COVID-19 pandemic

First prison-associated COVID-19 death in RI

RI experienced its first COVID-19 death associated with the state prison system among either staff or inmates, the Department of Corrections confirmed to Motif.

Lt. Russell Freeman, RI correctional officer dead from COVID-19 (Photo: RI Department of Corrections)

In a statement dated Monday, December 14, Director Patricia A. Coyne-Fague said, “It is with a heavy heart that I must report the loss of Lt. Russell Freeman, who passed away early this morning from complications of COVID-19.” Freeman was graduated from the training academy in 1991 and promoted to lieutenant in 2014. He is survived by his wife, Lisa Favino-Freeman, who is also a correctional officer, and three children. Arrangements are in process and will be announced when they are completed, the statement said.

Prisons have been a serious locus of COVID-19 cases and deaths, second only to nursing homes as high-risk congregate care facilities. According to the Marshall Project in co-operation with the Associated Press, as of December 11 there have been 1,657 inmate deaths nationally but only six states (Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wyoming) have reported none, out of 249,883 inmate cases (of whom 166,382 have recovered). Staff are associated with COVID-19 risk carrying infection both into and out of correctional facilities. As of December 11, the Marshall Project reports 108 staff deaths, out of 62,171 cases (of whom 40,972 have recovered).

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RI has been relatively fortunate, with 605 inmate cases and 232 staff cases, according to the Marshall Project. (UPDATE: The official DoC Facebook page reports 731 inmate cases and 271 staff cases as of last week.) Some states have reported catastrophic rates of infection among their inmate population: 70.2% in South Dakota, 59.6% in Kansas, 49.8% in Iowa, 49.7% in Michigan, 44.5% in Wisconsin, 43.4% in Minnesota, 43.2% in North Dakota, and another 17 states between 40% and 20%. Among inmate deaths, there have been 189 in Florida, 167 in Texas, 116 in Ohio, 94 in Michigan, 93 in California, and 82 in Georgia.

On a national basis, researchers have been extremely critical of how prisons and jails responded to the pandemic threat. In a report released this month by the Prison Policy Initiative, Research Director Wendy Sawyer and sociology professor Gregory Hooks of McMaster University wrote:

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus, putting incarcerated people and staff at serious risk once the novel coronavirus entered facilities. Officials across the country ignored the threat for too long, perhaps imagining that confined populations would be too isolated from the outside world to contract the virus. But the boundaries between life “inside” and surrounding communities are actually quite porous, with staff, vendors, volunteers, and visitors constantly flowing in and out of correctional facilities — not to mention the frequent turnover and transfers of incarcerated people themselves.

RI did react early by shutting down visitation and other risks, but it is impossible to completely prevent transmission of the virus in a prison, and until now the state has been the beneficiary of a combination of small size and dumb luck, the latter of which has finally run out – especially for Lt. Freeman and his family.

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