Pandemic In Prison

By: Shayna Herszage  |  September 30, 2020

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor and YU College Democrats Vice President of Criminal Justice and Racial Inequality

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most people focus on ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from getting sick. However, not all people have been granted the autonomy and humanity required to be able to protect themselves from the virus. Individuals who have been incarcerated in the United States are lacking safe precautions and conditions, endangering themselves, their fellow inmates, and those working within the prisons.

Many prisons have reported high rates of COVID infection of inmates and staff members, such as San Quentin State Prison in California, which reported over 2,000 inmates and 261 staff members infected as of last month. According to Kevin T. Schnepel, an assistant professor of economics at Simon Fraser University, the rate of infection in prisons is nearly 7,000 per every 100,000 inmates — more than four times the rate for non-incarcerated individuals in the United States, according to data from the Marshall Project.

The spread of disease among such a vulnerable population is significantly due to an issue of fear of consequences for the inmates. Kenneth Clayton, an inmate at the Bonne Terre Facility in Missouri, has stated that his fellow inmates are afraid to report COVID-like symptoms. This is primarily because they do not trust the staff members of the prison to treat them properly and respectfully if they admit to being sick. According to Clayton, the inmates fear being placed in more inhumane conditions than that of the prison itself, but most of all, they fear being isolated without their needs and illness being cared for. As a result, they are more likely to deny symptoms because inmates generally trust more of their fellow inmates with their safety than they trust the staff members working in the prison.

In addition to the distrust and fear among the inmates, the poor conditions within the prisons lead to increased infection rates. According to CNN, prisons do not allow for the quarantining or social distancing necessary to curb the spread of disease. While there are frequent mass testings of inmates and staff members, many are asymptomatic, as is common in general with COVID-19. In such an environment, disease travels too quickly for mass testing to be effective. Those who are in the United States incarceration system during this pandemic are forced to live in a petri dish of a fast-moving, as-yet incurable disease.

Additionally, all resources within a prison cost money — most of which comes from civilian tax dollars. During the COVID-19 pandemic, proper prison precautions would require expensive testing and disinfection processes that the prisons are simply not paying for. As a result, inmates such as Clayton have reported that prison cleaning supplies are diluted with water in order to save money, and that healthy inmates are forced to clean the cells of infected inmates. The unwillingness to raise prison budgets is causing direct exposure of healthy inmates to the virus.

One may ask: what can be done about the budget? Is it our problem, as non-incarcerated individuals, to the point that our taxes should be allotted to prisons? Why should we care about incarcerated individuals if we ourselves are not in prisons?

My answer, however surprising, is yes, the government should allot more tax money to prisons in this time. We are living in the midst of an international crisis, and the virus is spreading quickly. As the aforementioned data indicates, prisons are places of high spread and high risk. If taxes are focused toward curbing the spread in such a high-risk location, infection rates will inevitably be lower in the United States. So even if we are not incarcerated, those in the incarceration system are still part of our community as fellow people in the United States.

Additionally, while the inmates can be considered separate enough from society to not pose a health risk to the public if they are infected, some individuals leave the walls of the prison on a regular basis: the guards. If the guards are placed in unsafe, unhygienic conditions during work hours, they may bring the infection with them when they leave — thus increasing the spread not only in prisons, but outside the incarceration system as well. Even if one does not have empathy for prison inmates, unsafe prison conditions also pose a health risk to those beyond the prison because of the many guards and staff members who leave the prison at the end of the day.

Furthermore, those in the incarceration system are part of the global community of fellow humans in general. Why should we leave vulnerable individuals to be forced to crowd together and catch and spread disease when such a problem can at least be curbed, even if it can not be prevented altogether? The statement that we are a global community of humans may sound cheesy, but an international pandemic has shown just how small the world can be. If diseases can be spread all over the world so easily, why not spread empathy as well, and try to give help to those who need it?

The death penalty and capital punishment in the criminal justice system have been subjects of debate for decades, if not centuries. However, regardless of whether a person is in favor of or against the death penalty, it is inarguable that not all individuals who have been incarcerated should be at risk for execution, all the more so in such a long and painful way. As Kenneth Clayton said, “At the end of the day we are human beings. We wasn’t sentenced to die in prison because of COVID.”