COVID-19 doesn't have to turn prison time into a death sentence

COVID-19 doesn't have to turn prison time into a death sentence
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As Americans mask up and buckle down for a long summer of trying to avoid COVID-19 infection, the health dangers haunting our nation’s correctional facilities are magnitudes worse.

But just how much worse? Even as more than 648 incarcerated people and 39 staff have died from the disease, our research suggests most of the incarcerated population hasn’t even been tested for COVID-19.

This stunning failure jeopardizes the 2.3 million people held in prisons, jails, and detention centers nationwide, plus thousands of corrections workers. Because serving time shouldn’t be a death sentence, corrections leaders have an ethical obligation to step up basic protections right away. 

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Already, the Equal Justice Initiative has found the COVID-19 infection rate in jails and prisons is 2.5 times higher than in the general population. The relatively few tests that are available have identified more than 68,562 incarcerated people and corrections workers as COVID-19-positive.

In the close quarters and high-touch environments of prisons, actual infection rates surely are much higher. But the stresses inside aren’t limited to those living and working there. Families endure profound financial, emotional and mental health consequences when a relative is locked up — even under normal conditions. Layer in a global pandemic, and these worries can overwhelm families on the outside. 

A recent nationally representative survey estimates that 45 percent of the U.S. population has had a family member incarcerated. Thus, an estimated 113 million Americans may be coping with the stress and uncertainty of having a loved one housed in a high-risk environment for the spread of COVID-19.  

To that end, our research is assessing the fears and concerns of loved ones through surveys with more than 300 family members in 40 states, followed by in-depth virtual interviews. In particular, we’re evaluating how the pandemic may be affecting families’ experiences with incarceration and how correctional facilities are handling related risks.

Although the work remains in progress, we’ve already identified troubling patterns: 

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  • So far, 76 percent of survey participants report their incarcerated family members have not been tested for COVID-19. Only 57 percent say their loved ones have received personal protective equipment such as gloves or masks.
  • Some of those in custody have limited access to soap and no access to hand sanitizer, according to their families. Some are said to receive only one mask; others, one mask per week. Others are not allowed to wear masks because of safety concerns or prison policies equating masks to contraband, families say.
  • Eighty-five percent of participants say they are not satisfied with correctional facilities’ handling of the pandemic, and more than 90 percent worry about their family members’ safety. 
  • Social distancing is a challenge, because many of those in custody live in dormitory-style units or shared cells.
  • Roughly 40 percent of participants say communication from correctional facilities has decreased during the pandemic. Some report diminished access to phones, delayed letters and technology issues that interrupt virtual visits. Only 6 percent agree that correctional agencies provide effective communication to families. 

Without specifics about how their incarcerated relatives are faring, families face anxiety, depression and difficulty sleeping. Some say relatives have less access to medication or other health treatments amid the pandemic. More than one report the use of solitary confinement or even a prison’s basement instead of medical quarantine.

Also troubling: Many rehabilitative, vocational and educational programs reportedly are suspended while outside contractors cannot visit. For those who must finish certain programs before their release, the suspension may push back freedom.

Although we are still collecting data, it’s clear that these conditions aren’t anywhere close to tenable. Corrections agencies must follow science, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to safeguard both those incarcerated and corrections workers and ease the heightened stress on families.

First, personal protection equipment must be provided across the board to the incarcerated population and to corrections workers — with the expectation that everyone wears it. 

Second, states must implement mass testing and report testing and mortality data associated with COVID-19 in corrections facilities — a step that some have avoided.

Third, corrections officials must strengthen communications with incarcerated individuals and the public, especially with relatives on the outside. Families should be updated often on safety conditions, changing protocols and steps they can take to stay in regular contact. It would be especially helpful to freeze fees associated with family communications, to ease the financial burden. Communication and programming can be made available through in-cell tablet devices, which are allowed in some states.

We’re all innovating and reimagining daily habits to make life more bearable and safe until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available. Our jails and prisons should be no exception. Incarceration must not strip people of their humanity or their right to humane treatment, even during a pandemic. We owe it to our communities to do better.

Breanna Boppre is an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Wichita State University. Follow her on Twitter @bree_bop.

Meghan Novisky is an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Cleveland State University. Follow her on Twitter @DrNovisky.