Commentary

Life in jail, made worse during COVID-19

An interview with correctional psychiatrist Elizabeth Ford


 

Jails provide ideal conditions for the spread of COVID-19, as made clear by the distressing stories coming out of New York City. Beyond the very substantial risks posed by the virus itself, practitioners tasked with attending to the large proportion of inmates with mental illness now face additional challenges.

Medscape Psychiatry editorial director Bret Stetka, MD, spoke with Elizabeth Ford, MD, former chief of psychiatry for NYC Health + Hospitals/Correctional Health Services and current chief medical officer for the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES), a community organization focused on the needs of people touched by the criminal justice system, to find out how COVID-19 may be reshaping the mental health care of incarcerated patients. As noted by Ford, who authored the 2017 memoir Sometimes Amazing Things Happen: Heartbreak and Hope on the Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric Prison Ward, the unique vulnerabilities of this population were evident well before the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival on our shores.

What are the unique health and mental health challenges that can arise in correctional facilities during crises like this, in particular, infectious crises? Or are we still learning this as COVID-19 spreads?

I think it’s important to say that they are still learning it, and I don’t want to speak for them. I left Correctional Health Services on Feb. 14, and we weren’t aware of [all the risks posed by COVID-19] at that point.

I worked in the jail proper for five and a half years. Prior to that I spent a decade at Bellevue Hospital, where I took care of the same patients, who were still incarcerated but also hospitalized. In those years, the closest I ever came to managing something like this was Superstorm Sandy, which obviously had much different health implications.

All of the things that the community is struggling with in terms of the virus also apply in jails and prisons: identifying people who are sick, keeping healthy people from getting sick, preventing sick people from getting worse, separating populations, treatment options, testing options, making sure people follow the appropriate hygiene recommendations. It’s just amplified immensely because these are closed systems that tend to be poorly sanitized, crowded, and frequently forgotten or minimized in public health and political conversations.

A really important distinction is that individuals who are incarcerated do not have control over their behavior in the way that they would in the outside world. They may want to wash their hands frequently and to stay six feet away from everybody, but they can’t because the environment doesn’t allow for that. I know that everyone – correctional officers, health staff, incarcerated individuals, the city – is trying to figure out how to do those things in the jail. The primary challenge is that you don’t have the ability to do the things that you know are right to prevent the spread of the infection.

I know you can’t speak to what’s going on at specific jails at the moment, but what sort of psychiatric measures would a jail system put forth in a time like this?

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