individuals eligible for GPS (ankle bracelet monitoring) supervision
• Screen incarcerated population to determine eligibility for medical parole
• Identify eligible individuals who are within 60 days of release to be considered for reprieve
• Halt facility transfers and input from county jails
More than 700 women and 16 staff members at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma have tested positive for COVID-19. One woman being held in the prison died on Sept. 9 after being hospitalized with “symptoms associated with COVID-19.” A second woman, who was in her 70s, died at the prison on Sept. 16 from possible from COVID-19 complications as well. In the first week of September, this single prison outbreak contributed to Oklahoma having one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 positivity rates.
The COVID-19 virus has ravaged jails and prisons across the United States. As of Sept. 15, at least 125,000 people in prisons have tested positive for the virus. Prisoners testing positive in Florida, California, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have driven a second peak in prison outbreaks. This crisis will escalate without further action. Oklahoma’s prison population is older and struggling with greater underlying health conditions than the average American prison population. The COVID-19 crisis in Oklahoma prisons is a moral emergency requiring urgent action to better protect vulnerable inmates, staff, and surrounding communities.
Oklahoma inmates are particularly vulnerable
Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis has produced a state prison population that is uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. The virus presents the greatest risk to people with chronic health conditions, people over age 65, and people of color — in short, to the people Oklahoma disproportionately incarcerates.
Oklahomans have high rates of chronic health conditions and low access to health care, especially in low-income communities. Many of these negative health outcomes are distinctly acute in rural communities and communities of color, and people from booth of these groups are overrepresented in Oklahoma’s prisons and jails in Oklahoma.
Combine these factors with Oklahoma’s sentencing ranges, which are among the highest in the nation, and this situation has resulted in a prison population that is significantly older and less healthy than the national average. When compared to national rates average, Oklahoma incarcerates 67 percent more people ages 60-64 and 72 percent more people over age 65.
Incarcerated Oklahomans suffer from higher rates of preexisting illness, which makes them more likely to experience complications from COVID-19. For example, an estimated 1 in 12 people in prison in Oklahoma has hepatitis C, a debilitating and potentially deadly liver disease. State prisons have been experiencing the impact of the hepatitis C epidemic for many years. The prevalence of chronic illnesses such as hepatitis C is one of many underlying conditions that potentially worsen the impact of COVID-19.
Furthermore, racial disparities in Oklahoma’s prisons also signal increased risk from the pandemic. Oklahoma has the nation’s highest Black incarceration rate. 1 in 20 Black men in Oklahoma in prison, according to data analyzed by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of OK Policy. Black men are twice as likely to die from this virus than white Americans. Similarly, Oklahoma imprisons American Indian women at more than three times the rate of white women – and American Indians are much more likely to die of the disease than non-native people. Oklahoma’s mass incarceration crisis has put behind bars disproportionately higher numbers of people who are older, those who have preexisting conditions, and people of color. This creates increased risk of sickness and death due to COVID-19 for these individuals — and because prison personnel and staff don’t live in a vacuum — to the entire state.
Other states provide a road map to better protect our prisons
Oklahoma has several options to remove vulnerable Oklahomans from this risk in state prisons. Other states have taken more steps to get particularly vulnerable people out of prison. As of June 5, the Michigan Department of Corrections reported that that state’s overall prison population had decreased by 1,958 since March due to expedited release. Michigan’s Governor has signed an Executive Order calling for increased release of the medically vulnerable. Kentucky’s Governor has commuted the sentences of at least 832 people since March. West Virginia’s Governor embraced mass testing of all inmates and staff.
These strategies alone aren’t a panacea. They’re tools that make the worst outcomes less likely. Oklahoma has granted medical parole to only 12 inmates during the pandemic, and state policymakers failed to make widespread testing available to all guards or staff at all state facilities. These policies have likely worsened prison outbreaks in Oklahoma. The state Department of Corrections began reporting positive cases and deaths among staff on the week of Sept.17 This reporting should include the complete number of DOC staff and guards who are tested each month. The lack of organized and publicly reported testing protocols among prison staff is distinctly worrisome. These staff members tend to live in smaller towns and rural communities in and around the facilities. These same residents then travel to larger cities for shopping, which extends the virus’ potential reach well beyond prison walls. If these Corrections officers are unaware that they are infected, this not only risks prisons but their families and the rural schools, hospitals, and nearby communities will be forced to manage this unnecessary risk.
A recent report graded Oklahoma an “F plus” for the state prison and jail response to COVID-19. Many states have embraced expedited release policies, universal prison testing, and other mitigation strategies that Oklahoma has remained slow to adopt. None of these policies are perfect. Most states were graded down for inadequate responses, but there are simple policy changes that could significantly reduce Oklahoma’s risk of more tragic massive outbreaks leading to the kind of suffering and public health risk experienced by women at the Eddie Warrior correctional facility.
There’s still time to act
Infections continue to rise in Oklahoma prisons. Nearly half the men in one Vinita prison have tested positive for the virus in recent days. Numerous prisons in this state are battling growing outbreaks, but Oklahoma’s policymakers still have time to act. Some recommended actions are below:
- Oklahoma should institute widespread prison testing of staff and inmates, and officials should publicize these testing protocols. This testing does not have to be mandatory. The state could begin by making testing available to all prison staff and then track the number of positive infections among all prison staff statewide. This is especially critical for any prison staff who are responsible for transporting inmates.
- Mass testing of the entire state prison population would produce significant risk reduction. Mass testing should begin at each facility that is now reporting rising cases, particularly those facilities with open-air dormitories that the CDC associates with higher risks.
- Gov. Stitt should expedite signing any pending sentence commutations already approved by the Pardon and Parole Board for early release.
- Oklahoma should expedite the release of any individuals eligible for GPS (ankle bracelet monitoring) supervision.
- The Oklahoma Department of Corrections should screen its incarcerated population for individuals who have one or more chronic conditions, as well as those who are over 55, to determine eligibility for medical parole with recommendations from the Pardon and Parole Board.
- The Oklahoma Constitution authorizes the Governor to grant reprieves of up to 60 days. State officials could reduce prison populations by identifying eligible individuals who are within 60 days of release and submit those names to Gov. Stitt for reprieves. This process could be ongoing and only would include individuals who have essentially completed their sentences.
- Facility transfers and transfers from county jails should be halted until cases in prisons decline and community spread is reduced in Oklahoma.
The COVID-19 crisis is testing America’s ability to solve complex problems. How Oklahoma and the nation act — or fail to act — to protect the incarcerated is a critical part of that test. However, it’s not simply a question of effective policy. It’s also a question of our values. How we treat Corrections and medical staff is a sign of our values. Their families will suffer, and the rural communities many of these officers call home also will pay the price of inaction. How we treat our incarcerated also speaks directly to our values. More action is urgently required to save lives and protect our state. Ultimately, the way we treat aging and vulnerable Oklahomans at risk in our prisons during this pandemic will leave a lasting legacy that reflects the values we hold and the type of society we aspire to create.