by Carlton Lewis
The new coronavirus, or COVID-19, is among us and it has reached pandemic levels. Mayors, city and government officials, all the way up to President Trump have mandated limiting the size of gatherings and practicing social distancing. Why? Because the new coronavirus spreads at its quickest in environments with close quarters. The settings most relevant to this discussion are jails and prisons.
This virus outbreak could not have come at a worse time. Correctional facilities are widely known to be overcrowded, as our country is currently in the midst of the policy-engendered phenomenon known as mass incarceration. Within a correctional facility, it is impossible to maintain the mandatory six feet of interpersonal distance required to prevent the virus from spreading. Dr. Michelle Barry, an infectious disease doctor, said jail and prisons are like Petri dishes incubating, and will pose a real problem. Additionally, people over the age of 60 are the most susceptible to becoming fatally ill from this disease and are the leading group with the highest fatalities. According to The Marshall Project and the National Corrections Reporting Program, nearly 150,000 people incarcerated in state correctional facilities were 55 years or older in 2016, the most recent year data is available. Jails and prisons being overcapacity, having a sizable aging population, and many having sub-par health conditions, will facilitate the spread of COVID-19 in these environments at an alarmingly fast rate, one which we are neither prepared for nor fully understand at this point.
Wu Lei, newly appointed head of east China’s Shandong province prison administration bureau, said in a press conference following, “The outbreak at Rencheng jail revealed our poor implementation of infection control measures, … we feel so much guilt.” This caused a more distinguished Chinese official to warn others, as well as other countries, about what can happen in their corrections system if this viral threat is not taken seriously. Guo Shengkun, who heads the Chinese Communist Party’s Politics and Legal Affairs Commission, said, “You should resolutely put an end to laxity and taking chances. Take extraordinary measures, take wartime measures to curb the spread of the epidemic. The biggest risk … in the penal system is from outside, and the most effective prevention and control measure is a strictly closed management. Prison guards must be disciplined in their approach to disease control and “cut off the external sources of infection.”
There have been confirmed cases in Rikers Island, the main New York City jail complex that houses around 5-6,000 inmates on a daily basis, which includes a population of detainees who have not as yet gone through due process and been convicted of their accused crime. A prison in Georgia, 762- inmate Lee State prison, has reported at least 3 inmates are confirmed to have the virus. A representative from the Georgia Department of Corrections stated in a news release that, “Measures have been taken to screen and quarantine the entire inmate population at that facility. All staff are being screened prior to entry, to include temperature screening, and currently no staff have exhibited signs of flu or COVID-19.” However, as we now understand more about COVID-19, one can have the virus and be a host passing it onto others without exhibiting any symptoms whatsoever.
The outlook of the coronavirus rapidly spreading in jails and prison across America is bleak, and dare I say, inevitable. Inmate health advocates, if not already doing so, will probably start asking governors across the country to consider releasing nonviolent or medically fragile inmates, in particular, those whose sentences are almost up. As of the writing of this article the day of March 25, Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, GA has released 30 pre-trial detainees charged with nonviolent offenses, and are assuring that more will follow. I doubt that one who argues these measures should have been taken at the onset to limit the susceptibility of the virus spreading in these facilities will be on the wrong side of history. The corrections agencies have chosen to take a reactive instead of a preventative approach, and this will undoubtedly lead to cases spiking and being much higher than they currently stand. This reactive approach has put not only the jail and prison population at risk, but the workers within these facilities, and the communities that they are returning home to everyday. They are all interconnected.
Our country’s jail and prison population need to be lowered. Having nonviolent inmates and pretrial detainees incarcerated was not necessary before the COVID-19 outbreak, and now the realization of that is more evident than ever before. We will eventually get through COVID-19 but let us all make sure that after we do, the lessons learned from this experience are not lost; ending mass incarceration and implementing other ways to rehabilitate offenders in our country besides punitive incarceration need to be emphasized moving forward.