The Policy Mistakes from the 1990s that have Made Covid-19 WorseRoundup
A professor at the University of Michigan, Heather Ann Thompson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of "Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy" and "Whose Detroit: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City."
India Porter is scared. A tiny women who stands barely five feet tall, she is confined to the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, where, she explains, “the officers are stressed, and my peers and I are in a calm panic.” Everyone at the facility has been told that they must socially distance to stay safe. But this is “impossible,” Porter said in an email. “We live on top of each other. 2 to a cell if you are lucky but others are 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 16 people in one living space.”
Her fear is well founded. Not far away, in another Michigan prison, Efren Paredes, sent to prison at 15, has already seen what it means for the coronavirus to start spreading on the inside. Men there have been “exhibiting a dry cough, dizziness and vomiting” but are told to stay in their housing units. The truth is that corrections officers, those who would take a prisoner to the infirmary, are also afraid that they will get sick. At the Parnall Correctional Facility, also in Michigan, 21 percent of the staff members are infected.
Covid-19 is terrifying for those who live and work inside prisons, their families and the broader community. Governments have moved sluggishly, if at all, to release elderly and medically compromised people, or sufficient numbers of the nearly 800,000 people who are locked in crowded jails each day simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. The overcrowding that remains has contributed directly to the outbreaks at these facilities. An astonishing number of people inside of Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institution, more than 80 percent, now have covid-19, and their infections are already spreading to the outside public.
Notably, however, we might have been spared so much of this recent trauma altogether if we had simply paid closer attention to what was happening in the nation’s prisons, in its poorest neighborhoods and in the halls of Congress, in the 1990s.
Beginning in that decade, a deadly tuberculosis outbreak rocked jails, prisons and poor neighborhoods nationwide. New York City was hit particularly hard — soon reporting 15 percent of the country’s cases with only 3 percent of its population. And the extent to which this highly contagious disease soon taxed not just the nation’s prison system, but also its health-care system, should have taught us some critically important lessons.
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