In March of 2020, as it became increasingly clear that COVID-19 would be a catastrophic threat to the United States, numerous criminal justice experts warned that the impending pandemic would have a devastating impact on correctional facilities and their surrounding communities. These early warnings proved to be prescient, as seven months later, amidst an unprecedented public health crisis that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, prisons and jails have consistently and disproportionately been COVID-19 hotspots. As of January 8th, at least 329,298 incarcerated people have tested positive for the coronavirus, with over 2,020 reported deaths. Additionally, there have been over 84,291 cases and 139 deaths reported among prison employees. This indicates a mortality rate twice as high and an infection rate over four times as high as the general population. The proliferation of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is due to an incoherent national strategy as well as an institutionalized disregard for prisoners’ lives and reflects the inhumanity that has always been pervasive within our criminal justice system.
Many of the justice system’s worst aspects such as overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and a disregard for prisoners’ health and safety (injustices on their own) have facilitated the rapid spread of the virus inside correctional facilities. Both jails and prisons have been overwhelmed by COVID-19, highlighting the lack of a consistent approach at the local, state or federal level.
Physical distancing, supported by experts as an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19, is nearly impossible in prisons. The U.S. incarcerates far more people than any other nation in the world (both in absolute numbers and adjusted for population), and the prison population has risen by 700 percent since 1970. Many prisons are at or over 100 percent of their capacity. Mass incarceration has led to cramped, overcrowded and under-resourced correctional facilities, conditions that are extremely conducive to the spread of a deadly virus. The Cascade County Detention Center in Montana, for example, has been alarmingly overcrowded for years. According to the New York Times, when a COVID-19 outbreak hit the facility in August, it was so overcrowded that inmates had sleeping mats “on the floor in the day room, in shower stalls, in stairwells, in hallways outside of cells.” The Marion Correctional Institution, in central Ohio, had the largest recorded coronavirus outbreak of any U.S. correctional facility so far. There, a prison dorm designed for disabled and older prisoners contained 200 inmates in a space designed for 170 — bedridden inmates displayed severe COVID-19 symptoms as the disease spread among beds spaced much less than 6 feet apart.
Additionally, American prisons and jails are notorious for unsanitary conditions and a lack of access to basic hygiene, which facilitate the spread of COVID-19. Washing hands, wearing a mask and using disinfectant are simple habits for the general population in the fight against coronavirus at this point, but these actions are still often impossible for people behind bars. Hygiene necessities are often cost-prohibitive for prisoners, if even available at all. For example, a bar of soap can cost more than $2 at a prison commissary, which is money many prisoners don’t have — even those who can work earn much less than that. Hand sanitizer, one of the most basic forms of personal protective equipment, is banned at many jails and prisons due to its alcohol content. At numerous under-resourced correctional facilities, sinks don’t work, toilets are broken, running water is intermittent and prisoners are charged exorbitant medical fees. Although prison officials have made some efforts to improve access to basic hygiene — for example, state Departments of Corrections began waiving medical copays and certain states began to provide free soap — this is the bare minimum, and it is shameful that prison conditions were ever this terrible in the first place. It should not take a pandemic for prison officials to realize that incarcerated individuals deserve the right to health and safety, but the pandemic’s unfortunate timing has resulted in numerous deaths that may have been preventable if inmates had access to basic needs.
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the federal agency that oversees government-run correctional facilities and the largest jailer in the United States, has exhibited an undoubtedly incompetent and inadequate response to COVID-19. According to the Marshall Project, prisoners’ symptoms were routinely ignored, sick and healthy inmates were quarantined together, prison staff were pressured to work after being exposed to sick prisoners, and federal officials actively tried to conceal the extent of the outbreaks. The BOP’s own employees have fiercely criticized the Bureau, claiming that officials failed at containing the pandemic and actively contributed to its spread. Additionally, a whistleblower complaint filed by a prison official in Texas alleged that the BOP “knowingly misled the American public” about COVID-19 in correctional facilities.
The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in jails and prisons has led to fear and distress among incarcerated individuals, who often feel helpless and vulnerable in the face of prison officials’ ineptitude in containing the virus. Incarcerated individuals are living in fear that their prison sentence will become a death sentence as prison officials look the other way or take action too late. Some prisoners are resorting to extreme measures to raise awareness about the tragedies occurring inside correctional facilities due to COVID-19. At San Quentin State Prison in California, inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 declared a hunger strike to protest unsanitary living conditions. Aaron Campbell, a prisoner at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio, used a contraband cell phone to post a video of the dismal conditions inside the facility: inmates were wheezing and coughing as they were packed together in their cubicles. Campbell later claimed that he was sent to solitary confinement as punishment for having a phone and was told that he would not face any more discipline if he stated that the video was fake.
While one can count the number of infections and deaths, it is impossible to quantify the largely avoidable pain and suffering that has occurred due to the inhumanity of the criminal justice system and its inability to contain the pandemic. By failing to take decisive action, local, state and federal governments have essentially sentenced thousands of inmates to death by incarceration. James Allen Smith, a 73-year old retired teacher, was sentenced to prison for a few months after pleading guilty to a DUI; instead, he died in prison as a result of COVID-19. Andrea Circle Bear, a 30-year old pregnant Native American woman sentenced to prison for two years on a drug charge, was killed by COVID-19 after giving birth while on a ventilator in federal custody. Thousands of other incarcerated individuals and their loved ones experienced similar tragedies as the pandemic ravaged through jails and prisons. For example, before Governor Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty in California, only 13 men on California’s death row had been executed since 1978. In just the past few months, 12 men on California’s death row alone died of the coronavirus.
The suffering caused by the pandemic in jails and prisons also highlights the disparate racial and economic impacts of COVID-19. A wide variety of policies have led to people of color and poor people being disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. For example, “tough-on-crime” drug laws criminalize Black, Latino and Native American individuals for offenses that go unnoticed when committed by white wealthy people, and pretrial detention incarcerates poor people who haven’t been convicted of a crime just because they can’t afford to pay bail. The disproportionate incarceration of marginalized groups is just one of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has so destructively affected low-income communities and communities of color, and is emblematic of the systemic inequality within our country.
The devastation caused by COVID-19 in jails and prisons is an infuriating and unjust travesty, but it is not surprising. Detention facilities are notorious for their inhumane conditions and disregard for the lives of incarcerated individuals even during “normal”, non-pandemic times. While this disregard has proven to be especially deadly during this emergency, it has consistently resulted in pain and suffering since the beginning of the criminal justice system. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic eventually ends, a “return to normal” would be a return to the status quo of cruelty and injustice within the criminal justice system. The existing structures which resulted in the pandemic having such a disproportionate impact will not disappear after the pandemic is over — it will require sustained advocacy and a reimagining of how to best ensure public safety.
However, the foremost concern right now is making sure that the least number of people die due to COVID-19 in correctional facilities. There are concrete actions that prison officials can take to ensure that the pandemic does not turn any more prison terms into death sentences. The most obvious solution is decreasing the prison population, which would make prisons less crowded and free up resources and medical care for prisoners who actually need it. While this seems like a straightforward solution, there is an unsurprising backlash towards releasing prisoners who have not yet completed their sentences. Although some states, such as Colorado, have taken promising steps in releasing prisoners, many states are not taking actions to decarcerate in response to the virus, and many others have been ineffective and slow to act. While it would be relatively easy for governors to grant clemency to elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing conditions, many are reluctant to do so, instead echoing “tough-on-crime” maxims. For example, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, whose state has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, rejected the possibility of releasing any prisoners, stating that “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not a solution.”
Those who claim that releasing some prisoners would be a dangerous threat to public safety disregard the fact that keeping prisons overcrowded and under-resourced is a literal and proven threat to public health and safety, not just for prisoners, but for all members of a community. Jails and prisons are not isolated from the general public — there are thousands of staffers and guards who go home each day and could potentially spread the virus throughout their communities. Correctional health is public health.
Additionally, a significant amount of incarcerated individuals are not “dangerous criminals” by any definition. 1 in 5 prisoners are imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and the majority of people in local jails are incarcerated before being convicted, due to pretrial detention. Moreover, even criminals convicted for violent acts must be examined on a case-by-case basis when it comes to determining whether they should be released: should a 45-year-old man with pre-existing conditions be forced to die in prison because he has a year left on his sentence for the armed robbery he committed at 18?
Some might say that although the pandemic’s impact on jails and prisons is concerning, it should not be a national outrage because prisoners are incarcerated for a reason and somehow “deserve” it. On a public Facebook post by a news channel in San Antonio about the death of an elderly prisoner due to COVID-19, some of the most-liked comments were “Maybe he should have obeyed the law” and “Trying to make us feel bad for criminals isn’t going to work.” This mindset is unfortunately understandable, due to the barrage of dehumanizing rhetoric surrounding incarcerated individuals that Americans are constantly exposed to. However, no one deserves to die of a deadly virus solely because they are incarcerated. Certainly, our nation’s highest governmental officials should not be espousing the ideology that incarcerated people are somehow less worthy of the right to health and safety than any other person, but this often seems to be the case.
There is a pervasive belief, even among well-intentioned people, that the lives of “innocent” people are more valuable than those of “criminals,” and that incarcerated people should be grateful for any care or help at all. For those who are privileged enough to have never been involved with the criminal justice system, it is tempting to fall into the “us vs. them” mentality and disregard the injustices prisoners face because they’re supposedly in prison due to the choices they made. Not only should one choice never determine whether someone lives or dies, but as Michelle Alexander states in the New York Times, “Who’s behind bars today has more to do with our collective choices than our individual ones.” In a country that spends hundreds of billions of dollars on mass incarceration but refuses to provide basic human needs or invest in the most vulnerable communities, the reasons for which people are in prison are widespread and varied. A sentence of a few years for drug possession or violating parole, or even a life sentence for murder, should not be turned into a death sentence due to the incompetent handling of a deadly pandemic. Government officials choosing to risk the lives of incarcerated individuals in the face of COVID-19 demonstrate a disgraceful indifference towards human life, and the way the United States has handled the pandemic in prisons and jails is an international embarrassment that all Americans should be ashamed of.
Featured Image Source: The Modesto Bee