• Devon Pique

Abolition Series: COVID-19 in Prison

COVID-19 has affected the American population in profound ways. The U.S. has faced over 560,000 deaths and counting and there have been over 31 million cases among citizens. Everyone has had to adapt to a strange new reality. Prisoners are one group that have been hit by this disease in a major way. In total, there have been at least 388,520 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in incarcerated people in the United States, with some sources saying there have been even more. According to the Marshall Project, one in five prisoners in the U.S has contracted coronavirus. The case rate among prisoners is also exceptionally high, with some states showing 9.4 times more cases in prison per 100 people than the state average. For example, in Michigan, two in three prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 and one out of every 273 of those infected have died, 2.1 times the overall rate in Michigan.

It’s clear that prisons are a hotbed for COVID, but some may wonder why. Perhaps it's the conditions they live in. Public health officials warned wardens early on that prisons were a place where COVID-19 could quickly spread. Without the ability to socially distance and the generally poor sanitation that prisons provide, it was inevitable that COVID-19 would be a problem.

The prison system’s response to the virus early on in the pandemic was quite weak. A court found one Texas prison didn’t supply soap, left sinks in disrepair, and had no hand sanitizer. Another prison in Ohio, Pickaway Correctional Institution, tried to use bed sheets as makeshift tents in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, but four out of five prisoners ended up being infected anyway. A study done by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) scored each state by the steps they took to ensure prisoners were protected from the virus in a letter grade (F-A). Points were assigned based on COVID-19 testing, access to personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, attempts to lower population, and how public their information was regarding COVID-19. No state scored higher than a D rating. California made the choice to release as many as 3,500 inmates in an attempt to stop the overcrowding and federal prisons stopped accepting new prisoners, however, this only shifted the pressure to county jails that were stuck with the prisoners they couldn’t transfer over. Issues also arose in testing inmates before transferring them to a new facility. In another incident in California, between 28th May and 30th May of 2020, 189 medically vulnerable prison inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino were transferred to San Quentin in an attempt to protect them from COVID-19. Before the inmates were loaded onto the bus prison officials conducted temperature and verbal screenings for COVID-19, however many of those on the bus had been early on in their infection cycle so these screenings didn’t catch those who were sick. This resulted in more than 2,230 inmates and 280 staff members of San Quentin becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus by August.

With the vaccine finally here, one would assume that prisoners living in these overcrowded, unsanitary conditions would finally get some relief. However, many states didn’t include prisoners in the priority tier of those getting vaccinated. California, Texas, Florida, and many other states didn’t open up vaccination to all prisoners until after March, leaving this extremely vulnerable population in the lurch for many months.

Unfortunately, prisoners in this country have been left behind for quite some time, and this virus has only highlighted that fact. Hopefully, we can begin to see some real reform within the prison system.

Speaking Plainly

  • Prisoners have experienced much higher rates of COVID than the general population

  • Jails and prison as a whole have been a hotspot for COVID-19

  • Part of the reason is due to sanitation, overcrowding, and the steps prison officials took to stop the spread.

  • Early on, prisoners weren’t prioritized in getting the vaccine but have been approved more recently