As the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus starts to creep up in states around the country, fears are rightfully sparking about the impact of this outbreak on a critically vulnerable group of people: those incarcerated in our jails and prisons. The danger of infection is high in these crowded, unsanitary facilities—and the risk for people inside and outside of them is exacerbated by the “churn” of people being admitted and released at high rates. For example, in Florida alone, more than 2,000 people are admitted and nearly as many are released from county jails each day.
These concerns are very real and should be urgently addressed. But there is another danger that is getting lost as we start to address them: that jails, prisons, and court systems may, in response to the pandemic, reflexively heighten restrictions on the people they have incarcerated, thereby worsening their conditions, and also chilling the criminal justice process by which their rights could be vindicated and their freedom granted.
Early statements and responses to the coronavirus from our carceral facilities are cause for alarm. Courts are ordering that the temperatures of people in jail be taken so that they can be held back from court if they have fevers. Visitation between those incarcerated and their family members is being rescinded; trials are being delayed. Lawyers are being encouraged to decrease the amount of visits they make to see clients who are incarcerated, and prisons are putting people on lockdown—locking them inside their cells, sometimes in solitary confinement.
When H1N1 hit in 2009, many jails and prisons reacted in precisely this way: by trying to impose segregation, isolation, and lockdown. When there was a mumps scare in New Jersey last year, the whole facility was placed on lockdown. These reactions are not new. But the spread and scale of COVID-19 are already different from other outbreaks. Jails and prisons, which are generally “congregate settings,” simply do not have the infrastructure to “contain” it. And even if they wanted to try, the growing understanding of the grave mental and physical impacts of solitary confinement on people—including long after they are released—makes it clear that we need to consider new options.
Keeping people trapped inside facilities under heightened restrictions will do less, not more, to protect the greater community. Movement between people on the inside and on the outside is ceaseless. And because carceral facilities cannot operate without staff, who move in and out of these spaces every day, heightened restrictions are largely futile. The only meaningful way to keep the most people safe is to decrease the number of people incarcerated.
What we know about natural disaster after natural disaster is that they exacerbate inequality in any number of ways, from who is most effected to who gets paid off for their loss. That’s true of the prison system too. A society that already throws millions of people into prison and forgets they exist under the best of times is really not going to care about these people now. Moreover, imagine how bad this is going to get in the Trump concentration camps of immigrant detentions. At least there aren’t a lot of very old people in there, but there enough in prison for a lot of people to die there.