As COVID-19 has spread rapidly throughout the world, certain at-risk communities have been spotlights for attention. In the United States, low income people and certain minority groups have been recognized as at-risk communities due to a lack in sufficient health care and a necessity to work amidst this pandemic. Among the most vulnerable groups lies one that has become a topic for serious debate: the U.S. prison population.
The American carceral system imprisons roughly 2.3 million people. During an inmate’s time behind bars, the United States must take responsibility to care for them and provide adequate health care, food, shelter, and safety. This pandemic has exposed the flaws within the prison system; the virus shows exactly how unsanitary and cramped conditions have caused and will cause many more unnecessary deaths within and around prisons.
American prison facilities simply aren’t equipped to handle outbreaks of any sort. According to The Washington Post, many state prisons like those in California, North Dakota, and Illinois are operating above maximum prisoner capacity.
Cramped facilities only accelerate the spread of viral infections, thus making reductions in prison populations the sole effective solution. Since many jails and prisons are overcrowded, the protocols that many facilities have put into place are, in the words of one North Carolina prisoner, “smoke and mirrors”. The inadequate measures some prisons are taking (adding access to masks for staff, sanitizing surfaces more frequently, and interspersing meal times) will not do anything if the prison is overcrowded and people in the prison cannot practice social distancing.
In addition to cramped facilities, in most prisons, medical providers are often inadequate. Health care in prisons tend to be understaffed, oftentimes facilities are rarely sanitized, and prisoners also have limited access to toilet paper and tissues. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex adds: “There are lots of people using a small number of bathrooms. Many of the sinks are broken or not in use. You may have access to water, but nothing to wipe your hands off with, or no access to soap.” Many prisons, like the ones in New York, do not allow hand sanitizer due to its alcohol content. Though some prisons do allow hand sanitizer, many use brands that are not recommended by the CDC.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has taken precautions, but many claim their efforts are too little too late. The BOP’s lack of coordination to distribute sanitary products has only aggravated the spread of COVID-19. Their plans to commute prisoners have been widely criticized for being slow and endangering vulnerable lives. Confusing instructions from the BOP director have led many prisoners to feel frustrated. One inmate in the Danbury, Connecticut federal prison camp noted that “nobody is being moved out yet… [which] is ridiculous. This is supposed to be an emergency so that people can leave… that is not happening.”
The BOP’s inaction may demonstrate a violation of prisoners’ eighth amendment rights, which protects them from cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, a protection from “deliberate indifference”, which requires that prison officials not disregard a prisoner’s serious medical needs. Several lawsuits have already been filed under this protection. This indifference may include a refusal to release imuno-compromised prisoners.
One prisoner in a North Carolina Facility shared the conditions he and other prisoners are living in: saying the way the United States is actually “handling this thing is not the way the government is reporting. We don’t even sleep 4 feet apart; I am 36 inches from the person in the bed next to me. The day room is constantly packed.” He also shared a story that he was particularly shocked by:
“Someone was taken to the hospital recently for a staph infection on their knee. There was a known case of the virus at that hospital. He was there for nearly a week, and when they brought him back, they didn’t quarantine him. He isn’t wearing a mask. Look, I’m hearing what they say on the news. I heard about the precautions; but they bring a guy back from where there was a case and don’t do anything. They’re not testing anyone who’s not showing symptoms. I told a C/O [correctional officer], and he acted like it didn’t even matter.”
The apathetic nature of many correctional officers combined with the unsanitary nature of prisons amplifies the risk of COVID-19. Mixed with an inability to social distance, prisoners are living in a lethal breeding ground for bacteria and viral particles that have the potential to endanger not only prisoners, but the communities surrounding facilities across the country.
At first glance, keeping the prison population isolated from society during this pandemic seems to be the best option to ensure the safety of millions of citizens, especially considering the unsanitary conditions, but the idea that the prison population is isolated is a fallacy. There are three main prison classifications that hold over 80% of U.S. inmates: low security, medium security, and jails (prisons that hold people with sentences less than a year, or people held in pretrial detention).
In low and medium security prisons, prisoners spend their time in close contact with the general population, staff, visitors, and anyone in courts for their trials. The staff go home every day, possibly endangering their family and anyone else with whom they come into contact. Each day that they return to work in overcrowded ‘petri dishes’, the risk worsens for everyone. According to Dr. Homer Venters ,“Coronavirus in these settings will dramatically increase the epidemic curve, not flatten it, and disproportionately for people of color.”
In jails, the majority of people are incarcerated for 11-34 days according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This means that every week, roughly 50% of the jails population gets released, and an additional 50% enters the system (this is called the turnover rate). In jails across the U.S., millions of people enter unsanitary penitentiaries and are in close contact with others, and then leave days later, bringing any virus they came into contact with back to their hometowns.
Due to the ineffectiveness of prison quarantines, the only viable solution is a rapid release of prisoners who are: elderly, immunocompromised, have less than a year on their sentences, are in pre-trial detention, or are individually reviewed as non-violent and viable for release. In addition, police like those in D.C. (among many other states) should relax their enforcement of petty crimes and offer citations instead of arrests when possible.
When considering prison reform during COVID-19, many prisons have followed the guidelines from Prison Policy’s 5 key reforms to better public health and safety. Four out of the five recommended steps include a reduction of prison populations of some kind, whether that is in the form of commutations for the vulnerable or a reclassification of misdemeanor offenses.
In the long term, COVID-19 may be the push states have needed to take a step in the right direction towards prison reform. It may be in the form of relaxed regulations, shorter sentences, or house-confinement options; whatever it is, we as a nation should take this opportunity to reduce overcrowding in prisons and reform our prison system from one that is unsanitary and dangerous, to one that can be a safe place of rehabilitation for all.