As most of the United States fiddles with the idea of seeing loved ones for the holidays, more than 2 million incarcerated people are faced with this challenge: staying alive during a global pandemic which has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people in the U.S.
U.S. correctional facilities — like the rest of the country — are recording unprecedented spikes in coronavirus cases. Michigan just recorded more than 50,000 COVID-19 cases in the last week, a number it took the state more than two months to record at the start of the pandemic, and many states are floating along with the same dilemma.
However, correctional facilities alone recorded 13,657 new coronavirus cases the week of November 17, according to the Marshall Project. The previous week saw 13,676 new coronavirus cases. These are the highest totals since the pandemic began, and it’s been grim since.
The American prison system is the perfect breeding ground for such a virus. While most outside the system are advocating for mask-wearing and social distancing, the reality is that prisoners aren’t able when prisons are overcrowded and most are poorly ventilated, old, and hygiene standards are difficult to maintain.
While some of the data can be hard to pin down, what’s available is frustrating: as of mid-November, more than 196,000 coronavirus infections have been reported among state and federal prisons. More than 1,450 of those prisoners have died. Case rates among inmates is more than 4x that of the general public, and death rates are more than twice as high.
The U.S. prison system also employs more than 685,000 people — guards, nurses, etc. More than 45,000 prison staff members have been infected and around 98 deaths have been recorded to date. Their case rates are 3x as high as the general public.
And these are just what’s been reported. The actual numbers are much more gruesome. This issue is even harsher on rural communities; 40% of prisons are located in counties with less than 50,000 people and are nowhere near as equipped for handling such an outbreak. Even something a bit more modest would be difficult to handle with not many ventilators or I.C.U. beds available.
The pandemic should’ve been handled with more aggression, both at the state and federal level. Current lame-duck President Donald Trump delayed the virus, even gaslighting a nation while he claimed fear of hysteria was an excuse to not act immediately; his actions (or lack thereof) are inexcusable. Other governors, such as Georgia governor Brian Kemp, have refused to set mask mandates, or any mandate to slow the spread of the pandemic further.
Some states have taken it upon themselves instead. Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a three-week emergency order prohibiting outdoor sporting events, dining at bars and restaurants, and other indoor or group activities. The order went into effect last week. Meanwhile, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy signed a bill in October that would permit prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences to be released up to eight months early. Already, 2,000 people have been released and more than 1,000 releases are anticipated.
Obviously, a lot more still needs to be done. One short-term solution includes diverting minor infractions into “noncustodial penalties” for things like parole violations and probation, and limiting the amount of pretrial detentions via reducing or eliminating bail.
It’s also key to minimize the effect the virus has on communities and those involved. More comprehensive standardized testing and reporting requirements would be helpful, in addition to offering testing prior to release.
Managing the coronavirus crisis is difficult and isn’t something that will be achieved overnight. It’s a process and will require sustained effort by all parties involved. It’s easy to ignore what’s happening right now in prisons, but it’s not helping anyone. Their welfare is very much linked to everyone else’s. America’s failure to heel the prison population is both a public health catastrophe and a moral disaster.