Breaking Out – Pandemic Flu and Prisons

The effects of pandemic flu on society are many and varied. One issue that gets little attention is the effect of pandemic flu on prisons. We know that prisons are breeding grounds for disease, generally. HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis and hepatitis are all more common in prisons that in the general population. These diseases take a toll on prisoners, but do not prevent prisons from operating. Pandemic flu is different. The crowded conditions in prisons are ideal for rapid spread of the disease, not only among prisoners, but also among prison guards and other staff members. This may put a strain on prison medical clinics. It may also put prison security in jeopardy if too many guards are ill at the same time.

Flu season is still months away in the US, but the effects of the new H1N1 on prisons and jails is already being felt. Some examples:

From WBZ (July 6, 2009)

Inmate fears over an apparent swine flu outbreak sparked a riot at the Middlesex County Jail in Cambridge on Sunday.

Several prisoners became unruly, breaking sprinkler heads which in turn flooded the entire building. The jail’s fire suppression system was also damaged and power to the entire facility had to be cut off.


The jail holds about 400 inmates. One hundred and eighty-seven prisoners who face the most serious charges were bused to other local corrections facilities. A generator was brought in to supply power to the remaining inmates.

DiPaola said the disturbance started after fears of H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, spread.

Last week one inmate was diagnosed with a likely case of H1N1 and put in medical quarantine. Over the weekend ten more inmates were diagnosed with the flu and put into isolation. Two correctional officers also have the flu.

According to the Sheriff’s office, the Middlesex Jail was built to hold 160 prisoners. The prisoner population as of Sunday was 403.

From the AP (July 7, 2009)

San Quentin State Prison will stop accepting inmates from 19 Northern California counties Wednesday because of swine flu fears, corrections officials said Tuesday.Nearly half the 5,200 inmates in the prison north of San Francisco are being quarantined. Luis Patino, a spokesman for the federal receiver who oversees prison medical care, said tests show four inmates likely have the H1N1 virus, and 47 inmates are showing symptoms.

Inmates aren’t being shipped to other prisons for fear they could spread the pandemic flu. That means there’s no room for the roughly 250 new inmates who would normally be shipped in from county jails each week.

From the AP (July, 10, 2009)

About 400 San Diego County jail inmates have been quarantined after an inmate tested positive for the swine flu.Sheriff’s officials confirmed the case Friday, but declined to release information about the sick inmate.

They said the quarantined inmates are being isolated in various housing units and have been given anti-viral drugs. Officials have also suspended visits to all county detention facilities until further notice.

2.3 million Americans were incarcerated as of 2007.

How many prisons and jails have plans for the large numbers of cases are expected to happen in the fall and winter? Will scarce antivirals, vaccines and ventilators be available for prisoners? If not, what is their likely reaction? Have guards and other staff been fitted with respirators? Are they prepared for long term lock downs, weeks to months?

I’m hoping all this has been thought through. Because if it hasn’t, there will be break outs, first of flu, then of prisoners.


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