Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

We Should Use the Coronavirus Pandemic to Fight Mass Incarceration

Coronavirus is colliding with American mass incarceration, making clear that warehousing human beings en masse is an often deadly decision. We should use this crisis to push for decarceration.

Over the past few weeks, billions of people across the world have learned what it means to be “socially distant.” They have canceled their plans with friends for the foreseeable future, searched for new hobbies to stave off the monotony, and tried to learn how to live (and maintain their sanity) without leaving home as shelter-in-place orders proliferate.

But one group has lived with social distancing for years: prisoners. “Everything can feel especially far away when you’re in prison,” Christopher Blackwell, an inmate at the Washington State Reformatory, recently wrote at the Marshall Project. Of course, that’s because prisons are designed to isolate people from society. It’s exactly the wrong kind of distancing, though: to survive this crisis, we’ll have to stay physically apart while building ever-closer social ties. Incarceration has always done precisely the opposite, surrounding inmates physically but cutting them off socially.

With inmates and staff members now testing positive for COVID-19 in local jails and state and federal penitentiaries, a humanitarian crisis is looming. The social distancing that public health professionals are advocating — staying six feet apart to limit the spread of disease — is functionally impossible inside of a prison. “People refer to cruise ships as petri dishes, but nobody has invented a more effective vector for transmitting disease than a city jail,” a former New York City corrections commissioner told ABC News. Perhaps the most troubling case of all is New York’s Rikers Island. The jail’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 18. By Tuesday morning, there were nearly two hundred confirmed cases.

“This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen,” Ross MacDonald, the jail’s chief physician, warned on Twitter this week. “We expect that 20% of those infected will need our overburdened hospitals and 5% will need ventilators that many other citizens will also need.”

But it’s crucial to remember this is not a natural, unpreventable disaster. The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with more than 2 million people locked up at any given time. “Health officials,” the Associated Press reports, “have been warning for more than a decade about the dangers of outbreaks in jails and prisons.” The contagion is the inevitable outcome of warehousing human beings en masse: if you want to ensure a pandemic spreads, you’d be hard pressed to find a better method than forcing people to live with others with an uncovered toilet right next to their beds, the only escape (if they have one at all) a giant common room with hundreds of other people. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported that the infection rate in New York City jails was nearly eight times that of the city itself.

While inherently brutal, US prisons and jails have long gone above and beyond to make things worse for prisoners — and specifically worse in ways that foster the spread of disease. The California Rehabilitation Center lacks hot water and doesn’t require its dishwashers to sanitize anything. Inmates at private prisons like the East Mississippi Correctional Facility have been forced to go weeks at a time without prescribed medicines. Inmates frequently die in local jails due to insufficient medical care.

Despite the urgency of the pandemic, conditions haven’t necessarily gotten better. At Rikers, Brooklyn Defender Services has reported overflowing sewage and staff who refuse to clean in order to limit their own infection risks, among other medical failures. Speaking to the Appeal, one Rikers inmate claimed current screenings amount to doctors yelling, “Anybody have any symptoms?” through the front door.

On top of that, the drive to squeeze every last cent out of prisoners means they often lack basic hygiene products. Across the country, jails and prisons force the incarcerated to purchase items from commissaries at inflated prices. Given that those employed while imprisoned are paid pittance wages, inmates are inevitably forced to skimp on necessities.

And with COVID-19 spreading rapidly across the globe, those necessities include sanitizers. The ACLU of Arizona filed an emergency motion alleging that facilities didn’t have soap in bathrooms and that inmates had to use their own personal soap supply (which they had to purchase) to clean their cells. Yet they were also searched, and any soap “in excess of what you need” was confiscated. Hand sanitizers with ethyl alcohol — which the Center for Disease Control says are more effective than ones without alcohol — were prohibited altogether. For good measure, the Arizona Department of Corrections is reportedly letting staff members hoard toilet paper from the prisons, even though it limits the amount inmates can have.

It’s not just prisoners’ physical well-being that’s under assault. While “zoom” may be a novel verb for millions of people now working remotely, prisoners have had to make do with video visitation for years. Jails and prisons across the country started cutting in-person visits long before there was a viral threat. Instead, inmates and their families have to pay a fee to maintain their relationships. At one Louisiana jail, it costs $12.99 for a twenty-minute call. Blackwell, the inmate in Washington State, near the epicenter of the disease outbreak in Seattle, explained that inmates who were quarantined after the virus entered his facility could only communicate through JPay, the prison email system, which requires purchasing a $150 tablet.

To limit the spread of COVID-19, many jails and prisons are also suspending what in-person visits still exist — including legal visits, which the Federal Bureau of Prisons is currently only allowing with special approval on a case-by-case basis, as well as inspections. While potentially justifiable as a form of social distancing, it means there’s little oversight about what is happening behind bars during an unprecedented public health crisis. “Now there’s literally no way to verify pretty much anything, which is insane — and it’s super-concerning because they say 30 days but it’s essentially indefinite,” Seana Holland, the investigations director of the criminal and juvenile justice clinics at Georgetown Law, told the Marshall Project last month.

Holland’s comments point to what might be the biggest danger of all: that the supporters of mass incarceration could harness the crisis to further tighten the screws on prisoners. Previous crises, like a 2017 riot at Delaware’s largest prison, have been used to press for more prison funding and more jails. And prisons commonly cite safety concerns as an excuse to throw more people into solitary confinement.

But this is a crisis we can use just as much as the Right. One of the biggest obstacles anti-incarceration organizers face is building solidarity between those inside and outside of prison. Widespread social distancing is giving millions of people across the United States a small taste of what it feels like to be imprisoned: if not being able to leave your house is driving you mad, just imagine the torture that is solitary confinement. Perhaps we can use this kernel of shared experience to build support for decarceration measures.

Fortunately, some decarceration has already begun. San Francisco and New Orleans, anxious to stem the contagion, are releasing people in pre-trial detention or held on minor offenses, like misdemeanors and drug charges. Los Angeles and New Jersey have let 10 percent of their inmates out. Philadelphia has announced it will delay arrests for nonviolent offenders, Maine won’t send people to jail for unpaid fines and fees, and Rikers has set free some prisoners.

But prisons are designed to make us forget about their inhabitants. Those in power will only do as much as is required to avoid a PR nightmare. Inmates were already suffering unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions, and they were already cut off from their families and friends. It’s not the threat of a deadly pandemic that makes the mass warehousing of human beings unjust. That was always true.

It’s on us to fight for a different future. In the short term, that means demanding more decarceration and refusing to allow officials to quietly leave prisoners in unsafe conditions. Long term, it means making clear that these decarceration measures work in pandemic times because they will work in all times. COVID-19 will remake society. But that also means we can put the right kind of distance between us and the worst of today.