COVID-19 Could Be a Death Sentence for Thousands of Prisoners

by Jai Chavis, Independent Socialist Group

(Aquí en español)

With the outbreak of COVID-19, everyone has become familiar with the guidelines of social distancing and quarantining. However, for the millions of people held in cramped and dirty prisons and detention centers, the reality is the opposite of social distancing. The U.S. criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in prison, about 20% of the world’s total incarcerated population. In addition, ICE is detaining about 33,000 immigrants. Many of these prisoners and detainees have pre-existing health conditions and many are elderly. 

It is essentially impossible to practice social distancing and proper sanitation at the vast majority of prisons and immigrant detention centers due to insufficient disinfection of surfaces, lack of access to soap and frequent handwashing, and overcrowded living conditions. Hand sanitizer is outright banned in most prisons and wardens have been reluctant to implement adequate disinfectant options. 

Medical facilities for prisoners and detainees already lack the resources needed to provide sufficient treatment for run-of-the-mill health concerns, meaning they will certainly be incapable of dealing with COVID-19. These facts place prisoners at a high risk of dying because of this pandemic. 

Wardens are even banning correctional officers (COs) from wearing masks and forcing COs who have received orders to self-quarantine to return to work immediately in a dangerous attempt to downplay the crisis and prevent panic amongst the prisoners. 

As of writing, there are nearly 27,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in U.S. prisons, according to the ACLU. Not to mention, quite a few prison systems are refusing to publicly release data about how many prisoners are being tested. In addition, there has been a severe rationing of testing across the country, further obscuring the real infection numbers. But in one prison in Ohio where there has been substantial testing of inmates, it was found that 73% of the inmates tested positive for COVID-19. Recent analysis by the Marshall Project found that the prison infection rate is 150% higher than in the general population! 

There are at least 783 confirmed cases amongst detainees in ICE detention centers, in which solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day is being used to stop the spread, a practice that has been consistently shown to be (literally) torturous. 

Solving the petri dish conditions rampant throughout the prison and immigrant detention system and making meaningful steps in releasing huge sections of the current prison and detention population is a matter of life and death. 

Yet justice departments and ICE continue to drag their feet. U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr has recently directed “federal prison officials to expand early release programs for the sickest inmates” and place them on house arrest for the rest of their sentences.

Barr’s directive for releasing inmates is far too limited in scope as it only affects inmates held in federal prisons—who only make up about 10% of the total U.S. prison population according to Vox—overlooks people with pre-existing conditions, the fact that sanitation must be overhauled, and fails to address the need to drastically reduce prison populations in order to slow the spread and prevent avoidable deaths. So far, inmates released due to Barr’s directive amounts to only about 2,785 people as of writing. 

Another glaring issue with Barr’s directive is the fact that inmates who are considered eligible for early release will be identified by a computer algorithm that has been demonstrated—by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) no less!—to be biased in favor of white prisoners. Even if the algorithm did not produce racist results, an algorithm should not be determining whether someone lives or dies.

The overwhelming majority of inmates are held in state and county prisons, but administrators have failed to take serious steps towards releasing these prisoners. The most drastic action so far has been California announcing that it will release 3,500 non-violent inmates over a 60-day period. This is a paltry amount compared to the 122,000 people held in California state prisons alone. In total, the ACLU estimates that about 17,000 prisoners across the country have been released during the pandemic, or about 0.74% of the total U.S. prison population, hardly even a dent.

The U.S. is taking a federalist approach to releasing prisoners, where it is up to state and local authorities to determine who is to be released, resulting in many states refusing to take the public health of inmates (and surrounding communities) seriously. Meanwhile, ICE has only released less than 700 detained immigrants as of writing. Unlike with prisoners, there are not even hints of a plan for mass releases of detainees. This is especially upsetting since the common argument used to justify detention in the first place is that immigrants will try to flee U.S. “justice” if they are not held in detention; but this argument holds even less water in a pandemic where the availability of long-distance transportation is extremely limited. This is on top of immigrants being detained for years at a time, without ever being convicted of a crime or even facing trial, while being forced to perform slave labor for the profit of corporations.

In response, multiple hunger strikes have been initiated by detainees across the country, and the #FreeThemAll campaign has gained traction online and is fighting for better sanitation and the release of all detained immigrants, which the Independent Socialist Group fully supports.

While people are dying and in desperate need of being released, the DOJ is attempting to use the pandemic to further infringe on basic democratic rights. Politico reported that the DOJ requested emergency powers that would allow them to hold people in jail indefinitely without trial during any national emergency. Additionally, after Trump weaponized the pandemic to justify declaring that no asylum seekers could enter the U.S., the DOJ attempted to quietly confirm refusing asylum requests as official judicial policy.

According to Mass Live, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (MA DOC) has instituted a moratorium on suspending COs for misconduct and will not be holding any hearings or accountability procedures for the duration of the pandemic. This effectively gives COs impunity to behave as they please, which is deeply disturbing given the enduring history of COs across the country violently abusing inmates, even when repercussions are nominally possible. The MA DOC attempted to reassure the public by claiming that offenses of an “egregious nature” will still be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but this should evoke little confidence given the pattern of inmate abuse being covered up and ignored outside of times of crisis.

It is clear that the priorities of the criminal justice system and ICE are completely warped, and they cannot be relied on to defend inmates and detainees. Even the most basic safety measures such as providing inmates with free soap and hand sanitizer have not been met. It is criminally negligent to put people who are already disproportionately poor and marginalized at an even greater health risk than usual under our unequal healthcare system. 

Left to their own devices, federal and state government agencies will continue to drag their feet on doing what is necessary to save the lives of inmates and detainees, sentencing tens of thousands (if not more) of them to death. The U.S. prison system incarcerates “upwards of 5 million unique people each year, releasing many of those same people back to the community within days or weeks”. Additionally, prison employees live off-site, meaning that under the current status quo there are numerous opportunities for the virus to be brought into and out of prisons, making sanitation and reduced population density all the more pressing of a concern for every American. 

A recent study sponsored by the ACLU, estimates that if the current inaction towards reducing the prison population persists, coronavirus could kill as many as 200,000 people in the U.S., both prisoners and non-prisoners, which is double the official White House estimates of less than 100,000 deaths.

It is critical that we drastically reduce the prison population by immediately releasing all prisoners convicted of misdemeanors and/or non-violent offenses in perpetuity, as well as dramatically reduce arrests and convictions of all but the most serious of offenses. We must end the disproportionate police harassment of communities of color, poor workers, and the homeless – not just during this crisis, but permanently! 

The ACLU reports that “hundreds of thousands of people are sitting in jail simply because of technical violations, their inability to pay fines and fees, or because they can’t post bail”. These are particularly egregious examples of criminalizing poverty, and these practices must end permanently. Abolish cash bail, parole fees, and all similar expenses required for one’s freedom. It is doubly cruel to punish the working class for their poverty, since it is the capitalist class that is responsible for creating poverty and extreme inequality in the first place.

Prison and detention centers need fully funded healthcare services year-round that are capable of treating their populations in-house. Inmates and correctional officers need access to masks and additional PPE to protect themselves from the spread of coronavirus.

As previously mentioned, solitary confinement has been put forward by some as a solution to the crisis. But, this is not a viable alternative, as it has not only been clearly demonstrated to be an inhumane practice, but it also fails to address the central issue of a lack of sanitary living conditions. Placing people in separate, two-person rooms rather than in overcrowded living conditions is an adequate and necessary stop gap measure to protect inmates who are not able to be released, but this must be done in addition to providing free access to soap and hand sanitizer and frequent disinfecting of all facilities.

In the vast majority of cases, imprisonment is not socially helpful and often exacerbates the impoverished conditions that drove many individuals to crime in the first place. We need to move beyond this extremely punitive criminal justice model and instead invest resources in real ways to undercut crime, such as: credit-bearing education and job training programs while incarcerated, preventing job discrimination, creating living-wage union jobs accessible to ex-convicts, high quality affordable housing available upon release, decriminalizing drug use, fully funding free addiction services, and access to psychological counseling for at-risk youth. 

We must end the damaging war on drugs and the over-policing of communities of color and homeless people. We must end the rampant police brutality against people of color within and outside of the prison system, and empower communities to control the police with hiring and firing power and the ability to review and create policy. If the role of the police is truly to protect and serve, then there should be no issue with subjecting law enforcement to genuine accountability to the community.

We must end the use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention centers. Release all immigrants detained by ICE and close the camps. End the practice of indefinite detention and profiting off of immigrant detention and imprisonment. Fundamentally, we must Abolish ICE. Its only purpose is to enforce the racist agenda of U.S. capitalism by tearing apart disproportionately marginalized families. ICE’s enforcement of anti-immigration laws is another means of dividing the working-class while suppressing the ability of undocumented workers to defend themselves collectively in order to further exploit their labor.

The federal and state governments have clearly shown their contempt for the lives of prisoners and detainees. We must demand that they act now to save tens of thousands of lives, if not more, by implementing measures that incarcerated folks need to survive this crisis. Workers should organize car rallies demanding that governors and the Trump administration defend all of our lives by protecting those forced behind bars by our anti-worker, racist “justice” system.

The Independent Socialist Group demands:

  • The immediate release of all prisoners convicted of misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, along with an end to over policing and petty arrests. End the capitalists’ racist war on drugs. In this time more than ever, we need to be getting people out of overpopulated and dangerous prisons; not putting more people in. 
  • End the criminalization of poverty through the abolition of cash bail, jail fees and fines. Nobody should be kept in a crowded and unhygienic jail—especially during a pandemic—simply for the “crime” of being poor. 
  • Prisoners need access to proper sanitation and housing. Inmates must have high quality, reliable medical care. Inmates and correctional officers must have access to proper PPE. Prisoners must be housed in units that allow proper social distancing, without using solitary confinement, in order to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19. 
  • Reinvest in communities ravaged by the criminal justice system. Ensure job training, housing and healthcare to all prisoners upon release. Remove all barriers to re-entry and end job discrimination against ex-convicts. Provide and fully fund addiction services and psychological counselling to marginalized and at-risk communities, instead of increasing the funding of police departments that only leads to further criminalization.
  • We need massive investment in public works programs to create new jobs starting at $20/hr to alleviate unemployment, including helping newly released prisoners find work, and to create and maintain needed services to communities.   
  • Abolish ICE, and end the violence it inflicts upon poor and undocumented communities. Release all those being held in ICE’s detention facilities, and ensure they have access to proper housing and medical care. We will only win a better world when we show solidarity with all workers internationally, documented and undocumented.  

Image credit: James Timothy Peters / Pixabay

Published by Jai Chavis

Temp account for ISG website author names.