Social distancing. Staying six feet apart. Disinfecting. Staying home. Avoiding large gatherings. Since being sent away from campus for the rest of the semester, it’s likely that you’ve heard these rules for staying healthy in the midst of the coronavirus. Hopefully, you’ve been following them and attempting to keep yourself and your loved ones safe during the pandemic. But there is one population of people who truly cannot abide by the guidelines the rest of us are following: the incarcerated.
I know that we all feel like we’ve heard everything there is to know about COVID-19, about its disproportionate effects on underprivileged communities and every other way in which it is making these months so difficult for everyone. But incarcerated people are not often fortunate enough to find themselves at the center of constructive conversations. Too few of us are aware that imprisoned people are facing a deadly injustice.
Prisons are run in a way that makes it impossible to keep a clean and healthy environment for those behind bars. Men and women are often forced to live in close quarters, squeezed into cramped pens where staying six feet apart is not feasible. There is also a constant flow in and out of prisons and a large aging incarcerated population in our facilities. Moreover, approximately half of prisoners have a chronic illness. The groups who are most at risk for the coronavirus are highly represented in prisons.
To make matters worse, many facilities do not have easy access to soap or properly working sinks. Because hand sanitizer is widely considered to be contraband due to its alcohol content (despite the fact that prisoners are producing 100,000 gallons of it for 65 cents per hour in New York due to its shortage), inmates have few ways of staying clean. An article by the New York Times describing Rikers Island prison conditions reported that some prisoners had resorted to using socks to hold phones or diluted shampoo to disinfect cell bars. And as I’m sure you can imagine, the health care provided to prisoners is abominable.
The efforts that states have made to remove some prisoners and to halt visitation are not enough. There are 500,000 people in America who are incarcerated but have not been convicted of a crime, just because they cannot afford their freedom by posting bail. Awaiting trial in jail increases the risk to themselves and to others, and they should be released immediately so that they can properly self-isolate.
This also stands for prisoners who pose a low risk to society (if you’re like me, you may be wondering why these people are in prison in the first place). As student groups like the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project advocate, we have to release inmates with conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, declare a moratorium on incarceration, and ensure that there is proper access to healthcare for those who must remain in prison.
These issues with our correctional system cannot only be addressed when there is a pandemic that reveals them. We have to make permanent improvements, and we cannot continue to treat people in prison as expendable. With 2.2 million people imprisoned and over 160,000 people infected at the time of writing this, the United States leads the world in both incarceration rate and coronavirus cases. It is our responsibility to do better.
DEREEN SHIRNEKHI is a first year in Davenport College. Her columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .