With an estimated 43,000 U.S. death toll, the coronavirus has left everyone at risk, including the incarcerated
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted communities across the world in devastating ways. Among those most in danger of contracting the virus are U.S. prison inmates who cannot adequately participate in social distancing mandates.
Older inmates serving long-term sentences are at an even higher risk due to weaker immune systems that come with preexisting health issues like heart disease and diabetes. Although senior citizens make up less than three percent of the prison population in the U.S., contracting the virus can be fatal for them.
One of the biggest complaints to come out in defense of inmate care during the pandemic focuses on the sanitary conditions of prisons, which may expose prisoners to HIV infections, tuberculosis and other diseases if not maintained properly.
Lizzie Buchen, a criminal justice project director for the ACLU of Northern California, believes the sanitary condition of prisons is something everyone should be concerned about.
“While some inmates are housed two to a cell, many are in open dormitories,” Buchen said in an interview with Wired. “They sleep and live in very close proximity, sharing toilets, sharing showers.”
This communal lifestyle in prisons makes sharing germs more common. If an inmate contracted COVID-19, it could easily spread in a community like this, affecting inmates, correctional officers and other facility workers.
Not only is prison a very unsanitary place, but it is difficult for the inmates to have access to basic necessities to avoid the spread of germs. Soap is oftentimes in low supply and not free. Hand sanitizer is also considered contraband due to the high levels of alcohol, making individual sanitization relatively impossible.
According to ABC News, some states have taken steps to take precautions by transferring high risk prisoners who are most vulnerable to home confinement. Federal facilities in Ohio, Connecticut and Louisiana are the firsts to take these immediate actions due to the five inmates who died from the virus as of April 5.
Although changes are being made, critics are concerned that they aren’t happening quickly enough to save lives or resources. The numbers are only growing in context of the coronavirus outbreak and many are left wondering what the next best option is for prisons across the nation.
Some have brought up the idea of releasing low-offense prisoners into the public, but opposers believe that many of them won’t have a safe place to return to due to everything being shut down and public transportation changing the way they are run. Some may be left stranded, dealing with hardships in terms of getting food or making money to survive.
Others believe separating the prisoners with higher risk of getting sick and either isolating them or letting them go would solve the issue, but that doesn’t fix the problem of congestion and overpopulation.
Many states have begun to come up with their own solutions, some resulting in minimizing their populations in facilities by releasing nonviolent offenders, the elderly and the most vulnerable.