It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color and poor people, both in their likelihood of losing employment and in contracting the virus. These impacts are a direct result of capitalism and racism—both of which are exemplified by the prison industrial complex.
COVID-19 thrives in prisons because the facilities are overcrowded and social distancing is impossible to maintain. Combined with poor hygiene standards and reported shortages of PPE, the medical vulnerability of the prison population is extremely high. With almost one-third of people entering prison having a chronic medical condition like asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or living with a disability, incarcerated people are not only at a greater risk than the general population of contracting the virus but of facing serious if not deadly consequences if they test positive. While much focus has been placed on nursing homes and schools as places where virus transmission is highly likely, this same energy hasn’t been given to prisons, despite the evident risks to human life.
In one Louisiana prison dormitory, 192 out of 195 women have tested positive for COVID-19. The rapid spread of COVID-19 within prisons is largely caused by transmission through asymptomatic people. Such spread cannot be effectively contained in a prison environment.
While there’s very little information available about what’s actually happening inside prisons, the consequences of COVID-19 cases are disastrous. In one instance, a single security guard tested positive for the virus and sent six prisons into lockdown. These lockdowns mean prisoners are in solitary confinement, and at an increased risk of mental harm.
Aside from the inherent health risks associated with remaining in prison during a pandemic, many prisoners are at a disadvantage in terms of making their own decisions about their healthcare and having access to medication. In most states, incarcerated people pay between $2 to $5 for medical visits, medications, and testing. This is the equivalent of charging a non-incarcerated person $200 to $500 for a medical visit. These are the same capitalist systems of inequality that directly lead to incarceration, and allow the prisons themselves to become a microcosm of structured inequality.
There is no healthy way to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 within prisons—which is empirically caused by overcrowding—except by releasing prisoners into the community. Long-term lockdowns within prisons are unsustainable and reduce prisoners’ already limited access to vital means of assistance such as their families, lawyers, and mental-health and education services.
Prisons and jails in some states across the U.S. have begun releasing prisoners who are likely to contract COVID-19 and those nearing the end of their sentence. Additionally, a higher number of people are being let out on bail, rather than being remanded while awaiting trial. While the number of prisoners has decreased, the current population levels mean the risk of transmission remains significant.
The carceral system, particularly in the U.S., emphasizes punishment and entirely rejects the concept of rehabilitation. The fact that private prisons (whose sole purpose is to generate profit) exist is evidence enough that prisons aren’t built to keep the community safe.
The Supreme Court affirmed that jail and prison conditions are part of the punishment a convicted person receives, not simply a consequence of sentencing. States have previously been ordered to reduce population sizes so as to reduce overcrowding and provide better medical treatment for inmates. So the rhetorical question remains—why haven’t more people been released?
It’s been repeatedly argued that non-violent prisoners, prisoners who are on remand simply for having no home address, and vulnerable prisoners (such as those over the age of 65) should be released from prison so as to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission within prisons and the general community. And while those identified are at the highest risk of contracting the virus and therefore need to be released, we shouldn’t be comfortable letting those who don’t meet this criteria remain in an environment where they are likely to contract a deadly virus. We most certainly can’t trust a system that routinely murders BIPOC people to assess who should and should not be left in harm’s way.
The refusal to release prisoners has the potential to lead to more Black and Indigenous deaths in custody. Black and Indigenous people, who are overrepresented in prison, are also at an increased risk if they contract the virus. Hannah McGlade, a human rights lawyer, has even been quoted saying that “prison is the most unsafe place that Aboriginal people can be in a pandemic.”
BIPOC children remain detained, despite the innumerable risks to their health and their heightened ability to pass on the disease while being asymptomatic. Children as young as ten are incarcerated in Australia, and 94% of children detained in the Northern Territory identify as either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The Australian government recently had the opportunity to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 but instead chose to delay making the decision by another year. In recent weeks, an outbreak amongst staff has occurred in a youth detention center; while none of the children have tested positive, the risk to Indigenous lives is starkly clear. The decision to not release these children back to their families shows a blatant disregard for their safety.
With the abolition movement gaining traction, white people are finally starting to realize that incarcerated people are most likely to be Black, Indigenous, and/or poor. Policing exists to incite fear and effect cooperation with laws that benefit the wealthy; by extension, prisons not only reinforce but perpetuate structural inequality.
COVID-19 has shown us what Black and Indigenous people have been telling us long before the Black Lives Matter protests of recent months: prisons and policing hasten the deaths of BIPOC. Whether by violent means or medical negligence, prisons are a tool used to uphold white supremacy and simple reforms will not suffice.
To gain a better understanding of the abolition movement, check out this article.
By Madeleine Burgess
Photo via Paul David Morris via Getty Images