.
W

hen COVID-19 hit the United States in March, criminal justice activists mobilized on behalf of prisoners. They warned preventative measures such as social distancing would be impossible in prisons. Rapid spread among inmates would deplete healthcare resources. A March 27th letter signed by over 40 public health experts called federal prisons and immigration detention centers “breeding grounds for uncontrolled transmission” of the virus.

The autumn and winter waves of COVID-19 have been especially punishing for incarcerated men and women. In September, 44 of 50 COVID-19 clusters were in prisons. In Texas, the virus has killed more than 230 people in jails and prisons, 80% of whom had not been convicted of a crime. In November, the number of cases in Michigan prisons more than doubled in two weeks. A Minnesota organizer called his state’s soaring rate of prison infections “a human rights disaster.

Advocates continue to call for urgent reductions to jail and prison populations to slow a spread that can no longer be contained within prison walls. Fast-tracking prisoner access to the vaccine, as well as reducing prison populations and scaling up testing at correctional facilities, will be critical to slowing the pandemic and protecting those both inside and outside the criminal justice system.  

Testing and healthcare failures

Since the first reported prison case of COVID-19, more than 296,000 incarcerated men and women have tested positive and more than 1,700 have died. Inmates test positive for the virus at a rate more than four times as high as the general population. One in five state and federal prisons has tested positive—and these numbers likely understate the severity of the crisis. Prisoners report difficulties obtaining tests, lack of preventative health measures, and inadequate healthcare access. Families interviewed early in the summer—when facilities had ample time to implement testing as a preventative measure—reported systematic failure to provide diagnostic care.

“The numbers are not correct,” said Melanie Hirst, whose son is incarcerated in a Connecticut prison. Advocates in Connecticut recently demanded release measures be implemented after eight inmates died of the virus. “When they have symptoms, they do not test them. He believes he has had it. He was not allowed to see a doctor.”

“The jail is refusing to test,” said Elizabeth Parker, wife of an inmate in Colorado, in August. “[My husband] stated that it was like they were trying to get them infected.”

“[There is] no medical treatment unless it's an emergency,” reported Stacey Casanova, whose husband is incarcerated in Muskegon, Michigan, where cases are now on the rise. “All symptoms are being treated as COVID so if you report chest pains you will be placed in the COVID unit where you will be exposed if you hadn't been before.”

Protecting communities and families

Inadequate testing has fueled an unchecked spread that will reach beyond prison walls. More than 650,000 prisoners will be released in the next 12 months. During their first year of release, 55% of former inmates do not earn any income, making them dependent on family for financial and practical support. Many live in multigenerational households that include older family members who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. Fifty-two percent of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates have minor children. Sending prisoners home without proper testing and quarantine is a risk that entire families will bear.

The racial disparities of the prison system—in which Black inmates account for 40% of the prison population, while constituting only 13% of the general population—mean these risks will fall hardest on communities of color, who have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Implementing early release with testing and quarantine provisions and fast-tracking vaccine access will protect families as well as inmates. It will also help heal communities for whom the effects of mass incarceration have compounded the isolating impacts of the pandemic.

“I stress over his health,” LuAnn Szymanski said of her husband, who is incarcerated in Ohio. “If he gets it, he will probably die. His immune system is very weak. So, I have severe anxiety and depression.”

“I am a 64-year-old mother and my nerves are shot,” said Cindy Carter, whose son is incarcerated in Tennessee. “I worry every day that my son is going to die in there. I need him home before I die.”

How to end the pandemic

Early release will reduce unjustifiable risk to inmates, reunite families, and allow state and federal resources to be distributed where they are urgently needed. Provision of the vaccine will dramatically halt infections in a population that is currently exacerbating the spread. The only end to the pandemic is a comprehensive effort to protect the most vulnerable—and right now, that means protecting our prisoners.

About
Carolyn Nash
:
Carolyn Nash manages human rights and governance programming for Trocaire Myanmar. She has worked previously in Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

To End the Pandemic, Protect Prisoners

Photo by Hedi Benyounes via Unsplash.

December 29, 2020

W

hen COVID-19 hit the United States in March, criminal justice activists mobilized on behalf of prisoners. They warned preventative measures such as social distancing would be impossible in prisons. Rapid spread among inmates would deplete healthcare resources. A March 27th letter signed by over 40 public health experts called federal prisons and immigration detention centers “breeding grounds for uncontrolled transmission” of the virus.

The autumn and winter waves of COVID-19 have been especially punishing for incarcerated men and women. In September, 44 of 50 COVID-19 clusters were in prisons. In Texas, the virus has killed more than 230 people in jails and prisons, 80% of whom had not been convicted of a crime. In November, the number of cases in Michigan prisons more than doubled in two weeks. A Minnesota organizer called his state’s soaring rate of prison infections “a human rights disaster.

Advocates continue to call for urgent reductions to jail and prison populations to slow a spread that can no longer be contained within prison walls. Fast-tracking prisoner access to the vaccine, as well as reducing prison populations and scaling up testing at correctional facilities, will be critical to slowing the pandemic and protecting those both inside and outside the criminal justice system.  

Testing and healthcare failures

Since the first reported prison case of COVID-19, more than 296,000 incarcerated men and women have tested positive and more than 1,700 have died. Inmates test positive for the virus at a rate more than four times as high as the general population. One in five state and federal prisons has tested positive—and these numbers likely understate the severity of the crisis. Prisoners report difficulties obtaining tests, lack of preventative health measures, and inadequate healthcare access. Families interviewed early in the summer—when facilities had ample time to implement testing as a preventative measure—reported systematic failure to provide diagnostic care.

“The numbers are not correct,” said Melanie Hirst, whose son is incarcerated in a Connecticut prison. Advocates in Connecticut recently demanded release measures be implemented after eight inmates died of the virus. “When they have symptoms, they do not test them. He believes he has had it. He was not allowed to see a doctor.”

“The jail is refusing to test,” said Elizabeth Parker, wife of an inmate in Colorado, in August. “[My husband] stated that it was like they were trying to get them infected.”

“[There is] no medical treatment unless it's an emergency,” reported Stacey Casanova, whose husband is incarcerated in Muskegon, Michigan, where cases are now on the rise. “All symptoms are being treated as COVID so if you report chest pains you will be placed in the COVID unit where you will be exposed if you hadn't been before.”

Protecting communities and families

Inadequate testing has fueled an unchecked spread that will reach beyond prison walls. More than 650,000 prisoners will be released in the next 12 months. During their first year of release, 55% of former inmates do not earn any income, making them dependent on family for financial and practical support. Many live in multigenerational households that include older family members who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. Fifty-two percent of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates have minor children. Sending prisoners home without proper testing and quarantine is a risk that entire families will bear.

The racial disparities of the prison system—in which Black inmates account for 40% of the prison population, while constituting only 13% of the general population—mean these risks will fall hardest on communities of color, who have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Implementing early release with testing and quarantine provisions and fast-tracking vaccine access will protect families as well as inmates. It will also help heal communities for whom the effects of mass incarceration have compounded the isolating impacts of the pandemic.

“I stress over his health,” LuAnn Szymanski said of her husband, who is incarcerated in Ohio. “If he gets it, he will probably die. His immune system is very weak. So, I have severe anxiety and depression.”

“I am a 64-year-old mother and my nerves are shot,” said Cindy Carter, whose son is incarcerated in Tennessee. “I worry every day that my son is going to die in there. I need him home before I die.”

How to end the pandemic

Early release will reduce unjustifiable risk to inmates, reunite families, and allow state and federal resources to be distributed where they are urgently needed. Provision of the vaccine will dramatically halt infections in a population that is currently exacerbating the spread. The only end to the pandemic is a comprehensive effort to protect the most vulnerable—and right now, that means protecting our prisoners.

About
Carolyn Nash
:
Carolyn Nash manages human rights and governance programming for Trocaire Myanmar. She has worked previously in Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.