COVID-19, incarceration and our public health
As novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases increase internationally and government officials scramble to disperse directives and plans to best protect the public, we are once again reminded of the lack of emphasis placed on the links between incarceration and public health.
In the United States, approximately 2.3 million people are incarcerated on any given day. What is especially concerning about our incarcerated population right now is the churning of incarcerated persons. Recent estimates show 606,600 men and women are newly admitted to prisons each year, with 622,400 returning home. Jails present an even starker reality, producing a total of 10.6 million new admissions annually.
During a pandemic, these figures represent a major public health threat, as best practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, including self-quarantine and social distance, are all but impossible to achieve in such transient, often medically ill-equipped settings.
Across the country, statewide closures are being ordered for elementary, middle, and high schools, universities are transitioning from in-person courses to web-based courses at rates unprecedented, travel bans have been ordered, and jury trials have been suspended. These measures all share a common goal: increase social distance and reduce transiency to lessen risks for contagion. Yet, despite the volume of people in jails and prisons and their fluctuating statuses in and outside of these facilities, the CDC has offered no recommendations thus far for assisting prisons and jails with reducing risks, despite doing so for schools, employment settings, religious events, hospitals, and homeless shelters. This should deeply concern all of us.
Incarcerated persons present with elevated risks for chronic and infectious disease and have reduced life expectancy, with 12 percent of the state and federal prison population being 55 years of age or older. These factors alone heighten risks for the spread of COVID-19, but are worsened by living in close, often overcrowded quarters, sharing bathroom facilities, dining areas, and supplies, and being exposed to violence and other stress-inducing circumstances.
Regardless of the glaring risks, attention to the public health risks in jails and prisons related to COVID-19 remains disturbingly minimal, and yet it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches them. When this happens, the spread of the virus will be difficult to contain, which is why preventative actions must be taken now.
These actions should minimally include providing correctional facilities with testing kits, making all testing free and accessible to incarcerated persons, ensuring adequate access to sanitary supplies including soap and hand sanitizer, outlining clear and realistic plans to respond to understaffing issues that are likely to occur when correctional staff become ill, releasing the sizable number of individuals incarcerated because they cannot afford bail, and releasing older, infirm people who pose no community safety risks but are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Increasing efforts to incorporate tele-health services is another promising yet underutilized option.
To be sure, failing to address the public health risks associated with our substantial correctional population will make all of us less safe, as nearly one in every two of us has experienced the incarceration of an immediate family member. Even more of us have neighbors, friends, colleagues, and extended family members who either have been or will be incarcerated.
While many of us in the community struggle with the anxieties of a rapidly evolving pandemic, it is also worth remembering that we can still choose to self-quarantine, check on our high-risk loved ones, stock up on medical supplies, and take precautions to safely prepare our own food. In prisons and jails, these measures are not guaranteed. As one example, incarcerated people in New York are currently working for an average of 62 cents per hour to mass produce hand sanitizer for the state, despite many prisoners being banned from accessing hand sanitizer themselves.
Resource depletion in not uncommon in correctional facilities, but poses even larger threats during a time of global pandemic. Currently, a large portion of prisons and jails do not have twenty-four hour access to medical doctors and require co-payments for medical visits.
Some states, including Minnesota, have suspended prison visits and are asking staff to sanitize surfaces as much as possible. Yet, while these steps can help to prevent the spread of COVID-19, larger actions, such as those we have outlined above, are both necessary and urgent. Ignoring this issue will simply exacerbate already restricted living situations, heighten existing tensions within correctional facilities, and impair the public health measures being implemented in the community.
Above all, the current pandemic forces the public to question what is of greater importance: public health or punishment?
Dr. Meghan A. Novisky is a criminologist at Cleveland State University. Her research focuses on the health consequences of incarceration and conditions of confinement. Dr. Novisky has also worked as a consultant for the University of Cincinnati’s Corrections Institute for the last decade. Follow her on Twitter @DrNovisky.
Chelsey Narvey is a doctoral candidate in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research focuses on developmental psychopathology, the carceral experience, and the ways teleservices can be used in correctional settings. Follow her on Twitter @chelseynarvey.
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