COVID Behind Bars: As Numbers Rise, Wyoming Needs to Take Action

The number of active coronavirus cases at the Wyoming State Penitentiary continues to grow. The virus has now infected roughly 17 percent of the population at the Rawlins facility since the pandemic began.

The statistics are startling, to be sure. 

But more important than the statistics are the people those numbers represent.

As COVID-19 has hit correctional facilities nationwide, incarcerated people and their families across the country and here in Wyoming have been on amplified alert for months. 

Health officials have referred to the United States’ overcrowded prison systems as “petri dishes” and have warned that they could be a “significant” source for spreading the virus. The main advice given by health officials – wash your hands and keep at least 6 feet apart – is difficult to do in an already crowded correctional facility staffed with people coming in from the outside.

Those living within the system know this to be true. 

Wyoming’s response to COVID-19 in its jails and prisons has earned the state a failing grade from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative, according to a recently released report.

While some states have released non-violent offenders from jails and prisons in hopes of decreasing the populations in the facilities. Gov. Mark Gordon’s office has not. Despite having ample time and information to take the steps necessary to heed the warnings of public health experts, Wyoming has refused to adequately address the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses in our state’s jails and prisons. 

Mass incarceration was a major public health crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19. But this pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point.

The U.S. is the largest incarcerator in the world, with just 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of its incarcerated population. About 40 percent of all incarcerated people suffer from at least one chronic health condition, such as asthma or diabetes. This means the U.S. faces a unique challenge in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and is likely facing a much higher death count than models based on data from other countries predict. 

In March, the ACLU of Wyoming urged state officials to heed public health experts’ advice and develop an evidence-based, proactive plan for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in Wyoming’s jails, detention centers, prisons, ICE facilities and detainee transportation.

The resulting plan was overly broad. Anyone entering a Department of Corrections facility would be screened. Visitation and volunteer programs were temporarily suspended ad attorney and legal visitations were restricted. 

In April, we filed a public records request for information regarding COVID-19 infection risk and spread among people living and working in Wyoming Department of Corrections facilities. We were directed to the publicly available information on the Department of Corrections website but we were denied information about the DOC’s COVID-19 emergency response plans

Meanwhile, we keep hearing from people currently living in prison, jail, or a pre-release center, or from family members who reached out on behalf of their loved ones.

They are scared for their lives. They are concerned that more isn’t being done to protect them from a possible outbreak. They are worried that they are being forgotten about. They feel emotionally abused by how they are being treated. And they feel powerless in their situations.

We’re doing what we can to best advocate for our friends and neighbors. But it’s time for Wyoming to take action. To do more. 

Gov. Gordon should utilize his clemency powers to decrease incarcerated populations and create a culture in which transparency, safety, and the health of all people are paramount concerns.