COVID-19 in prisons makes need for abolition visible, urgent

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From crowded spaces to poor ventilation to infrequent access to sanitizing agents, living conditions in incarceration facilities have quickly escalated from cruel to hazardous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prisons and immigration detention have become some of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in the United States, in part because of the difficulty of social distancing. Inmates often share small cells with two or more people, while some immigration detention centers reportedly hold up to 100 people in a single room.

These individuals aren’t afforded the autonomy to keep themselves safe, with the state deciding if they can access places to wash their hands; if they will have access to soap and cleaning supplies; if guards coming in and out of the facility will wear masks or even if incarcerated individuals will be provided masks themselves. A Stanford University study showed that, at the beginning of the outbreak, every infected person in prison spread the virus to an average of 8.44 people, higher than the rate in other hot spots outside of prisons.

Since March, more than 1,400 prisoners have died from COVID-19 and more than 180,000 incarcerated individuals have tested positive for the virus, a disproportionate number considering the relative percentage of the population that is incarcerated.

These staggering numbers have prompted action from federal and state judges, who have ordered significant releases of prisoners and immigrants held in detention centers on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Since March, California has reduced its inmate population by 23 percent.

However, this is still far below the number of releases necessary to maintain adequate social distancing in incarceration facilities. There must be extensive and immediate statewide releases of people from prisons and immigration detention centers. We must act now to protect the health, safety and sanctity of human life. 

Now, all eyes are on San Quentin State Prison, where earlier this year, a major COVID-19 outbreak infected 75% of the inmate population. In October, a California appeals court ordered San Quentin to reduce its inmate population by one half — more than 1,000 people. But the order did not require San Quentin to release these inmates, and it is still unclear what prison officials plan to do: Instead of releasing at-risk individuals, officials could simply relocate them to other prisons.

Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, a faith-based organization that mobilizes congregations to take a stand on immigration and mass incarceration, is fighting for release. We urge CA Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to follow judicial orders and release thousands of incarcerated folks who are in danger of contracting COVID-19.

Our faith traditions teach us to recognize those who are most vulnerable in society. We cannot push suffering away — we must meet it with compassion. We have an obligation to serve those who are vulnerable. These are the moments when faith is strongest. 

The concept of incarceration, or of taking someone’s freedom away, has always been inhumane. Prisons and immigration detention centers have always been detrimental to healthy human life. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the unsafe living conditions of these facilities and exposed them for what they are. 

The for-profit model of many private prisons extends to their health services, with states across the country outsourcing medical services to for-profit companies. Because of the way these companies are contracted, they often have little incentive to provide high-quality care — doing so would lower their profits. Inmate requests for medical attention often go unanswered, and, in some cases, inmates are punished for making too many requests. Lack of health services and medical attention is abhorrent under any circumstances but is especially dangerous during a pandemic caused by a highly infectious virus. 

Article 25 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” The conditions in prisons and detention centers stand in direct opposition to this Article. There can be no reform for a system that is designed to violently harm the health and spirit of incarcerated individuals. If we are to live in a society that values human life, we must scrap our conception of carcel punishment entirely and replace it with preventative and rehabilitative services.  

We cannot be afraid of abolition because it’s new. A post-abolition future will prioritize the safety, health and well-being of its people without turning to draconian punishments that permanently harm the human spirit. It will prioritize education and services that can halt the funnel to prisons in the first place.

For those whose initial reaction to abolition is fear, or who believe the public is safer when “criminals” are locked up, I urge you to try to shift your vantage point. See the faces and learn the stories of those inside rather than focusing on the cold, impenetrable exterior of detention facilities. 

Every single person is worthy of humanity. Only once we all understand that everyone — even those who have committed crimes, big or small — is worthy of love, kindness and safety can we imagine a world in which we can all be free.

Julia Burns is a health communications graduate student at the University of San Francisco currently working with Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity. For resources on the prison industrial complex, check out IM4HI’s People’s Bibliography.