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The new coronavirus pandemic sent an intense wave of disruption through the prison system in the spring. Local jails emptied out and prison operators tried to implement social distancing rules to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Despite those efforts, at least 75,000 inmates have been infected and more than 600 have died in the U.S. so far, according to reporting from The New York Times. Most of the country’s biggest coronavirus clusters have occurred in jails and prisons.  

With more than 70 correctional and residential reentry facilities across the country, and an average inmate population of about 56,000 during the height of the pandemic, the Brentwood-based private prison operator CoreCivic finds itself at the center of that problem.

More 1,300 inmates at CoreCivic’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tenn., have tested positive for COVID-19 and three have died. Nearly 400 inmates tested positive for the disease at other CoreCivic locations in Tennessee.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CoreCivic’s largest client, has reported nearly 700 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths in CoreCivic facilities. Colorado, Georgia and Ohio have reported a total of 124 COVID-19 cases and one death at CoreCivic prisons. 

In total, more than 2,500 inmates have tested positive for the disease at CoreCivic facilities. Large outbreaks have occurred in many government operated prisons as well. So far, the vast majority of those cases have been asymptomatic.

CoreCivic has been screening inmates and staff for COVID-19 symptoms and encouraging hand washing, basic hygiene and social distancing. However, inmates and criminal justice advocates argue those basic measure won’t keep people healthy in crowded prisons, and that the best solution is to dramatically decrease inmate populations.

While the virus has infected thousands of people at CoreCivic facilities, the Brentwood company still reported $25 million in profits during April and May. Amid the uncertainty, the company isn’t issuing financial predictions about the rest of the year, but executives are expressing confidence that the effects of the virus on the bottom line will be temporary. 

In a statement, a representative from CoreCivic said the company is working hard to protect staff and inmates from the virus.  

That includes checking employees and inmates for symptoms, encouraging social distancing through “regular town hall meetings, posted flyers, information presented over the closed circuit television system, and the routine instruction of staff.” The company says it’s also cleaning frequently touched surfaces. 

CoreCivic is limiting movement of inmates to reduce contact with other people. Inmates arriving at a new facility are quarantined for 14 days in a holding area, and people at high risk of becoming severely ill are separated from the general population.  

In some places, the company is also conducting mass testing to identify sick inmates, but many inmates still haven’t been tested. CoreCivic is following the direction of government clients when it comes to large testing campaigns. 

Tennessee set a goal of testing all inmates. Other clients haven’t asked for the same level of testing. ICE has tested about half of its detainee population. Colorado has tasted about a quarter of its population and Arizona has only tested 8% of inmates. That means some infected prisoners may not have been tested yet. 

On a conference call in May, CoreCivic executives argued that the company’s facilities, which are often larger and more modern than state run prisons, make it easier to keep inmates healthy.

“When a facility is operating above its design capacity, there is less available square feet per resident, in some cases, making social distancing in accordance with the CDC guidance impossible,” CEO Damon Hininger said. “Our facility designs are generally more modern and allow for easier separation and social distancing plans.”

Some inmates and employees still say they don’t feel safe from the new coronavirus inside CoreCivic facilities.  

Two employees at a CoreCivic facility in California claimed in a lawsuit that the company didn’t provide staff with proper protective equipment and that their job duties made it difficult to avoid contact with other people.  

Nearly 150 CoreCivic employees had been infected by early May, and several have died. In April, frontline employees received a bonus for working under high-risk conditions and additional sick leave to allow staff to stay home when feeling ill. 

In April, a group of detainees at two ICE facilities in Arizona operated by CoreCivic asked a court to release them because they feared getting sick. They claimed it was difficult to maintain basic hygiene, impossible to practice social distancing and hard to find appropriate protective equipment. 

A judge concluded in May that ICE was not taking reasonable measures at the CoreCivic facilities to protect the detainees, ordering the agency to release one detainee and improve conditions for the others.   

A spokesperson for CoreCivic said the company is providing masks to all staff and inmates and that disposable gloves are readily available to staff. To bolster supplies of protective equipment “inmate-volunteers” have made tens of thousands of masks for use at CoreCivic facilities. 

Jennifer Gaddy, a researcher at Vanderbilt who studies bacterial infections and also advocates for prison reform, said that infectious diseases spread easily in jails and prisons even in the best of times, so it’s not surprising that they are coronavirus hot spots as well. 

She argues that the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons is a threat to everyone, and she’s hoping that the pandemic will lead to lasting changes that reduce infectious disease transmission even after the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

“For years, we've seen that prisons have really high rates of transmission of hepatitis and HIV and tuberculosis. People have sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, these are disposable people to our community,” she said. "Prison health is public health. These are members of our community. Staff come into these facilities and have to be exposed, and they turn around and go home to their families."

Gaddy said that releasing inmates is the only truly effective way to stop the spread of a disease like COVID-19 in jails and prisons. 

That has happened in many local jails — jail populations in Tennessee fell by about 31% in the spring — but CoreCivic’s inmate population has declined only slightly. 

The number of ICE detainees dropped sharply during the pandemic, mostly because migration at the Southern U.S. border slowed down. Populations at state prisons operated by CoreCivic declined modestly. In total, CoreCivic’s inmate population declined by about 3% between March and April.

“This is due to disruptions in the criminal justice system as the number of courts in session and prosecutions have declined and with many state and local government agencies deciding to release certain offenders to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” Hininger said on a conference call. “With some states already starting to reopen their economies and even more following similar plans over the next few months, we expect a coinciding gradual resumption of these government activities returning to pre-pandemic levels.” 

The reduction in the number of people incarcerated cut into CoreCivic’s profits, but executives don’t expect the pandemic to have long term effects on its prison population.  

Alexandra Chambers, an advocate who has worked on prison reform in Tennessee for more than a decade, said she doesn’t expect the pandemic itself to have any lasting impacts on the prison system or private prison operators like CoreCivic. 

“I think any long term sustained change would have to come from community demands and organizing for decarceration for the safety and wellbeing of those who are incarcerated and their loved ones,” she said. 

She said the pandemic showed it’s possible to reduce inmate populations, and she’s hoping the last several months will serve as an example for the public.

As a for-profit company, the pandemic doesn’t change CoreCivic’s ultimate goal. In a press release about the company’s

In the company’s recent statement that it might drop its tax-advantaged real estate investment trust structure, CoreCivic reassured shareholders that it is still generating “strong cash flows” during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“While the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be a priority to ensure the safety of our staff and individuals in our care,” Hiniger said “We are also focused on creating long-term shareholder value and delivering on our company’s purpose.”

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