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COVID-19 and the Prison Crisis


The United States is the global leader in locking up its own citizens. We are the most systematically punitive nation on earth. This has been an abomination for decades — one of many things proving the lie of America’s singular greatness. Caging human beings is immoral. The fact that mass incarceration is also an inherently racist project, hammering Black and Brown communities in wild disproportion, is just the cherry on top.

Prisons and jails have long been dangerous places, the consequence of hyper-incarceration and overcrowding as well as austerity budgets that demand poor health care, inadequate heating and cooling, coerced labor, bad food quality, isolation, and violences both visible and not.

We should have been radically decarcerating America decades ago, but the logics of American capitalism — which mandates inequality, poverty, desperation, and thus surveillance and punishment — really cannot bear that vision. To radically decarcerate would in this nation require radically reducing punishable “crime,” which would in turn require giving everyone access to the things they need to live life well — like, say, pie-eyed ideas such as Medicare for All, universal free education, a jobs guarantee or universal basic income, and the like. It is so hard for most people to envision a society dramatically refashioned in a way not reliant upon prisons, jails, and police precisely because doing so would require actively envisioning and laboring toward a society without capitalism’s rampant immiseration.

If prisons and jails have long been signposts of the worst things in our society, it should come as no surprise that they now exist as the most concentrated crisis points for the COVID-19 pandemic:

It started small. On March 23, two inmates in the sprawling Cook County jail, one of the nation’s largest, were placed in isolation cells after testing positive for the coronavirus. In a little over two weeks, the virus exploded behind bars, infecting more than 350 people.

The jail in Chicago is now the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections, according to data compiled by The New York Times, with more confirmed cases than the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., or the cluster centered on New Rochelle, N.Y.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, said Wednesday that 238 inmates and 115 staff members had tested positive for the virus. But those figures most likely downplay the actual problem, the jail acknowledged, because the vast majority of the jail’s 4,500 inmates have not been tested.


The Times has identified at least 41 clusters of two or more coronavirus cases centered on prisons or jails. In addition to Cook County, other large clusters include the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Mich., which is tied to more than 100 cases; the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill., linked to more than 90 cases; and the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C., where at least 58 inmates and staff have tested positive.

In New York City, which has borne the brunt of the U.S. outbreak, more than half of the jail population had been quarantined by Wednesday as the virus continued to spread through the jails on Rikers Island and in neighboring boroughs. The Department of Correction said 287 inmates, 441 correction staff and 75 health care workers had tested positive, and nearly 1,600 inmates had been released to try to reduce the toll.

The disease has killed seven correction employees and one detainee in New York. More than 10 percent of correction officers have had to quarantine themselves.

No one deserves these conditions, but even if you’re ill-disposed toward sympathizing with persons convicted of crimes, you should be enraged that this is happening in a jail rather than a prison since the vast majority of people who occupy jails haven’t actually even been convicted of doing anything at all:

Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year.  Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted.  Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (about 160,000 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.

Some state and local officials have slowly begun releasing certain people from their jails in the midst of the pandemic, but not nearly enough. Indeed, the fact that that they are just now releasing people goes to show that they could have been releasing them all along.

The situation is replicated and worse in prisons. This is literally a nightmarish situation in which to put people:

Inmates say correctional officers are ordering them to stay six feet apart, but most of them are living in dormitory-style settings with 100 or more men. A handful of sinks, showers and toilets are shared by all. Bunk beds are set about three feet apart.

“You can’t tell us to social distance and throw six men in a 15-by-15-foot cubicle,” a 49-year-old inmate said in a phone interview from the prison. The inmate at first spoke on the record, but called back, asking to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation from prison staff. “They won’t let us outside. People are sick, coughing, not able to breath, and we are piled on top of each other. I can’t believe the crap I have to witness each day. I’m mad; I’m terrified.”

And now remember that the hundreds of thousands of correctional officers in the U.S. are cycling in and out of these facilities and back to their homes and communities every single day. This country’s obsession with punishment is going to get a lot of people killed, both behind and beyond the bars.

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