Prisons are a COVID-19 Petri Dish

Photograph Source: Prison Insight – CC BY 2.0

Now is the time to empty the prisons. With over two million people incarcerated, the vast majority for nonviolent crimes, prisoners are packed like sardines, their overcrowding perfect for mass infection and spread of the Covid-19 pestilence. Nonviolent drug offenders, people who couldn’t make bail, people within six months of release, the elderly and infirm – all should be freed before they catch the disease, spread it and die.

For years the U.S. gulag has been an international scandal. We incarcerate proportionally far more of our people than any other country on earth, at a staggering rate of 698 per 100,000. This prison population explosion dates back to Bill Clinton’s attempt to attract centrist and Republican votes by getting tough on crime. Originally written by Senator Joe Biden, the 1994 federal crime bill signed by Clinton was the biggest thing of its sort in U.S. history. It ravaged minority communities. An entire generation of young Latino and African American men came of age in prison thanks to Clinton’s crime initiative. It resulted, as of today according to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, in 1,291,000 people in state prisons, 631,000 in local jails and 226,000 federally incarcerated. 578,000 people rot in state prisons for nonviolent offenses like DUI and public order. They could be released. In local jails, 470,000 people have not been convicted. They could be released pending trial. Federal prisons contain 213,000 nonviolent offenders. Under the current extraordinary pandemic circumstance, they too should be freed. As the head of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Chicago recently said: “Our jails are Petri dishes.”

Right now this need for emptying jails is most acute at the pandemic’s center – New York City. That means Rikers Island, where Covid-19 is spreading like wildfire. The chief doctor there says it is “a public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” As of Monday, Rikers had 167 confirmed cases among its thousands of inmates.  The mayor has announced freeing 650 people from Rikers, with hundreds under review for release. But the daytime population at Rikers – including staff and visitors – can reach 20,000. It is horribly overcrowded and unsanitary. The prisoners have little access to soap and running water – a perfect environment for this plague. Meanwhile Rikers prisoners have been asked to dig mass graves for those dead of Covid-19. The prisoners will be given protective gear and paid $6 per hour. Whether they can wash up after this toil was not announced.

What’s true in prisons also holds true in migrant detention centers. In March, the detention center population surged to 13,400. Recently a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the release of migrant children. Plaintiffs had reported children testing positive for Covid-19 at a shelter in New York. The judge said she would order the release of roughly 3400 children April 10, barring an explanation of why they should remain in custody during a pandemic. Meanwhile a federal judge in New York ordered ICE detainees immediately freed from county jails with Covid-19 present. Migrant detainees in Pennsylvania are on a hunger strike, demanding release during the plague.

By freeing the 1,261,000 nonviolent prisoners and all migrants in detention, the U.S. government would eliminate much Covid-19 infection. Prisons would be less densely crammed for those remaining, routine sanitation would be easier and spread of the disease among prisoners and guards would decrease. Who knows – release that many prisoners and in some institutions there might actually be one person per cell, thus drastically curtailing contagion. Since most migrants are not held for violent crimes, practically the entire migrant detention population could be safely freed, thus arresting the spread of Covid-19 in swarming, filthy detention centers.

These releases are the just, moral and correct thing to do; they will save lives – of prisoners, migrants, guards, ICE officers and their families. While some states, localities and the federal government have started this process, it moves far too slowly. This pestilence is a highly contagious killer. Let it not be said in a couple of years that our government was as lethally irresponsible as the cruise industry, which keeps packing victims into its boats and sailing, as they die, for profit.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.