An Epicenter of the Pandemic Will Be Jails and Prisons, if Inaction Continues

tags: public health, prisons, Mass Incarceration, coronavirus

Dr. Amanda Klonsky (@amandaklonsky1), a scholar of education and mass incarceration, is the chief program officer for a prison education organization.

If you think a cruise ship is a dangerous place to be during a pandemic, consider America’s jails and prisons. The new coronavirus spreads at its quickest in closed environments. And places like nursing homes in affected areas have begun to take precautions at the behest of families and experts. As this new disease spreads, it has become equally important for all of us to ask what steps are being taken to protect the health of people in jails and prisons, and the staff who work in them.

The American criminal legal system holds almost 2.3 million people in prisons, jails, detention centers and psychiatric hospitals. And they do not live under quarantine: jails experience a daily influx of correctional staff, vendors, health care workers, educators and visitors—all of whom carry viral conditions at the prison back to their homes and communities and return the next day packing the germs from back home. How will we prevent incarcerated people and those who work in these institutions from becoming ill and spreading the virus?

This week, the Harris County Juvenile Court in Houston announced that the court wing will be fully closed to all until further notice, after officials reported that a person who had been in the court may test positive for coronavirus. And an employee at a correctional facility in Pennsylvania also tested positive for Covid-19. Thirty-four inmates and staffers there are now in quarantine. On Friday, the Federal Department of Correction announced that incarcerated people at all 122 federal correctional facilities across the country will not be allowed visits from family, friends or attorneys for 30 days, in response to the threat of the coronavirus. But this ethical sacrifice raises more questions than it answers about the broader set of changes that will be required to limit this contagion while protecting the rights of incarcerated people.

In America’s jails and prisons, people share bathrooms, laundry and eating areas. The toilets in their cells rarely have lids. The toilet tank doubles as the sink for hand washing, tooth brushing and other hygiene. People bunked in the same cell—often as many as four—share these toilets and sinks. Meanwhile, hand sanitizer is not allowed in most prisons because of its alcohol content. Air circulation is nearly always poor. Windows rarely open; soap may only be available if you can pay for it from the commissary.

Read entire article at New York Times

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