COVID-19 shows the U.S. why we need prison reform, now
By Evelyn Archibald
Criminal justice has always been a disaster in America, but the COVID-19 pandemic is giving us a grave lesson on why we now need prison reform more than ever. Millions of prisoners across the United States are in close, overcrowded quarters — incredibly susceptible to mass infection without any adequate healthcare to speak of.
To understand the full scope and danger of our current prison system, especially in a crisis, you need to first look at the history and conditions of criminal justice in America and at the prison population. Since the founding of our country, our habits of incarceration have always had a huge socioeconomic disparity — people of color, low-income communities, and mentally ill people have been targeted and imprisoned disproportionally.
This has been supported by mass drug incarceration, a lasting echo of President Richard Nixon’s destructive and expensive War on Drugs, which greatly increased the conviction and sentencing lengths of people found guilty on counts of drug use, possession and sale. To put this into perspective, one in five currently incarcerated people are in prison for a non-violent drug offense.
The criminal justice system is undeniably racist and the War on Drugs both perpetuated and increased this in today’s courts and prisons; this nationwide move to fight drug abuse was a tool to criminalize the administration’s opposition, especially black communities. John Erlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, said in a 1994 interview with journalist Dan Baum, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Mr. Erlichman continued, “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
When you enter one of the many prisons in America, the conditions and treatment inside are clearly a massive issue. These facilities are tremendously overcrowded — obviously dangerous in any health concern, let alone a pandemic. When America imprisons more people than any nation in the world, according to this 2015 ACLU report, this is to be expected. What’s more: these buildings are typically not made to contain airborne illnesses within any isolated spaces inside the prison itself. There is no possible way to distance yourself when you are packed into a room with hundreds of other inmates and sharing living quarters, bathrooms, kitchens and eating surfaces. The inevitable spread of infection is a consequence of this, but an incredibly dangerous one, especially when paired with little to no viable or available healthcare.
The effects of this can be seen all over the country in states like Tennessee, Texas, Kansas, Ohio and California. The Los Angeles Times reports that, as of Wednesday, Apr. 29, the Terminal Island federal prison has one of the worst penitentiary outbreaks in the nation. On Tuesday, May 5, the sixth inmate at Terminal Island died from COVID-19, with at least 600 inmates infected out of the currently residing 1,055.
The Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio is facing a similar high infection rate with minimal support on the inside. Inmates are fearing for their lives as the infection rate rises to 80% of the institution population and have now experienced five inmate deaths. One prisoner, Shannon Kidd at Marion, is quoted by NBC News as having said, “They took our temperature regularly, but they haven’t done anything other than that. They’re saying a lot of people are asymptomatic, but there are a lot of guys who don’t want to take this stuff to medical because they feel that nothing is being done. They don’t want to be moved.”
Because of Marion’s mass testing, we have the information needed about this institution, but experts suggest that this is a snapshot of what prisons all over the country are experiencing. To actually make an impact in preventing the further spread and toll of the virus in prisons, there needs to be consistent testing and as much isolation of the sick as possible.
One prison in Tennessee is an example of how this can work. The Bledsoe County Correctional Complex has just completed its first 14-day isolation period, with 580 of the 586 prisoners who tested positive a month ago showing no symptoms as of Thursday, May 7. This is the only prison of the Tennessee Department of Corrections that has shown recovery, but gives promising evidence regarding what works when attempting to eliminate COVID-19 from prison facilities efficiently.
In another Tennessee prison, however, there are far worse results. The Trousdale Turner Correctional Center — a privately owned prison — is one of the hardest hit facilities in America today, with more than 1,200 inmates and 50 staff members testing positive for the novel coronavirus. According to WSMV, one inmate said in a phone call with a relative, “I’m really in fear for my life… The CO’s (correctional officers) keep on getting it. They’re dropping like flies.” He continued, “They got case managers, and correctional officers, treating the inmates. Ain’t no doctors coming down here.”
News4 Nashville reports that CoreCivic, the private company running Trousdale and many other prisons across the nation, has repeatedly denied these claims. CoreCivic was also sued in late April by two officers at Otay Mesa Detention Center in South San Diego. The lawsuits detail allegedly unsafe work environments in their prison, and for failing to protect their health in the face of pandemic. This aligns with another lawsuit against CoreCivic from the ACLU regarding their handling of the outbreak.
Although there are steps being taken to try and help, people are still being left to die of COVID-19 in many of these facilities. However, this is only a symptom of the issues the criminal justice system faces.
Tough on crime policies have exacerbated this concern. Courts issue harsh sentences for small offenses and give little support for ex-convicts after prison time, and keep people in jail even when the space and utilities cannot sustain it. This is often perpetuated by private for-profit prisons, which enter contractual agreements with government bodies to provide space for commited inmates and proceed to profit off of them.
The U.S. has adopted a prison-industrial complex — a relationship between government and industry to use policing, surveillance and imprisonment as an opportunity to grow business and wealth. This, in turn, reinforces crime spikes and high populations of prisoners to feed an industry. This system of ‘prisoners into paychecks’ allows for people to be poured into these institutions with little regard for their well being, even for charges that in other countries may only result in fines or community service instead of jail time.
However, according to the criminal reform activist group Prison Policy Initiative private prisons are not the core of the mass incarceration issue. PPI compares them to “a parasite” on the prison system rather than the root cause. This doesn’t mean that private prisons aren’t a harmful business, or that private industries do not contribute to the problem of prison conditions and prisoner rights, but rather acknowledges that the public prison system holds a vast majority of committed prisoners. Getting rid of private institutions would only be a small step towards prison reform.
This is made worse when you consider the inhumane treatment of prisoners once they are convicted. The modern American prison has abandoned the idea of rehabilitating its prisoners. Instead, these ‘correctional’ institutions are being used for punishment and cheap — often slave-like — labor. Far too many prisons choose to keep their inmates in incredibly low standards of living and health with little regard to human rights. Prisoners are brutalized, abused, and humiliated by officers and guards, and because of the private nature of these facilities, just how these acts of violence happen are rarely known.
The roots of the problem get even darker. Though the U.S. Constitution may have outlawed slavery in most cases, the thirteenth amendment actually allows it in conditions of imprisonment. The Constitution reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” meaning that if someone has been convicted of a crime and is in prison, it is technically legal to implement uncompensated labor — slavery — in prison.
Typically, inmates are paid a meager fee, very rarely more than 90 cents per hour, performing jobs like prison maintenance, mass production or certain jobs outside the facility. These jobs typically don’t provide inmates with the skills required to retain a job outside of the system, not to mention having a criminal record makes it almost impossible to get a stable job in the United States.
This is one of many reasons that recidivism — when ex-convicts reoffend and re-enter a state institution — is so common. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that approximately five in six, or 86%, of prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again at least once over the period of nine years after release. Additionally, for disadvantaged individuals such as the homeless, prison may be the only place to obtain reliable shelter and food and more than 10% of ex-convicts end up homeless after incarceration.
Healthcare is atrocious in the U.S. in general, but especially in our institutions. Though health care is a basic human right throughout most of the world, the healthcare in prisons is often dismal or unavailable, regarding both physical and mental illness. Prisoners’ health concerns are frequently ignored or simply cannot be treated with the supplies and staff in these facilities, and the spread of disease is much higher in prison than out.
Given this information, it is so much more dangerous when something like COVID-19 — an incredibly contagious and damaging disease — gets into these places. The New York Times reports that almost every single state prison has at least one recorded infection in either staff or inmate, and it is projected to grow rapidly. As of Wednesday, May 6, there have been more than 30,800 total cases and 296 deaths counted by the New York Times.
The tragic truth is that we have gotten to a point, as a country, where we do not view prisoners as human beings or worthy of the basic dignities allowed to others. This is not dissimilar to the way we treat immigrants, the poor and homeless, the mentally ill. We are so obsessed with profit and industry, with our own comfort and superiority, that we have forgotten our fellow man. It is, frankly, disgraceful.
People are dying in prisons across the country, and they will continue to — but if anyone tells you that this was inevitable, know that they are lying to you. There have been so many points at which prison conditions could have been improved and the system itself changed, but officials have done nothing. It was not inevitable when we elected leaders who do not care for the wellbeing of anyone below the 1%. It was not inevitable, and yet those same leaders repeatedly acted late and reacted poorly in this crisis.
In this upcoming election cycle, remember what is seen in these prisons during this pandemic. If there is anything that teaches us, it is that viable and lasting reform in our prisons is long overdue and the only way to achieve this is through officials who believe in helping all people, including those behind bars.
Featured Image: Overcrowding in prisons is a health concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons/California Department of Corrections)
UPDATE (March 11, 2022): Housing is an important step to take after incarceration. Here is a guide to help the formerly incarcerated obtain housing.