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As coronavirus spreads across the United States, jails and prisons have reported an accelerated spread of the disease due to overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. According to a Reuters report, as of Saturday, 132 inmates and 104 staff at jails across New York City alone had tested positive for COVID-19 with an infection rate over seven times higher than the rest of New York City.
This rapid spread of coronavirus within jails and prisons poses a massive threat not only to the millions of people living behind bars but also to the communities surrounding incarceration facilities. To combat outbreaks of coronavirus in U.S. jails and prisons, it is crucial to act immediately to improve sanitation within incarceration facilities, increase access to medical services, quarantine infected individuals, and release inmates who do not pose a threat to society.
One of the main reasons that coronavirus spreads faster within prisons is that many inmates do not have access to basic cleaning supplies or protective equipment like masks, gloves, warm water, and soap. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City Correctional Health Services, told the Brennan Center that “If you spend even just a couple of minutes in any jail or prison area, you would quickly find that many of the sinks there for handwashing don’t work, or that there are no paper towels or no soap.”
Laura Eraso, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of New York City added that “Clients are ripping their clothing and tying it around their own faces for protection, even though that wouldn’t do much. When people are suspected to be sick, they aren’t sanitizing or cleaning that person’s bed—they’re just taking that person out and putting someone else in their bed.” Additionally, an inmate released from Rikers island told Reuters that sick and healthy people within the prison mingled freely and newly admitted inmates were only quarantined if they showed flu-like symptoms, despite the fact that it can take up to two weeks for symptoms to develop.
A CNN investigation last year also showed that inmates are often denied or delayed basic access to medical care, which allows more time for sick individuals to infect others. To make matters worse, the Guardian reports that people in jails and prisons have higher rates of underlying diseases that make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. These factors will not only lead to higher rates of infection within prisons but also outside of prisons as correctional staff and released inmates carry the disease to outside communities and strain nearby healthcare systems.
Several measures have already been taken by state and local governments to slow the spread of coronavirus within incarceration facilities. For instance, New York City has released 450 inmates from its jails since last week and the city’s Board of Correction has identified around 2,000 people who could be released.
Los Angeles County released at least 1,700 inmates with less than thirty days left in their sentence. The New York City Department of Correction also claimed to be distributing masks to inmates, cleaning cells, and providing soap. Several states have banned all visitations in jails and prisons and others have begun screening new inmates before releasing them into the general population.
However, these measures have not gone far enough. If U.S. jails and prisons hope to effectively prevent the spread they must first release a significant number of inmates, including those over the age of 60, inmates nearing the end of their sentence or awaiting trial, and low-level, non-violent offenders. Many doctors and advocates have also called for the U.S. to temporarily forgive bail and end other programs that keep low-level offenders in prison.
This will provide more space to quarantine new arrivals and infected individuals, reduce the strain on sanitation resources, and allow for a greater degree of social distancing. Additionally, jails and prisons must provide basic cleaning supplies like soap and warm water, allow increased access to medical care, and isolate arriving inmates and those displaying symptoms of COVID-19 for at least two weeks or until they can be tested.
This being said, it is also crucial to ensure that inmates in isolation maintain access to normal levels of comfort and entertainment so that people do not avoid reporting symptoms out of fear of being placed in an overly-strict and oppressive quarantine. Without immediate action on these measures, the coronavirus will continue to spread rapidly in jails, prisons, and surrounding communities, straining local healthcare resources and increasing the number of deaths from the virus.