Only 3 feet of space: Incarceration and the COVID-19 crisis

Illustration of prison with coronavirus
Margueritte Ross/Staff

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There are 2.3 million inmates held in U.S. prisons, one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. And now, a rapidly transmitted disease has reached U.S. correctional facilities, resulting in a striking response.

Prisons around the nation are on a widespread lockdown — the first widespread lockdown since the 1995 prison riots. According to Keri Blakinger of The Marshall Project — a nonprofit reporting organization that covers the criminal justice system — during a lockdown, phone calls and visitations are limited, access to healthy, fresh food is reduced and vocational and educational programs are paused. Prisoners aren’t able to pick up their medications or mail, and staffing is limited because guards and officers are hesitant to risk the health of themselves or their families by going to work, or are already sick and quarantined.

With minimal access to common areas, prisoners have reduced access to TVs, and therefore, have limited access to news. Prisoners are in the dark. Under these conditions, there is significant concern that should be voiced regarding the mental health of the inmates whose resources and rights to space and communication are significantly diminished. Stressed conditions may also indicate a reduction in immune response, making it harder to recover from illness.

COVID-19 is revealing the inefficiency and unpreparedness of the health care system in prisons around the country. They are facing a consistently increasing number of prisoners and prison staff who are infected, and prison conditions are exacerbating rather than mitigating the rate of infection. Crammed and panicked, hungry for information and hopeful for release, prisoners are getting sicker and sicker. According to The New York Times, “(Rikers Island) detainees have been instructed to sleep head-to-toe, to maintain three feet of distance between them, and to not sit on each other’s beds.” Efforts are being made, but they are not enough to stop the spread of a deadly disease that needs at least 6 feet of preventative space.

The medical care systems in prisons are far from perfect. Many prisons are inundated with detainees, and so medical attention is bottlenecked. James Johnson is a prisoner at the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. In an interview with The Guardian, he alleged that when he told a correctional officer he was feeling unwell, he was written off, told to “call 311 — meaning the official complaint line for the department of corrections.” It seems foolhardy to send sick prisoners to a complaint line rather than provide care. Johnson also alleged that an infected “gentleman … was still upstairs with us, like it was all normal. He was just coughing on everything in here.” Under duress of a contagious disease with no current cure, prisons seem unable to implement adequate preventative measures. Although there are attempts being made to release at-risk prisoners, those left behind are in ostensibly ill-equipped facilities.

Just as hospitals, businesses and civilian homes are facing supply chain issues, prisons also have limited supplies of medical gear such as masks, gloves and cleaning supplies. 

Just as hospitals, businesses and civilian homes are facing supply chain issues, prisons also have limited supplies of medical gear such as masks, gloves and cleaning supplies. Johnson alleged that “the guys who are bringing the food to you are exposed … coming from quarantined dorms to serve our food. They don’t have the proper gear, either. The masks that they did give out are the same ones that we’ve been walking around with for over three weeks.” ABC News reported similar conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, which doesn’t have enough masks for the prison staff or enough COVID-19 tests to properly identify which and how many inmates are sick.

This lack of equipment is not unique to the carceral system. Hospitals and grocery stores alike are facing this same issue. Even though prisons are working to stockpile supplies, there is no end in sight for prisons at ground zero of infection when necessary safety precautions and cleanliness seemingly suffer because of unit crowding and a lack of staff.

Johnson’s allegations are not an isolated narrative. Similar claims of lagged or missing treatment are revealing themselves in prisons across the country. Tensions are growing, and inmates are fearful of contracting the disease because once they do, it appears that there is little promise they will recover or receive proper medical care.

According to The Charlotte Observer, at the Neuse Correctional Institution in North Carolina, tensions grew so high due to the COVID-19 outbreak that 200 inmates staged a protest after prison officials implemented new restrictions in an effort to contain the disease. During the protest, the inmates threatened violence and “refus(ed) to go back to their dorms.” After the situation deescalated, the ringleaders were identified and transported to a higher-security prison without being tested for the disease. This sort of movement between facilities should be avoided, especially because prisons are conducive to the spread of disease. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, is attempting to take precautions against the escalation of disease by limiting inmates to their assigned cells and working with the U.S. Marshals Service to limit the number of ingoing prisoners. But the waiting period for questions about what to do with recent arrests and those still in holding for sentencing cannot last forever. In an interview with ABC News, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-Pa., said the movement of prisoners continues.

The fact of the matter is that prisons are ill-equipped to handle a medical crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Systematic neglect of prisoners’ health was bad before the disease hit, with many inmates ignored and given delayed care. Now, faced with a pandemic, the holes in the carceral medical system are glaringly obvious. The Marshall Project sent out a survey in which it asked every state prison system about the number of ventilators they had available and ready. Twenty-four states responded to the survey, and only one — Texas — responded saying it had any at all. Four states did not confirm they had ventilators, and the remaining 19 did not have any.

The fact of the matter is that prisons are ill-equipped to handle a medical crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The majority of prisons rely on external hospitals to treat their emergency inmate patients — hospitals that are already inundated with civilian COVID-19 cases. Marshall Project reporters Joseph Neff and Beth Schwartzapfel interviewed Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer of the New York City jail system, who noted that “he has never encountered an American prison or jail that trains correctional officers as part of an infection control team.” 

With so many sick inmates, providing them all with timely care when there aren’t even ventilators within an easily accessible range seems an impossible task.

Nicole Lewis, another staff writer for The Marshall Project, described the shortcomings of communication on behalf of sick inmates. Prisoners and their families remain in the dark, largely unable to communicate with health officials or their family members. Laurie Shenk, whose husband is incarcerated, said in an interview with Lewis that she fears prison officials will only call when he’s dead. And even with a deadly disease threatening a number of inmates, phone communication in prison remains exorbitantly expensive because the phone lines are dominated by private companies that are able to charge more for the marginalized prisoner.

This same privatization is seen in other aspects of the criminal system — including medical care. According to civil rights law firm Loevy and Loevy, private corporations are responsible for providing medical and mental health care to numerous jails and prisons.

Although many prisoners face the consequences of a privatized carceral medical system, efforts are being made to mediate the crisis. Many states are releasing prisoners from their sentences early in an attempt to distance them from the highly confined prison environment. According to a public statement made by Erik Hooks, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, certain prisoners are being considered for “transfer to community custody”: individuals who are not guilty of crimes against another person; individuals who are near their release dates, with priority given to those whose release dates are in 2020; and older individuals and those with underlying health problems.

Disastrously, the prison population has an inordinate number of aging inmates. According to the Monterey Bay Justice Project, the “number of inmates 55 years old or older in United States prisons has increased by more than 2,000 percent since the 1980s.” In the ’80s and ’90s, the war on drugs led to harsh criminalization practices with the creation of “three-strikes” and habitual offender laws. This legislation vastly increased the punishment of those who have committed upward of two severe crimes, punishing them with severe verdicts, often life sentences. 

These policies were imposed during the war on drugs, which unfairly targeted people of color in the United States with harsher sentences. Those sentenced due to the war on drugs are aging, and U.S. prisons are now responsible for a large proportion of elderly inmates who face a significant risk under the COVID-19 threat. Because of the severity of the life sentences issued during the war on drugs, those serving these sentences are not likely to be considered for release even though they are older and face more risk during the pandemic.

Data from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show the demographics of COVID-19 cases and deaths based on age, wherein ages 65 and older make up 72.3% of deaths, while ages 45 to 64 account for 23.1%. It is clear that because there is a significant number of older prisoners within the highly enclosed carceral system, a substantial proportion of the inmate population faces a higher risk.

The situation in prisons is frightening for many inmates who are sick and unable to react to the spread of COVID-19. The tally of inmates testing positive for COVID-19 is escalating. According to BOP, as of April 25, “there are 730 federal inmates and 317 BOP staff who have confirmed positive test results for COVID-19 nationwide.” While 383 inmates and 124 staff members have recovered, 26 federal inmates have died due to the disease.

Based on the evidently crammed and unclean conditions, as well as the rapidly dwindling number of prison staff, this body count is likely to increase. The end is nowhere in sight, and prisoners on lockdown are feeling the weight of this realization. Hopefully, however, this outbreak can point out the inadequacies and inequalities of the medical systems in correctional facilities and spur reformative measures that will leave inmates with a better mental and physical support system in the future.

Contact Aliya Haas Blinman at [email protected].

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