Pandemics Are a Great Reason to De-carcerate

Officers at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York.
Officers at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

Earlier this week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to address statewide shortages of hand sanitizer: Manufacture the stuff in-house. As of Monday, an estimated 100,000 gallons a day is being produced locally and distributed to schools, the MTA, and other government agencies, he said at a press conference. He even performed a sample test. “I detect lilac, hydrangea, tulips,” the governor remarked, smelling his hands. The news was a welcome reprieve for anxious New Yorkers. But if Cuomo’s review is accurate, then all three flora also mask the stench of prison exploitation. The product is being bottled and packaged by incarcerated people across New York under the label of Corcraft Products — the “brand name” for the Division of Correctional Industries, according to WNBC. Under the pretense of job-skills training, prisoners are being made to manufacture these and other goods at a fraction of cost. The result is a potentially life-preserving health-care tool that many of them would likely be denied should the circumstances arise.

In communities across the United States, the new coronavirus strain and resulting pandemic have led to frantic stockpiling of food and medicine, school and workplace closures and — for the extra precautionary-minded — severe social isolation measures. Even so, experts are still predicting infection figures in the millions, with disproportionately high fatality rates among the elderly and the immunocompromised. People of all ages and health levels are being encouraged to wash their hands regularly, use hand sanitizer when that’s not possible, and to generally maintain clean living spaces and physical distance from one another to stem the virus’s spread. It’s a situation that’s perfectly designed to prey on the vulnerabilities that plague America’s carceral apparatus — a system of unprecedented breadth and cruelty, built over decades of fanatical punitiveness and inhumane neglect. If the daily torture that is jail and prison life isn’t a self-evident argument for the system’s dismantling, then the dangers posed to inmates by a pandemic outbreak certainly should be.

New York’s arrangement is just one cartoonishly stark manifestation of the inequities that persist systemwide. Due in large part to their dismal and bloated conditions, America’s correctional facilities are uniquely at risk to suffer the ravages of a deadly virus. They are enclosed spaces filled with people who can’t go anywhere else and have limited means of protecting themselves. The typical correctional facility categorizes hand sanitizer as contraband, and its possession a punishable offense. Access to running water is often a luxury. Restrictions on movement make washing one’s hands regularly almost impossible. The same goes for showering, social distancing, and voluntary self-quarantines among the symptomatic; some prisons are so overcrowded, and so lacking in basic amenities, that inmates are forced to sleep side-by-side on floors with no mattresses alongside rats and other vermin.

The extent to which such habitats accommodate illness is hard to overstate. Chronic medical conditions abound. Understaffed and overmatched health-care providers spell inadequate care with regularity — and, in some cases, craven efforts to avoid providing care altogether. In Alabama, some local jails issue “medical bonds” to sick detainees, releasing them expressly so that they don’t have to cover their health-care costs. These problems aren’t exclusive to jails or state prisons. Related hygiene issues arise in immigrant detention camps in states like Texas, where reports of incarcerated children wearing mucus-caked clothing being denied soap, toothpaste, and the ability to bathe made headlines last year.

These constitute prime conditions for a devastating viral outbreak. And the potential death toll is tied directly to Americans’ zeal for locking people up. COVID-19’s lethality is largely dependent on the age of the infected, with older victims the most at risk. Over the past several decades, as local and federal legislation has made prison sentences longer, the share of older inmates has skyrocketed; the number of incarcerated people age 55 or older grew 400 percent between 1993 and 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is especially incongruous because of how age correlates with the recidivism risk that carceral zealots claim to be protecting people from. The likelihood of re-offending is lower among inmates over 60 than for any other age group. As such, prisons have increasingly adopted the profile of nursing homes. But so far, the precautionary measures taken by most facilities seem to entail only harsher restrictions.

Most have closed themselves to in-person visitors — a likely public-health necessity to avoid the virus infiltrating their walls. But this comes with devastating consequences for populations that have already been targeted for a lifetime’s worth of them. Contact with loved ones is often a mental health imperative; contact with attorneys can be a legal one. And due in part to the increasing privatization of prison communications, making phone calls to the outside can be exorbitantly expensive. The result is still a captive population subjected to routinely torturous conditions, but with narrowing means of even limited contact with the outside world.

It’s cruelty by design. Now imagine the disastrous potential of exacerbating these conditions with a viral sickness that even the best-equipped medical professionals on the outside have been unable to stop. Reports abound regarding how coronavirus is poised to wreak special havoc on the lives of the vulnerable. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are helpless. This goes double for elected officials, over whom the citizenry can exercise at least some leverage. More than perhaps ever before, keeping as many people out of jails and prisons as possible is as much a public-health concern as a moral one. Police and sheriff’s departments could meet it by arresting fewer people and executing fewer warrants, particularly for crimes that don’t constitute an immediate and demonstrable public-safety risk. Prosecutors, who have vast discretion over such matters, could limit the number of people cycling in and out of courts and jails — thus eliminating the “churn” whereby potentially infected people are constantly being shuffled in and out — by charging fewer of them and declining to incarcerate those whose sole impediment to freedom is their inability to pay bail.

And on the state and federal levels, governors and President Trump could use their practically limitless commutation powers to get the sick and elderly out of prison. The latter has already tried to use his as a political cudgel ahead of the 2020 election; using it to prevent further coronavirus outbreaks would be at least as noble. If they don’t act, a pandemic that’s already sent much of the country’s free population scurrying risks morphing into nothing short a humanitarian disaster inside its jails and prisons. Decades of conditioning have primed Americans not to care what happens to the incarcerate after they’re locked away. Rectifying that today would affirm our humanity at least as much as it would protect that of our imprisoned counterparts.

We’re committed to keeping our readers informed.
We’ve removed our paywall from essential coronavirus news stories. Become a subscriber to support our journalists. Subscribe now.

Pandemics Are a Great Reason to De-carcerate