Mass incarceration is now more than ever a massive public health crisis–and officials must act NOW to save lives. Coronavirus has already started to make its way into jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers. The first incarcerated person to test positive for Coronavirus is in Long Island’s county jail and hasn’t been released to medical care. And now a second incarcerated person has contracted the virus on Rikers Island.2,3
Here’s why that’s terrifying: jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers are sites of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and pest infestations, all of which make these cages incubators for disease. Incarcerated people are packed into close quarters and forced to share spaces such as bathrooms and showers. And worst of all, our folks are not given the basic necessities like soap, hand sanitizer, and other medical supplies. So how could we expect these places to care for them during a global pandemic? Not to mention, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly correctional staff, cycle in and out of these places every day, guaranteeing the spread of COVID-19 beyond the facility to the larger public. With 2.3 million people in the United States in prison or jail on any given day, an outbreak in these facilities poses a threat to the entire country.
Public officials have DAYS, not weeks, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Releasing as many people as possible from cages and stopping the flow of people into them is the best way to do it. That is why Color Of Change came together with over 60 organizations representing directly impacted people, advocates, and legal experts to develop a platform that outlines several ways public and private actors can save lives before it’s too late. We need your help to apply pressure and force officials to take a proactive approach. Will you sign onto the platform?
The worst place for anyone to be during a global pandemic is inside of a jail, prison, or detention center. Before an outbreak occurs, as many people as possible need to be released from prisons, jails, and detention centers. People who test positive for COVID-19 should be immediately released to a medical care facility, away from the rest of the incarcerated population–not held within the prison, jail, or detention center. The people who remain confined need access to adequate medical care and prevention supplies free of charge, to be able to contact their loved ones.
Disregard for the humanity of incarcerated people, not common sense, is driving officials to prioritize punishment over the country’s well being. In response to this crisis, many officials are putting facilities on lockdown, sending sick individuals to solitary confinement and trying to quarantine folks inside jails.
In Delaware County, PA, a prison employee recently tested positive for COVID-19.4 As a result, public officials quarantined 34 people suspected of coming in contact with the individual within the jail. They have no plans to release people into medical care facilities and are risking the spread of the disease within the facility.
Washington State Department of Corrections has been quarantining folks ever since a correctional officer tested positive for the virus. Administrators have not taken any steps to create or tighten protocols that will keep facilities clean and safe. In fact, incarcerated folks were instructed to use old dirty socks to cover phone receivers when calling their loved ones as they scrambled to get to phones during their only 30-minute break outside the prison cell.5 This is how the disease spreads.
Officials are also putting barriers to due process that will keep people in jails longer. In several states across the country including Georgia and Louisiana, legal visits have been suspended indefinitely. If an attorney cannot meet with a client, then their case will inevitably slow down and violate that person’s constitutional rights. More recently, the Prince George’s County courthouse announced that only limited bail review will be held until mid-April. A person waiting to have their bond reviewed will languish in a jail cell for at least one month, far beyond what would be allowed under typical circumstances.
It does not have to be this way. Some officials are starting to respond to the demands of the people and are taking action to not only protect our public health but to protect the fundamental rights of those incarcerated as well. Los Angeles’ Sheriff announced they have already released 600 people from the county jail and officials in Cleveland plan to release hundreds of people awaiting trial as a way to combat the virus. In Philadelphia, the police department has been instructed to stop arrests of low-level offenses to slow the flow of people into jails. These are all small steps in the right direction. Right now, we have the opportunity to come together and force public officials from local municipalities all the way to the federal government to understand the urgency of the moment and make immediate changes to better respond to this emergency.
All of this brings back the painful memory of the humanitarian crisis that started Color Of Change. In the midst of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, thousands of Black people were left to fend for themselves and in the process, criminalized just for trying to survive.
Incarcerated people suffered as the floodwaters surrounded them. And the healthcare system collapsed, forcing medical professionals to make the unbelievable choice between who lived and who died. At that time, we saw clearly who the state deemed worthy of protection and who the state considered disposable. Here we are again. In 2020, government officials are presenting us with another false choice. We have an obligation to steer the course of history in a different direction.
It is in these moments that we clearly see why we must keep working towards a future without mass incarceration. Incarcerated people deserve our care, dignity, and respect. They are our sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers. And we reject any hard line that separates us from our loved ones inside cages. We are one community. We will push and work hard every single day towards a world where our collective impulse is not to punish but to support and protect each other. No human being should be condemned to preventable illness and possible death. If there was ever a time that clearly makes plain the injustice of putting humans in cages, it is now.
Until justice is real,
–Clarise, Rashad, Arisha, Scott, Erika, Malachi, Marybeth, Leonard, Madison, and the rest of the Color Of Change team
- “The Corona Virus could Spark a Humanitarian Crisis in Jails and Prisons.” Slate, 11 March 2020
- “Coronavirus Update: Long Island Inmate put in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.” ABC News, 17 March 2020.
- Rikers Island inmate has contracted coronavirus: officials.” Daily News, 18 March 2020.
- “Prison Inmates and employees exposed to COVID-19 are asymptomatic after eight days.” Daily Times, 15 March 2020.
- “Here’s What Happened to Two Prisoners When a Guard got the Coronavirus.” Buzzfeed News, 18 March 2020
- “L.A. County Release Some Inmates from Jail to Combat Coronavirus.” Los Angeles Times, 16 March 2020.
- “With Courts Closed to Pandemic, Philly police stop low-level arrests to manage jail crowding.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 March 2020.