COVID-19: Incarceration Should Not Be A Death Sentence

By Laura Julia Fleischmann

The U.S. Constitution requires prison systems to provide medical care for incarcerated Americans. States and the federal government hire doctors and nurses, or contract with healthcare companies, to treat sick prisoners. But what happens when an already weak system is hit by a pandemic that is wreaking havoc across the world? Chaos happens.

In The United States, there are over 2 million people incarcerated. This adds up to about 25% of the prison population worldwide. U.S. jails are predominantly filled with low-income people and people of color. The rate at which certain demographics are incarcerated is extremely unequal. According to the ACLU, 1 out of every 3 Black men will likely be incarcerated in his lifetime. Likewise, 1 out of every 6 Latino men will likely be incarcerated. This compares to 1 of every 17 white men. According to the NAACP, if African Americans and Latinx people were incarcerated at the same rates as whites for the same crimes, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

When talking about incarceration and incarcerated individuals, we must acknowledge racial and ethnic disparities that exist within the prison system, especially during the time of the coronavirus. We have to closely look at the intersection between the coronavirus and its impact on incarcerated Americans. Without drastic change, there is a large chance that as many as 100,000 people who pass through our jails and prisons will die from the virus.

While we all are (hopefully) practicing social distancing in order to prevent the spread of the virus , incarcerated Americans do not have that same privilege. As said best by the Prison Policy Initiative, “Prisons and jails are amplifiers of infectious diseases such as COVID-19, because the conditions that can keep diseases from spreading — such as social distancing — are nearly impossible to achieve in correctional facilities.” The close proximity of inmates has continued to deteriorate conditions in American prisons as the virus spreads from cell to cell. As of the week of April 22, 9,437 people in jails had contracted the virus. There are incarcerated people who are immunocompromised especially because incarcerated individuals experience higher rates of HIV infection, tuberculosis, cardiopulmonary and other immunocompromising conditions than is average. Moreover, according to the Bureau of Justice’s data from 2017, about 200,000 people aged 55 and older are incarcerated in America. Lack of resources is also a huge problem. The Marshall Project reported that prisons do not have the ventilators some COVID-19 victims need. A 2016 nationwide survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only seven state prison systems had a hospital-level inpatient facility.

Rikers Island, located in New York, is home to thousands of detainees. Almost 90% are Hispanic or Black. Rikers is in the top 10 of the worst correctional facilities due to the prevalence of violence and it is set to shut down by 2026. Coronavirus exploding at Rikers is a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes,” according to a doctor at prison. As of April 17, 2020, the Legal Aid Society of New York reported 364 cases of coronavirus at Rikers. The infection rate is 9.07%. This is not the cumulative number of cases of people who have contracted COVID-19 while detained in NYC jails. This data does not include those who contracted COVID-19 in DOC custody who have been released, transferred, or died while in custody. In comparison, New York City has 1.49% infection rate, and 1.14% infection rate for New York State.

Michael Tyson (not the famous boxer) was the first person killed by COVID-19 at Rikers. The worst part is that not only was he immunocompromised, but he was in jail due to a parole violation. People incarcerated for a parole violation haven’t even committed an actual crime. Parole violations can be anything as simple as failure to submit to mandatory urine testing, breaking curfew, or missing a court-ordered Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Michael Tyson isn’t the only one. New York City’s Board of Corrections wrote in a letter to New York City’s Criminal Justice Leaders that there are 551 people serving “city sentences” of less than a year for minor offenses and another 666 have been jailed for a parole or probation violation.

However, there are some positive steps being taken to support incarcerated populations. In Maryland, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered the state’s trial courts to free those in prison who are at risk for COVID-19 and “who pose no threat to public safety.” In Baltimore, State Attorney Marilyn Mosby decided to dismiss pending criminal charges against anyone arrested for drug offenses, trespassing, and minor traffic offenses, among other nonviolent offenses. This all signifies progress. In New York, home to Rikers Island, hundreds of nonviolent inmates were released.

While I am not saying that violent offenders, murderers, or rapists should be released from prison, I am saying that the lives of the 2.3-5% US prisoners who are innocent are important. It is our civic duty to fight for the release of the 1 in 4 people in state prisons who are incarcerated as a result of parole/probation violations and the 300,000 people serving time for minor offenses or misdemeanors. We must also fight for the 237,000 people in state prisons incarcerated for drug offenses and the 722,000 people in local jails who have not been convicted and are in jail most likely because they are too poor to make bail and are being held before trial. There are real faces behind these numbers. They aren’t just random people behind bars. They are people with families. They have goals just as we do. It isn’t just to treat people impacted by a system that preys on low-income people of color as inferior. They too deserve the chance to survive this pandemic and for those who deem no threat to society; it would be a human right’s violation not to release them. Business Insider describes the situation correctly: unless we do something, “essentially, we are transforming their sentence of incarceration into a sentence to death.” This is a wake up call to reform the entire prison industrial complex.

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