Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons put us all at risk
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Though our country’s struggles with reforming our criminal justice and prison systems are well known, the emergence of penitentiaries as coronavirus hotspots shines a new light on these issues while presenting an entirely new public health risk to communities surrounding prisons as well as those held within them.

When the disease began to spread in location after location, medical professionals warned us that it was the staff, who were interacting with the outside world, bringing COVID-19 into facilities. Keeping staff out of high-risk areas should have become a priority after learning that these individuals were the main contributors of spread, however, this has not been the case.

In early June, along with other leaders in Congress, I noticed an influx of unmarked officers at peaceful protests in Washington, D.C., following the killing of George Floyd. The Department of Justice stated that these officers were with the Bureau of Prisons, and instantly we made the connection that almost none of these officers were wearing masks. We realized that all these individuals would be going back to facilities with at risk populations. Facilities that were probably already experiencing community spread and rampant outbreaks.

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Over the past month alone, the number of positive cases has doubled for incarcerated individuals. The Bureau of Prisons released data showing that 70 percent of all those tested in their facilities for COVID-19 have come back positive. One prisoner with an existing respiratory illness described the coronavirus outbreak in prisons as a “sword” hanging over his head.

Some politicians have attributed this marked rise in cases among our prison population to “more testing” being done. Yes, we know there are more cases in prisons now because of testing. But the reason the disease spread among these populations is not because we diagnosed it, but rather a system wide failure that let the infection go unchecked.

From the start, prison staff around the country began to raise alarms about the lack of supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) available to stop them from spreading this disease among this vulnerable population. The overall state and national protocols for mitigating the spread among incarcerated populations have been few and far between. On top of all that, prison systems lack the necessary hygiene and social distancing capabilities to combat this disease.

The root cause of this epidemic among incarcerated individuals starts at the top. As nationwide cases of coronavirus have begun to plateau, COVID-19 infection rates at penitentiary facilities in almost every corner of the country have skyrocketed. Our leaders must act.

Even if we are successful in flattening the curve throughout the country, hotspots in prisons and jails will persist and always pose the threat of reinfecting the outside population. Just as meatpacking facilities, with their poor hygienic and social distancing measures, pose the same threats to the communities they reside in.

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The federal government needs to equip prison and jail staff in both federal and state facilities with the PPE and testing capacity they need to mitigate and isolate the spread of COVID-19. Federal and state authorities must also be banned from using prison staff to conduct crowd control at protests around the country.

No prisoner deserves a death sentence during this pandemic, and these hotspots start a vicious chain that puts prison staffs, their families, and the communities they go back to at risk. The Trump administration must not be allowed to sweep yet another ticking time bomb under the rug.

Krishnamoorthi represents the 8th District of Illinois and is a member of the Oversight and Reform Committee.