Oklahoma’s prisons and jails require executive action to combat COVID-19

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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NOTE: The Oklahoma Department of Corrections on April 6 instituted a lockdown of all inmates in state facilities. 

The COVID-19 crisis is having a terrible impact on prisons and jails across the nation, and Oklahoma’s corrections system desperately needs resources to stave off the risk of an outbreak here as well. Because social distancing is impossible in prisons and jails, those administering these facilities should develop immediate plans for the compassionate release for as many people as possible.

A coalition of criminal justice partners, including OK Policy, made recommendations to advance such a plan on March 27. Since then, Oklahoma’s Attorney General and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections have adopted several of those recommendations, but these steps must be bolstered by comprehensive executive action. 

Hundreds of Oklahoma inmates have already been cleared for release

The Pardon and Parole Board has approved 283 inmates for commutation and sent those recommendations to the Governor’s office. Gov. Stitt could immediately lower the risk of an outbreak in the state prison system by signing those commutations and commuting the sentences to time served. For those who can be released without jeopardizing public safety, he should issue an Executive Order mandating the expedited release of those who are immune compromised, as well as recommending the release of any Oklahomans being held pretrial who could be released. For those who will remain incarcerated through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis a more thorough statewide evidence based plan must be established and made available to the public. 

Quarantine procedures will save lives in prison and beyond 

In the absence of adequate testing, prisons and jails need to isolate people at risk to stop the disease’s spread and to quarantine anyone suspected of being exposed. Recent outbreaks in prisons and jails across the nation demonstrate the ease with which COVID-19 can be transmitted from facilities to the broader public in the absence of adequate testing and evidence-based quarantine procedures. 

  • Those believed to be infected should not be quarantined in solitary confinement or similarly punitive settings. If isolation procedures seem like punishment, people are less likely to report symptoms. People who are quarantined or isolated must get extra attention to ensure that medical and physical health risks aren’t caused by quarantine.
  • To protect Constitutional rights, no one should be incarcerated past their release date, even if quarantine is warranted. People believed to have COVID-19 and who are due for release must be transferred from incarceration to medical supervision in a safe and timely manner. 

Sanitation procedures can reduce the spread

Prisons and jails are particularly dangerous places for a viral outbreak. These overcrowded spaces have far less access to basic sanitation. Recent private donations of antibacterial soap in prisons helps, but there’s still a long way to go to ensure basic sanitation. This is particularly true in county jails, which often lack even basic resources.

  • People experiencing incarceration need ready access to warm water and adequate hygiene supplies, both for handwashing and for cleaning. They should not be required to purchase hand soap or sanitizers. 
  • The ban on alcohol-based sanitizer should be lifted, and any fees for these products should be waived for the duration of the crisis.
  • Laundry services also should be increased to provide clean bedding, towels, and clothing for the incarcerated. This is particularly important for those in the county jail system, which often has less access to consistent laundry services than state prisons. 

Prisons and jails need a comprehensive plan to protect the vulnerable

In addition to the recommendations above, there are systematic plans that can be implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the corrections system: 

  • All aging inmates need consistent protections regardless of their facility. Some state prisons are allowing the option of self quarantine for those over 60, but without specific statewide guidance to make such recommendations uniform many aging inmates remain vulnerable. 
  • All staff and people housed in prisons and jails need to be informed about COVID-19 and the measures they can take to minimize their risk of contracting or spreading the virus. 
  • Before reporting to work, all staff should be screened daily based on the latest CDC guidelines. 
  • Copays for medical visits, medications, and medical supplies should be waived for anyone incarcerated for the duration of this crisis. 
  • Incarcerated people who have Hepatitis C or other chronic illnesses that increase their risk of falling seriously ill due to COVID-19 should be moved into facilities with air systems that are disconnected from the general HVAC system. Plans should also be developed to house these individuals outside of prisons and jails in the event of an outbreak. 
  • High-risk inmates who cannot be released, particularly ones in rural facilities, should be moved to facilities with hospital access in the case of an outbreak. 

The public health risk of COVID-19 is worsened by mass incarceration. Law enforcement, medical staff and inmates across the country are already beginning to experience the terrible impacts of this pandemic. Oklahoma still has a limited window of time to act before jails and prisons become the next center of an outbreak. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damion joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in July of 2018 as the criminal justice policy analyst. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

One thought on “Oklahoma’s prisons and jails require executive action to combat COVID-19

  1. Are lawmakers and Governors office listening or adhering to any of these warnings? How can we protect our incarcerated loved ones? How can we be heard and be a voice for them?

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