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Podcast: Prison Responses to COVID-19

Podcast: Prison Responses to COVID-19

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Prisons have long been breeding grounds for communicable diseases, so when COVID-19 hit, those working in corrections were accustomed to the health and safety protocol intended to reduce the spread of the virus. Despite this, the coronavirus has spread rampantly within facilities.

In this episode of In Public Safety Matters, AMU Criminal Justice professor Dr. Jarrod Sadulski talks to Dr. Michael Pittaro about additional measures to minimize the spread including controversial measures like releasing nonviolent offenders as well as other potential changes that might result from the coronavirus pandemic.

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Well good morning everybody, my name’s Dr. Jarrod Sadulski and today we’re going to have our guest, Dr. Michael Pittaro. And before we begin, I just want to introduce our guest. Dr. Pittaro’s an associate professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University, and an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice with East Stroudsburg University. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration, has served as an executive director of an outpatient and alcohol facility, and is an executive director of the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Agency.

He’s been teaching for the past 18 years, while also serving internationally as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice, an MPA in Public Administration, and a PhD in Criminal Justice. He resides in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. He’s currently the editor for the forthcoming book, “Global Perspectives on Reforming the Criminal Justice System,” which is scheduled for publication in 2021. Dr. Pittaro, welcome.

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you so much, Jarrod, I appreciate it.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. So today our topic is the “shadow pandemic,” the coronavirus pandemic that’s going on in the prisons. And there’s been some media attention drawn to it, but I think that it’s a national and an international problem that isn’t fully recognized. So with your expertise, we’re hoping to touch base on that, so I wanted to ask, Dr. Pittaro, can you provide an overview of your background first in the field of corrections.

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely, I’ll give you the Cliff Note version of it. I was hired by the Department of Corrections right after I graduated with my undergraduate degree back in 1989. I started out as a juvenile detention counselor because I initially thought I wanted to work with kids who were involved in the system. However, after about a year and a half of doing so I realized I think I like working with adults better. And so I transferred over to the prison system to work with adult offenders.

So I started out as a field investigation officer, which I think is kind of unique to Pennsylvania, but it’s similar to that of a parole officer. In the sense that I would supervise and basically oversee men and women who were released into the community, whether it be on furlough, early release from the prison, work release, educational release and so forth. From there, I moved back into kind of the treatment end of corrections, and became the treatment director for the Department of Corrections. And I ended up overseeing psychiatric, psychological programs, medical services, volunteer services, recreation, and then of course, drug and alcohol. After a few more years, I was promoted and went back to the security end of it, and ended up as the criminal records administrator overseeing the intake and discharge division of the prison.

So what’s great about that career is that it gave me a chance to work on both sides of the prison, if you would: the security side and then the treatment side. So I was able to kind of see things from both ends, and can appreciate the security, but also recognize the importance of rehabilitation with getting our offenders ready to re-enter society.

So I spent 16 years in total working for the Department of Corrections before I decided to kind of venture out. As you know, I’m kind of ambitious like yourself and I felt that I could be doing more, so I left the prison system and became executive director of a drug and alcohol facility, an outpatient facility. And from there went back to my home state of New Jersey and became executive director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility.

I started teaching back in 2002, and it’s interesting how that started, just a buddy came up to me and says, “Hey, you want to teach a class?” And I was like, “Never taught before.” He’s like, “Ah, no problem, you’ll love it.” And I started teaching and I did, I loved it. It was positive, it was uplifting. And so I kept that part-time gig up until about 2010, and then I decided that I think it’s time for me to kind of transfer over and jump into higher education. And kind of do it the opposite way, teach full time and then keep one foot in the system, and that’s what I’ve been doing since 2010.

So it’s been nice to have kind of that practitioner background, that leadership background, and now the education background, which I think presents itself as a nice grounded approach to a lot of these situations, so I don’t come off across as being one sided or opinionated on any matters. So that’s kind of my story, how this all came about. It really worked out well and it was the best decision that I ever made.

And now I try to illuminate a lot of the issues that are occurring in corrections, because corrections by its very nature has been kind of forgotten, not just within the practitioner literature, but also within education. Because a lot of researchers aren’t given access to a prison to do studies of prisoners or officers.

In fact, there’s far little written about officers and the plight that they’ve encountered as far as low morale, suicide, stress, burnout, and so forth. So I’ve been able to kind of hone in on those areas to try to bring attention to the issues that prison employees in particular are experiencing. So kind of getting away from the prisoners and focusing more on the employee end of it. And so that’s me, 30 years later here I am.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Awesome, well that’s a substantial background, I would say that certainly makes you an expert in the field, being able to speak from both the practitioner and from the academic side. That’s a unique trait, so what a privilege it is for us to have you here today.

So as we look at the coronavirus pandemic, and we look at what’s going on with prisons, when did prisons in the United States begin to feel the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date, I think it’s kind of like how you and I would’ve experienced it, maybe within different weeks in early 2020. There were some of us, including myself, that maybe held out that this may be something similar to just a flu strain and didn’t really appreciate the magnitude of the virus at that time. So I would say if I had to kind of guesstimate, I would say probably early February, but definitely leading into early March. I think in early March of this year is when we really looked at the virus as being something that is serious and warrants our attention.

Particularly since we’ve never experienced anything, I don’t think there’s anybody that will be listening to this podcast that lived through the Spanish Flu in 1918. So it’s our first experience, so there was a lot of uncertainties, there’s a lot of, I guess you could say, misinformation out there. I think researchers were also kind of a little skewed sometimes in saying that the virus how it spreads, because we really didn’t know how long it stays on surfaces. But I would say by early March, most definitely prisons started to take more of a proactive role in planning for what should we do if the virus enters into our prisons and jails. How do we handle this? Not just for the prisoners, but for employees as well.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Hmm, interesting. Okay, good. So what are some of the biggest challenges prisons face due to the coronavirus?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Well, look at it this way, the nation’s prisons and jails are filled with mostly individuals who are somewhat rebellious, anti-authority, very resistant to any type of authority figures. So you’re dealing with, let’s look at it this way, you’re dealing with a society in which you have a heavy division on this virus and how we should handle it. The masks, no mask debate. Even with the political venture, some say politicians could’ve done more, some support the politicians. We’re so heavily divided. Now you go into the prison system, and there’s even more division, and you’re dealing with an even more challenging group of people who are very steadfast in their ways, very opinionated.

So that’s part of the problem, is trying to get civilians to comply with the various directives that have been set forth by the president and respective governors has been challenging enough. Imagine trying to get prisoners to comply. I mean, that’s a huge, huge challenge in and of itself, is just getting their buy in to go along with this. But because prisoners live in such close proximity to each other within a prison cell, with some prisons having two to four individuals and sometimes even more in common areas, like they’ll utilize a gym as an overflow, which could hold 75, 95 individuals or even possibly more, really hard to social distance in a prison.

So I think that’s the biggest thing, is you see us in Walmart or some other place and we’re trying to step on those little circles on the floor, trying to keep our distance, and most people don’t comply with that. But now trying to get prisoners to try to do that, even in a common area, is virtually, I don’t want to say impossible, I don’t like using the word impossible, but extremely challenging to do so.

And if I may add, prisons are also kind of breeding grounds for communicable diseases. That’s one thing, if you’ve worked in corrections, you’ve kind of become, I don’t want to say accustomed to it, but you’re prepared for any spread of MERSA, there’s all these other communicable diseases besides the flu, you have to watch with bodily fluids with HIV, hepatitis.

So I think prisons by their very nature, and the employees that work within the prison system, cautious. So in other words, they’re kind of accustomed to dealing with the spreading or the minimization of the spreading of any type of communicable disease. So I think in that sense, prisons were a little bit better equipped and ready for the virus, not knowing the magnitude of course of how this would take off, but I think that just working in a prison they were very cautious about this from the beginning. So I think that’s one of the good things.

But one of the issues is that prisoners by and large typically have more health problems than someone out in society like you and I. The studies show that someone—I’m 53, so if I were a prisoner, I may have the health conditions of someone 10 years older than myself, so 63 years old. Higher blood pressure, you’re dealing with high cholesterol from years of poor nutrition, hygiene, years of substance abuse, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or drugs and alcohol. So it makes them a little bit more vulnerable, which is another concern that we have, is that you’re dealing with a very vulnerable population as far as their medical health, making them more susceptible to contracting, and maybe succumbing to the virus compared to someone like you or I who tries to take care of ourselves, no pre-existing conditions. So that’s another challenge.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Has there been a significant inmate buy-in in terms of recognizing that they could have a role in helping to reduce the risk or mitigate the risk of a disease that potentially could kill them within the prison?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Yes, I believe so. I think that when it comes to some type of situation where they know it’s going to affect them in some capacity, whether it’s them directly or indirectly in some way. For example, we had to cut out visitation, so family and friends can’t visit, all non-essential personnel, so that affects the prisoners indirectly not being able to see family members. So I think when you get into that situation where kind of, it affects them individually, not just as a group, I think it’s easier to get the buy-in.

But again, probably taking a little time, I would say by March when we really realized that this wasn’t going anywhere and that it was infiltrating the US, and it was definitely going to hit the prisons at some point, I think prisoners then started to get the buy-in. Complete buy-in, probably not, but I would say a good portion of them realized that “Hey, we’ve got to gain control of this because it’s going to affect us and we could be the next victim.”

And also, this is affecting our recreation, what we can and cannot do in a prison, 24 hours a day of being idle, not doing anything, you get a little cranky over that. So I think they want things to return to normal, at least from their perspective of normal within the prison system. So I would say yeah, you’re getting more of a buy-in now. Complete buy-in, I doubt it because prisons are a small segment of society, if American society isn’t getting whole buy-in I doubt you’re getting it at the prison level as well.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. And I know you’ve done a lot of great research in issues in prison before the pandemic, and I recall some of your research on prison suicides and mental health in prisons. So can you speak any impacts that the stress of the coronavirus may be having within the prisons in those terms?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Absolutely. How this all started was when I worked in corrections, I noticed that many individuals that I had worked with during that time had died by suicide. And it was kind of disproportionate to the number of people I knew in my entire life, from the time I was born, that had died by suicide, so it seemed to be disproportionate.

So while kind of doing a little research, it did start out more of like a little research interest, I realized that there was very little literature on it. There’s an abundance of literature when it comes to law enforcement, because law enforcement officers are more visible and more accessible. But within corrections, there was hardly anything, so I wrote the first article as “Suicide: It’s Time for an Open Discussion,” and that really spiraled and did well, and it wasn’t anything to do with my research per se, or writing at all. But more about the topic that a lot of officers could actually relate to that topic.

And I think that kind of made people feel like “hey, I’m not alone, I’m not the only one experiencing this.” Now, we’re already seeing evidence that high schoolers are experiencing higher suicide rates now due to COVID, we’re seeing this among individuals that already suffer from depression or some type of anxiety disorder. So if we’re seeing a spike in suicide in civilians, you can most definitely expect that we’ll see a spike in suicide among correctional employees as well. Do I have anything to support it yet, no, because I still think it’s too early for that. But I think once the dust has settled and we have a better handle on the virus and its impact and how far it actually went, I think we’re going to see that the problems that I kind of illuminated in that study have been magnified due to the virus. The virus exacerbated everything. So I definitely think that you’re going to see more stress, lower morale, and maybe additional substance abuse, and definitely at least thoughts or ideations of suicide, if not complete suicides.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Very good, yeah, it’s been said that prisons are a microcosm of society, and I can definitely see the parallels where we’re seeing the increases in suicides in the general population outside of prisons and I can see how that could relate to potential spikes within prison. Excellent, excellent information.

Dr. Pittaro, I wanted to ask, what steps are being taken to mitigate problems in the prison associated to the coronavirus, in addition to what we’ve discussed?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Similar to what organizations and businesses are doing is kind of step up the sanitary protocols for the prison. Working in a prison’s interesting, but one thing that is commendable is that they really do a nice job of really cleaning up the place, and making sure that any time of communicable disease, let’s say the flu, is kept to a minimum. So they’re always cleaning, and they’re always using products that are intended to kill the virus, or at least minimize the spread. So this is no different. I think if anything they stepped up their practices similar to what you would see in any organization or business, whether it be a restaurant or some type of private industry.

So they’re definitely doing that, just like everyone else, there’s protocols to follow. They do have medical departments that are advising them along with Department of Health. So I think you’re going to see that increase and continue onward. But other than that, one of the probably, I don’t want to say controversial, but one of the somewhat controversial things that they’ve been doing is releasing nonviolent, kind of less serious offenders early, whether it be on early parole, maybe offering bail if it’s a jail situation, work release, something where they’re discharged from the prison, still under supervision, but the thought process is to try to release as many nonviolent offenders as possible.

Now, I have to admit I’m not fully onboard with this logic behind it, because I’m not sure that’s exactly having any effect on stopping the virus. Because you’ve got multiple things here at play, this is like moving parts. You have officers and civilian staff that are going into the prison every day, so they could potentially be asymptomatic yet bringing the virus into the facility. And the person you’re releasing on early release because you’re trying to minimize the prison population, they could be asymptomatic and now bringing it out to their family. So I’m not 100% onboard with that this was the best choice, as far as releasing offenders. And of course those cases in which we release offenders and then a crime was committed, that causes us to question whether or not this was the best move.

But again, at the defense of politicians and leaders in the corrections industry, I think that we didn’t know what to do. This seemed like a logical move. Now whether or not it actually had any significant impact on minimizing the spread of the virus, I guess time will tell whether that in fact worked. But that’s pretty controversial in selecting inmates who should be released and who shouldn’t be released.

Because we all know, you know as well, that when you work in this profession, you can have somebody who’s not necessarily violent but they could easily escalate the next day to a violent offender, there’s nothing saying that if you’re nonviolent that you’re going to stay that way throughout your entire criminal career. We’ve seen cases where somebody may have downloaded child porn, they get arrested, they get charged, but then they go from viewing child porn to becoming an actual child predator. So that’s not unheard of, so I think that’s where the controversy is, that you can’t guarantee the people you’re releasing are going to remain crime free from doing so.

So I think the prisons have tried to do that, but unfortunately it’s a little bit difficult. Before I forget, one other challenge that I wanted to mention earlier too is that when you do have a prisoner who becomes severely ill due to the coronavirus, you only have a limited medical space as far as beds. So that would require that they be transported outside of the prison to a hospital. But unlike you or I, if we were to enter a hospital system, prisoners require supervision by either deputy sheriffs, correction officers, depending on their jurisdiction. So that leads to then more issues and possible spreading of the virus as well.

So it’s not the best scenario, but I really do think corrections did a great job of trying to do as much possible, and be prepared to handle this as much as they could. They’ve always worn protective clothing, latex gloves, other protective gear to minimize any exposure to bodily fluids, but this is airborne for the most part that we know. So that raises it up a little bit and that’s something that’s difficult. Particularly when prisons don’t have a good air flow. So you may not have that circulation to kind of get the air flowing where you’re having fresh air in there. A lot of the older facilities, I know New Jersey and Pennsylvania have a lot of older prisons, that air is just kind of stuck there. So it’s just circulating by maybe a big fan of some sort or some type of internal process, but it’s not necessarily circulating the air, so we’re all breathing in all that toxic air.

But they have stepped up the process of trying to keep the prisons a little bit more sanitary, they’re checking officers and civilian staff before they come into the facility, doing the temperature check. And then if anybody has the slightest symptoms of the virus, they’re obviously not permitted to come back to work, not permitted to be on the facility grounds whatsoever. So those are the kind of precautionary steps that they’ve been taking. But like we’ve seen in society, we’ve done the same thing but we’re still seeing spikes in some areas. So this virus seems to be kind of evolving and changing, and it’s very difficult to kind of shoot at a moving target to try to figure out how to actually effectively, rather, minimize the spread.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right, that’s a great point. Now, speaking of that, that leads me to my next question, what resources are prisons in need of to combat the coronavirus?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Well I think initially it was the shortage of cleaning supplies, the same thing that we were facing in society they were facing as well, trying to find some type of alcohol, 70% ratio of alcohol in the cleaning products, other disinfectants that would work. I know they’re equipped with those products, but I’m not sure how long they lasted in the initial days, so I think that shortage was a problem because if hospital facilities and other places that need them the most were having difficulty trying to get them, you can imagine how it was affecting the prisons.

So masks were an issue, I know in the beginning and locally here at our prison locally, it was an issue trying to find masks for the officers. So that was one of the resources that they definitely needed. Cleaning supplies, all those things, basically the same thing that we need in civilian society, they were also facing it. But probably they were a little bit lower on the list of organizations that would need these products. Because corrections by and large unfortunately they tend to, they’re not considered as important as some of the other industries. When individuals go to prison you have a large segment of society that says they belong there, and that’s their fault that they’re there, and they’ll have to deal with it. And then there’s others that say, no, we still have to treat them like human beings. You actually used the quote by Nelson Mandela, that’s a perfect quote, that we still have to consider them as people who are eventually going to re-enter society, so we have to prepare them for it and treat them with the same respect.

So I would say essentially the same things that we dealt with here, you and I in our personal and professional lives, are the same issues that they face, but I would probably say at a little bit more higher rate of trying to obtain those resources.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Thank you for that. And you had mentioned the quote from Nelson Mandela, and I just wanted to go ahead and share that with our audience. Nelson Mandela said, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged on how it treats its highest citizens, but how it treats its lowest ones.” And Nelson Mandela, somebody that spent time in prison, and somebody that has gone on to be a great voice for humanity, so thank you for mentioning Nelson Mandela quote.

So my next question, what about infrastructure within the prisons? Has the coronavirus, has it caused major changes, and do you see changes coming in the future where they may need to operate in more space?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: I think it’s difficult, I mean, prisons are costly to construct and maintain as it is. So I don’t know if you would see significant changes to the infrastructure. I think that they will try to prepare for something like this, at least be better prepared if we would have this second wave that many predict, or if this were to occur in the future with some other type of virus that spreads to this magnitude. I know for example, tuberculosis some prisons have cells that deal with tuberculosis, that kind of circulates the air so it doesn’t go outside of those cells there, but that’s such a small portion, and once again, it’s for only a limited number of inmates who may come in with tuberculosis.

So I think that they’ll try, but again, this is a costly venture. Prisons themselves, corrections cost us annually $87 billion dollars a year.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Wow.

Dr. Michael Pittaro: That’s only corrections, that doesn’t include the court system and of course law enforcement. So this is a big chunk of the criminal justice system pie. So and again, civilians, taxpayers I should say, aren’t necessarily, they don’t really want to see any changes in the prison. Getting them to have the buy-in for rehabilitation has been challenging in and of itself, so trying to change the infrastructure to help the spread of disease may be equally challenging.

So I think you’ll see small changes, but I don’t think they’re going to be as significant as you would see in business practices and things of that nature, due to what we experienced.

One thing is that a lot of people don’t realize that over 93% of people that go to prison will come out one day. So we have to really consider that, some people are under this misnotion that you go to prison and you’ll spend the rest of your life there. And that’s only really true for a small percentage when you look at the entire United States.

We’re averaging 750,000 prisoners annually that enter and exit our nations prisons. And then on top of that, you’re looking at 12 million that enter and exit our nation’s jails every year. So this is a huge revolving door of people that it’s hard to maintain the virus from entering the corrections system, and to keep it from exiting the corrections system because you kind of have that constant flow of people going in and out daily. So let’s say a prison releases 30 today, they may get 30 more in. Trying to contain it is hard because they can’t be quarantined in place like we had to in our homes. It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: That’s a great point. So where do you see prison conditions in six months to a year if the coronavirus continues to spread?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: I think they’ll keep up with the research, they’ll keep up with the research and trying to implement policies and procedures. I think visits will remain at a standstill, I think all non-essential employees and work on the prisons will remain at a standstill, just to see where this thing goes. Depending on what study you read, the virus is evolving, it’s mutating, it’s changing, whatever language you want to use. That makes it difficult to try to figure out how to approach it.

But I think knowing that contact surfaces, continuing to have officers and civilian staff that work at the prison recognize the symptoms, just be constantly hypervigilant, which I think correctional employees are just by the nature of working in a prison you’re kind of hypervigilant to hyper alert and cautious as to what’s going on. So I think that’s one of the keys there, I think as a society we’ve become a little bit more savvy when it comes to the virus. Now that we have a better understanding of it, how to try to minimize from contracting it. And I think prisons will adapt to that as well. And since they have a medical department on site, for most of them, I think the medical department will be a good advisory portion to wardens and directors of corrections.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Excellent. Well this is excellent information, I know that I’ve certainly learned a lot and it’s a pillar of criminal justice, the corrections system, that really doesn’t get the same amount of attention as the other pillars of criminal justice, so I think that sharing your insight is definitely very important and beneficial. Are there any remaining thoughts that you have?

Dr. Michael Pittaro: No, I don’t, I really can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I just think that there’s a lot of uncertainties in society in general, so the prisons are no different. We’re really uncertain at what’s going to occur, will this dissipate over time, will there be a second wave? If so, will it be just as bad or worse than the current wave that we’re experiencing? There’s so many unknowns that we have nothing to compare it to, because the majority of us never lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, so we’re kind of in uncharted territory here in trying to navigate through this. So I think that it’s going to be constantly changing and adapting, just like we are, trying to figure out how we can best minimize this and hopefully get this virus under control.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Right. Right, absolutely. Well excellent. Well again, excellent information, I truly appreciate you joining us today, and sharing your insight. And you’re always welcome back, we’d love to have you come back and do another podcast with you. Your expertise spans so many different areas of criminology and criminal justice, it would definitely be a pleasure to speak with you again.

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you, sir, I really appreciate you having me on. I mean, I would love to come back, so let’s definitely keep in touch on this. It’s been a pleasure, and I always enjoy doing this, and I enjoy working with you as well, we have common interests, and we have common goals. So I think this is important that we really get this information out to people.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski: Absolutely. Well excellent. Well again, thank you very much and I look forward to our next podcast.

Dr. Michael Pittaro: Thank you, sir.

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