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Current Events The importance of protecting incarcerated people during COVID-19

May. 4, 2020
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On day 13 of quarantine, I siphoned my friend’s HBO login, which temporarily fueled my academic procrastination even more. Finally, I had access to watching The Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin-created political drama series about a fictional cable news network in New York City. 

In the first episode, Will McAvoy, the protagonist and fictional leading anchor of News Night, is asked, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” during a panel. After a long pause, Will finally answers, “It’s not the greatest country in the world.” To sum it up, Will delivers a follow-up of a number of countries who are leading America by a landslide in life and education quality. 

When it finally comes to the areas in which America does lead the world? Will notes incarcerated citizens per capita.

In the eight years since that episode aired, unfortunately, nothing has changed in America’s title as having the most incarcerated citizens per capita. 

In 2015, The Washington Post reported that the United States had the highest prison population rate in the world, with 716 citizens incarcerated out of every 100,000. In 2020, this number rose to 737 citizens incarcerated out of every 100,000. In between the five years of these two studies, the number has only grown, unfortunately. 

In 2020, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States. Roy Walmsley of the International Centre for Prison Studies estimated that the United States only has 4.4% of the world’s population, but houses roughly 22% of prisoners worldwide. The sheer thought that one country alone houses over a fifth of the world’s prison population is horrific. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has, obviously, dramatically upended and affected billions of people worldwide. Since early March, social-distancing rules have been implemented to help halt the spread of the virus. 

We’ve seen the heartbreaking consequences of COVID-19 community transmission within the United States—particularly amidst vulnerable populations like the elderly and immunocompromised. The Seattle area saw its first COVID-19 clusters in nursing homes, and since then many nursing homes across the country have reported dozens of confirmed cases and deaths.

Social distancing has meant shutting down schools, businesses, travel, and more—but in correctional facilities where the standard six-feet distance can’t always be adhered to due to crowded conditions, COVID-19 poses a greater risk. 

Across the nation, clusters of confirmed COVID-19 cases have been found in correctional facilities. At the beginning of April, the Cook County Jail in Chicago had over 500 inmates and staff who tested positive for COVID-19, according to The New York Times. The Marion Correctional Facility in Ohio has reported 1,828 confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst inmates, and 109 confirmed cases amongst staff. NPR reported these statistics translate to 73% of inmates at the Marion Correctional Facility testing positive. 

Rikers Island has over 700 people (nearly 300 inmates and over 400 employees) who have tested positive for COVID-19. The Guardian has reported that Rikers Island currently has an infection rate of 6.6%, which is seven times higher than the rate in New York City and nine times higher than the rate in New York State. 

These statistics are startling and upsetting. The inhumane reality of mass incarceration itself, combined with a rapidly growing global health pandemic creates an unimaginably dangerous situation. 

Some states are granting early releases for incarcerated individuals as clusters of confirmed COVID-19 cases are exponentially increasing in jails and prisons. Public health officials have warned that overpopulation and unsanitary conditions in correctional facilities will impose greater risks of community transmission. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Massachusetts has released almost 100 people from state prisons, as well as approximately 300 people in jails. The Multnomah County Jail in Oregon has reduced its population by 30% in the last month by reducing arrests, as well as prioritizing and increasing early and pretrial releases. Massachusetts and Oregon were some of the first states to start releasing incarcerated people due to COVID-19. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections reported that it’s prioritizing releases for “nonviolent offenders who are [at risk] and over 60 with health issues, [though no offenses are off-limits].” In the last month, Michigan has increased the number of people paroled by over 1,000 in order to reduce population density within state prisons. 

The CDC issued a Guidance for Correctional & Detention Facilities on March 23rd with guidelines on ensuring hygienic practices and ways to help curb transmission rates. Some of the guidelines included ways to limit transmission from visitors, increasing recommended personal protective equipment, health evaluations, and clinical care for both suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases. The CDC acknowledged that all facilities will have different resources and circumstances, so the guidelines can be adjusted if need be. 

COVID-19 presents a greater risk in correctional facilities due to shortages or simply just not having soap, hand sanitizer, or personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks or gloves. 

In March, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan that New York State would be able to combat the nationwide hand-sanitizer shortage—at the hands of prison labor. Individuals would be paid about $0.62 an hour to produce hand sanitizer. 

Before researching and writing this article, I didn’t know that New York State considered hand sanitizer to be contraband, due to the alcohol content, thus banning them in jails and prisons. Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts called this plan “especially demeaning, ironic, and exploitative.” 

Initially, it was cruel and exploitative that Cuomo decided that incarcerated people would be the ones mass producing hand sanitizer. But the fact that hand sanitizer itself isn’t even allowed regardless in New York State jails or prisons, and wasn’t even before the pandemic? This was the damning part of this story that truly conveyed to me how dangerous the COVID-19 pandemic is to incarcerated people. 

Where is the justice in this? How can we adequately say that we are fighting for fairness when there are people subjected to this degree of exploitation—especially during a global pandemic?

Beyond overpopulation and unsanitary conditions, incarcerated individuals who are immunocompromised or have chronic diseases are at further risk. Across the nation, some correctional facilities are taking further steps to eliminate overcrowding in facilities by granting early releases, in order to further halt transmission of the virus. 

As of April 29th, all states with the exception of three have suspended medical co-pays for incarcerated individuals who were reported or confirmed to be experiencing flu, respiratory, or COVID-19 symptoms. 

The rise in confirmed COVID-19 clusters in jails and prisons presents a greater public health threat to an already growing global health pandemic. Incarcerated people are already a vulnerable population, and there must be greater steps taken to ensure justice and care for all.

In addition to governmental action, community organizing has proven to be instrumental in helping incarcerated individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID Bail Out NYC has set up a system in which people can easily use Venmo, PayPal, or ActBlue to help post bail for individuals at Rikers Island or other New York City facilities. Organizations are also taking donations that will go towards (not are not limited to) housing, food, health care, and other necessities. 

Calling local and state representatives is another way to help. Many organizations on social media have posted phone numbers for local representatives and scripts that people can follow when calling to advocate for incarcerated individuals. 

It’s important that if we advocate for vulnerable people, we do so for everyone that’s vulnerable to COVID-19. Without help or relief for incarcerated individuals during the pandemic, a global public health crisis will escalate into a humanitarian one.