Has COVID-19 Turned OK Prisons into Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

A man who walked into an urgent care clinic in Washington state in January 2020 complaining of a cough accompanied by fever would soon be identified as the first-known patient in the United States with COVID-19. Eight months later, more than 7.2 million people have tested positive for the virus, and more than 208,000 deaths have been attributed to it.

A worldwide pandemic forced governments to recommend and, in some instances, impose measures to slow the spread of the virus. People began wearing surgical masks and maintaining "social distancing" when out in public places. Officials set limits on the size of groups of people allowed in public spaces at various government levels throughout the country.

As difficult as it has been for people and businesses to adapt in an effort to stem the rise in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, social distancing and other protective measures have been all but impossible for people living and working in prisons and jails. More than eight months after the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was diagnosed, Oklahoma announced new testing protocols and other efforts to address reducing the spread of infection among inmates and employees in Oklahoma’s prisons and jails.

Oklahoma officials announce new measures to combat COVID-19

The state recently announced an increase in mandatory testing of employees of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. It will also increase the number of tests administered to what the department identified as "vulnerable" inmates. Corrections officials also announced that it would begin monitoring prison wastewater to identify virus hotspots within the prison system.

Almost 3,200 inmates and 278 corrections employees have tested positive for COVID-19, with 22 employees and 1,398 inmates identified as currently positive for the virus. According to a report by The Marshall Project, nine inmates have died in Oklahoma. In its ranking of states with the highest number of infected inmates, Oklahoma ranks in the tenth position.

At the start of the pandemic, state prison officials responded with a series of measures in March and April. The measures included the following:

·      Use of facemasks and hand sanitizer by inmates and staff.

·      Distribution of antibacterial soap to inmates.

·      Mandatory 14-day quarantine for inmates returning to a facility after a court appearance.

·      Suspending transfers of inmates from jails and prisons in other states to prisons in Oklahoma.

·      Limiting inmate movement within a facility through confinement to cells.

·      Suspension of normal visitation schedules at all prisons.

A modified visitation schedule with social distancing and other restrictions was eventually instituted at prisons that did not have inmates testing positive for COVID-19.

Families of inmates claim the corrections department has not done enough to combat the spread of the virus. They accused the state of allowing conditions in prisons to reach inhumane levels.

A health crisis and the U.S. Constitution

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Still, it has fallen upon judges to decide the specific actions taken by government agencies and officials that rise to the level of "cruel and unusual." U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1958 that interpretation of the Eighth Amendment "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

The Court addressed the topic of health conditions in prisons and the Eighth Amendment in a 1993 decision. An inmate filed a lawsuit against prison officials in Nevada, claiming that he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by having a cellmate who was a chain smoker. According to the lawsuit, the inmate claimed that prison officials were deliberately indifferent to potential health risks posed by exposure to secondhand smoke.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court agreed that the inmate should have the opportunity to proceed with his lawsuit and prove that the prison conditions posed a danger to his health. The majority opinion of the Court reaffirmed prior rulings that the treatment afforded an inmate and conditions of prison confinement could be the basis for a claim of cruel and unusual punishment. It also agreed that prison officials’ deliberate indifference to exposure of inmates to "serious, communicable disease" may violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment even though an inmate may not currently exhibit symptoms of illness.

What should corrections officials do?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for people to follow to reduce the risk of infection and slow the virus’s spread. Its recommendations included the following:

·      Avoid close contact by remaining at least six feet apart.

·      Wear a mask to cover nose and mouth.

·      Cover coughs and sneezes.

·      Daily cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces.

·      Daily monitoring for signs of COVID-19, including coughing, shortness of breath, fever, loss of taste or smell, and other symptoms of the virus.

The use of masks, antibacterial soap, and hand sanitizer have been implemented in Oklahoma prisons, according to corrections officials. Still, a crowded prison environment does not lend itself to social distancing.

Oklahoma made a step toward reducing its prison population early in the pandemic when the governor commuted the sentences of 450 inmates, but more needs to be done. The use of sentencing alternatives to incarceration could not only help to stop the spread of the virus, but it could be a long-term solution to overcrowding in correctional institutions.

For example, encouraging judges to use the authority granted to them by the Oklahoma Community Sentencing Act offers treatment, education, and supervision for individuals convicted of criminal offenses benefit offenders while not adding to the inmate population of a correctional facility. If you or a loved one have been charged with a criminal offense, a consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney may offer you options allowing you to avoid confinement in jail or prison.

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