Abandoned Populations: The Moral Case For Freeing Incarcerated People In The Face Of COVID-19

Aside from maybe introverts, “social distancing” was just random words to most Americans two to three weeks ago. Now, with the weight of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic setting in, we are all being asked to switch up how we live our day-to-day lives in the interest of “flattening the curve”—keeping as few people as possible from getting infected and sick all at once.

Whether it be digital happy hours over “quarantinis,” remote movie nights using Netflix Party, book club sessions over Google Hangouts, or creating and sharing funny videos and memes about “The Rona” to lighten the mood, people are increasingly finding the most creative ways to put six feet between themselves and the folks around them without cutting off the social interactions that all humans crave and need.

But what if you are fundamentally unable to practice social distancing? Or, unable to even ensure that the space you live in is sanitary or that you receive adequate and timely medical care?

Given the nature of mass incarceration and detention in the United States, it is nearly impossible to practice social distancing, which is why prisoner advocates, correctional medical staff and officers are sounding the alarm that jails and prisons are a tinderbox of viral contagion ready to explode.

Currently, across all American jails, prisons, detention centers, and other correctional facilities, the United States warehouses well over 2 million people — more than any other nation in the world — with another 5 million people on parole or probation with a strong chance of being reincarcerated. Despite making up only 13% of the U.S. population, Black Americans make up 40% of the incarcerated population. And, among incarcerated women, specifically, almost 30% of that population are Black women. Adding to the high number of Black, as well as Brown, bodies in our nation’s penal system is the rise of crimmigration, or the intertwining of criminal and immigration law to the point that they are indistinguishable. Due to policies put in place from Reagan through the Obama administration, and now Trump, Black immigrants make up 20% of immigrants in detention centers and prisons, slated for deportation, although they are only 5% of the undocumented population.

Correctional facilities in the United States have been plagued for years with reports of overcrowding, a lack of toiletries and other hygiene products, inconsistent access to clean water and operable plumbing systems. In some U.S. jails and prisons, necessities such as soap, household cleaning products, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer, which are recommended by the Center for Disease Control to combat coronavirus-19 (COVID-19), can be viewed as contraband and are confiscated by correctional officers, if found.

And, although correctional facilities have been identified as a common source of medical care for low-income and other vulnerable populations in our country, investigations into carceral healthcare have shown that healthcare companies, contracted public correctional facilities, have prioritized “cost containment” and corporate growth over public health, leading to thousands of incarcerated people receiving last minute, substandard care, and either dying or being left with serious debilitations that could have been avoided.

Police misconduct attorney and organizer, Andrea Ritchie, is a Researcher-in-Residence on Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, where she recently co-launched, with prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba, the Interrupting Criminalization: Research in Action initiative to interrupt and end the growing criminalization and incarceration of Black girls, women and LGBTQ people for criminalized acts related to public order, poverty, child welfare, drug use, survival, and self-defense, including criminalization and incarceration of survivors of violence.

“What we know about healthcare in prisons, detention centers and also state hospitals where people with disabilities are incarcerated is that they have actually already been terrible,” Ritchie tells ESSENCE. “People already wait weeks to get sick calls when they’re in dire conditions; that often no matter what the condition is, the most that they’re offered is Tylenol. So in this [COVID-19] situation, that has exponentially increased.”

Currently, there are no federal regulations that set specific and detailed standards for public health monitoring and medical care given to incarcerated or detained people in public or private correctional and detention facilities. And, contrary to public statements made by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as well as states, that all their correctional staff has access to ample amounts of cleaning, medical, and hygiene products during this crisis, some labor union representatives disagree.

In a recent article from the New York Times, union representatives for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1570, which covers staff at the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution in Florida, have disclosed that staff lacks enough N95 respirators as well as other protective gear. Certain wings of the facility have no hand soap and poor air ventilation, and there are no COVID-19 testing kits. As a result, correctional staff must ration and reuse masks — which the CDC and other health professionals strongly advise against — and none of the staff or inmates can be tested to even know if they are carrying the virus.

The mere day-to-day task of surveilling and guarding potentially infected inmates closely, when the CDC recommends a safe distance of at least six feet to avoid respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs that may contain the virus, means that many correctional officers are exposing themselves daily to potential infection. And, with Black people overrepresented in the correctional workforce, especially in states with large Black populations, that means even more opportunities to bring the virus back home to Black families and communities.

Incarcerated and detained people have been vocal about the inhumane and unsanitary conditions in correctional facilities, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Notwithstanding abysmal healthcare, we know that incarcerated people will be unable to implement the minimal public health recommendations that are being made right now, as basic as washing your hands with soap and water,” Ritchie says. “The public should know that incarcerated people are right now only allowed to shower sometimes once a week, sometimes every few days. Running water in jail and prison cells is not consistent at all and often soap is not available.”

Just last year, people incarcerated in Mississippi and Louisiana prisons went on hunger strikes to draw attention to sweltering heat, bug infestations, moldy food, and flooding inside facilities that contained sewage, among other complaints. Asylum seekers and other immigrants detained in prisons and camps by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have also been staging hunger strikes to protest similar inhumane conditions. And, while incarcerated and detained people have stricked for better living conditions, we also cannot forget the impacts of their current conditions on their mental and emotional health.

“Imagine navigating this current moment of crisis, fear and uncertainty while being inside [a correctional facility],” Ritchie tells ESSENCE. “Not only are you stuck in abysmal conditions that you know, from whatever little access to the information you have, are extremely dangerous. You also can’t check on the people you care about, whether they’re incarcerated somewhere else or they’re on the outside. And, that, in and of itself, is creating levels of anxiety, pain, and suffering for incarcerated people separate from the medical or physical conditions.”

Now, facing the added threat of COVID-19, incarcerated and detained people, as well as their advocates, are calling for local, state, and federal governments to act immediately to prioritize human life.

Both BOP and ICE have announced they will halt visitations and inmate/detainee transfers for 30 days. Public prisons in California, Florida, Texas, and other states have also followed suit. However, given the existing inhumane conditions in facilities and now intensified separation from their loved ones and support networks, incarcerated and detained people, as well as their advocates, claim those actions are far from enough.

Newly forming coalitions of civil and human rights organizations across the United States are mounting calls for the release of people from correctional facilities, including people who are immunocompromised, elderly, or undocumented; defendants who have not been convicted yet could not make bail; and non-violent offenders and any other inmates who no longer present any danger to communities. In the state of Washington, the ACLU has even filed a lawsuit against ICE demanding the immediate release of detained immigrants.

Advocates are also calling for an immediate halt to arrests for non-violent offenses done out of survival, and deportations, as well as the full funding and use of diversion programs, drug courts, and crisis intervention programs to shrink and keep the numbers of incarcerated people low and to focus state and national resources on meeting the growing public health demands. They are also causing for freezes on debt collection, foreclosures and evictions.

And, some cities and states are complying. Cities, such as Los Angeles, New York City, Sacramento, and Cleveland, have committed to or already began releasing people, who were incarcerated for non-violent offenses or are part of a medically vulnerable population. However, there has been resistance to letting people out of correctional facilities from state and federal officials, and it’s not entirely due to public safety.

Criminalization is a form of social engineering, as has been shown through the works of scholars, such as Michelle Alexander and Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

“Once someone has been criminalized, then we don’t care what happens to them, right? I think that the reluctance to let people out [of correctional facilities] is because of the narratives that we have created around criminalized people, which is that they are inherently dangerous, inherently a threat to society, inherently a threat to our social safety net,” Ritchie posits.

“I think that we need to recognize the humanity of everyone who has been criminalized across that spectrum and recognizes that, no matter what an individual may have done at any given moment in their life, they are entitled to survival and to humanity. We are talking about a population that is majority Black, substantially disabled, queer, and/or trans. We are talking about people’s mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, aunties, grandmothers, and grandfathers,” she continues. “There are children and elders who are at an incredible risk on the inside, who have entire families waiting to take care of them on the outside.”

Corrections is also big business — a multibillion-dollar business — for both private industries and local, state, and federal governments driven by capitalism rather than rehabilitation. For as low as $0.23 per hour per inmate, government entities can sell and use prison labor in a variety of ways — from working on farms, manufacturing furniture and clothes, staffing customer service call centers, cleaning offices, sorting and stocking warehouses and distribution centers, to fighting fires. Despite gaining work experience, people released from correctional facilities are often unable to obtain comparable work in the free world. It’s also an easy way for corporations to avoid “free people,” or people who have not been incarcerated and pay them living wages.

Private prison corporations, such as CoreCivic (formerly Correctional Corporations of America), also require local, state, and federal governments to agree to a guaranteed inmate occupancy rate as high as 90% for any correctional facilities they operate or manage. Meaning that, even if crime drops, government officials must still find and lock up people to fill beds at correctional facilities or pay private prison operators for their losses.

In addition to facility operations and healthcare, government entities have also awarded contracts to privatize food service, telecommunications, financial services, commissary, etc. at correctional facilities, which have all been mired by allegations of exploitation of service workers, incarcerated people and their loved ones. In total, we spend over $180 billion in tax dollars on mass incarceration and detention to prop up a multibillion-dollar industry that is hell-bent on not being shuttered, even in the face of a global pandemic.

With Black people already facing economic precarities that heighten our chances of being incarcerated, it behooves us to take a long look at policing in the United States and the prison industrial complex right now.

As people scramble to secure shelter and basic necessities, by whatever means they can access, we must monitor government officials to ensure they do not deploy local police and military forces to further harm and criminalize Black bodies and movement, especially of Black women and others who may be housing insecure or homeless and at increased risk for incarceration. Our focus should be on decarceration and leverage public dollars to readily provide the resources people need to survive this viral outbreak and keep them out of cages.

“Incarceration has always been a public health crisis. It’s always been a crisis of violence. It’s always been a crisis of basic humanity,” Ritchie says. “But, now, it’s exponentially more of a crisis, and we should heed the calls to decarcerate as many people as possible. Follow the lead of other countries that are putting public health above all else and freeing people to ensure that they can at least take the basic measures that are being recommended by every national and international public health authority to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”

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