The Coronavirus Outbreak Is Forcing The U.S. To Look At One Of Its Bigger Problems: Overcrowded Prisons & Jails

Published on April 23, 2020

On March 18th an inmate at Rikers Island Prison tested positive for COVID-19 after, most likely, contracting it from a guard that had been exposed while off duty. The revelation sent officials into a frenzy on how to deal with a rapidly spreading outbreak in an already overcrowded community of inmates in one of the most packed prisons in the world. By March 22nd—just four days later—21 inmates and 17 employees had tested positive for the virus as New York quickly became the global epicenter.

When it was announced last fall that Mayor Bill De Blasio would pledge to close Rikers Island within a decade, the prison had around 7,000 inmates packed into the 400-acre island (down from a record 20,000 inmates in the 1990’s, according to the BBC). In New York’s Department of Corrections, the average daily population of inmates is around 9,500. With just a handful of jails and prisons in the area, most of those people are stuffed into facilities like Rikers where less than sanitary living conditions have long been reported.

Prison overcrowding threatens the lives of inmates that were incarcerated for petty crimes.

On the average day, exposure to rats, cockroaches and general filth is enough to weaken the immune systems of even the healthiest person. Inmates, unlike you or I, cannot social distance in the ways recommended by the United States Centers for Disease Control. In facilities like the Los Angeles County Jail—where roughly 17,000-20,000 inmates are held on a daily basis, staying a safe, six-foot distance is more than unlikely. It’s impossible.

The incarceration rate in the United States is, and has long been, the highest in the world at around 655 per 100,000 people. Statistics show that high incarceration rates are not linked to strict guidelines and rules imposed on a country’s population, but might be more deeply rooted in how legal systems are tied to things like the economy and which populations might be at greater risk of facing jail time. For example, roughly 27% of the total population of inmates in the United States are non-U.S. citizens, with a majority of that population registered as Mexican nationals, many of which have been jailed or imprisoned for nonviolent crimes like immigration offenses.

Singapore, a famously strict country that issues tickets and fines for petty crimes like spitting on the street or carrying a Durian fruit onto the subway, currently holds just over 11,500 inmates in its 13 prisons and jails where roughly 9% of its prisons were populated by foreign nationals in 2016. It’s a number that makes sense, considering the fact that drug trafficking is one of the most common ways that someone can end up in the Singapore legal system.

With a population of around 5.6 million, its incarceration rate sits at around 165 per 100,000 people, many of which are jailed on drug charges, where roughly half have completed their secondary education and most are over the age of 30. Its incarceration rates are not low by any means, but with so many laws on how its society can operate, Singapore’s prisons and jails are surprisingly empty in comparison to the United States, a country that touts freedom as its identity.

Prison overcrowding is not just a problem isolated to our urban landscapes.

With even our most rural prisons and jails operating at capacity on a regular day—or, in many cases, over capacity—prison overcrowding is a problem throughout the United States. With the added pressure of the COVID-19 outbreak, it only becomes more of a pressing issue that means, for many, it will become a matter of life or death.

Recently, an inmate at the Pickaway Correctional Institution in Ohio passed away as a result of the virus. Overcrowding, even outside of a major city like New York, is still a massive problem in the local department of corrections. In a statement to local lawmakers on this month that was published in a local news article, a Department of Corrections official said “It’s very, very hard to social distance and maintain social distance and six feet distance in a dormitory setting when we have 500-600 people packed into one room. So we’re trying to work with what we have in the physical plant.”

In other areas of the United States where the virus has yet to breach prison walls, inmates are left wondering how the state is going to care for them as they’re unable to take precautions into their own hands. Even as the virus winds down in areas of the United States that were never hit as hard as major cities, the threat of an outbreak inside local prisons remains very real.

“Certainly in [places like] Utah inmates share many of the same difficulties they face nation-wide,” says Brinley Froelich, an organizer behind Decarcerate Utah, an organization dedicated to prison reform in Utah. “Access to healthcare was already precarious, but [is] only exacerbated now with COVID-19. Although so far we haven’t heard any reports of the virus in the state prisons, there are confirmed cases in the Salt Lake County jails. Last week they reported 13 confirmed cases between inmates and staff,” Froelich says.

In theory, the prisons would be just as concerned with inmate health as the citizens advocating for them are. However, that is often not the case in prisons and jails around the country. “As public institutions funded by taxpayers, at bare minimum [the] information should be transparent and accessible, especially in light of the public health risk of spreading COVID-19, but that’s not how the jails or prisons are designed to operate,” Froelich says, highlighting the issues that advocates face when dealing with the prison and jail systems in the United States.

To combat overcrowding in prisons and jails, many are resorting to strategies usually reserved for punishment.

“We are very concerned that instead of releasing people, as they should, that they are resorting to isolation and solitary confinement, which is torture,” Froelich says. “It’s not only violating constitutional rights to keep people locked up during this pandemic, it’s morally wrong,” says Froelich.

Facing increased pressure from those in in the throes of the virus in more rural areas that have to be transferred to urban cities to seek healthcare, hospitals around the country are worried that an overwhelmed healthcare system could result in unnecessary deaths. In many cases, those at particular risk of contracting the illness are those unable to social distance—putting prison and jail populations high on the list of those likely to contract the illness in the coming weeks. With healthcare systems preoccupied at the moment, it leaves many wondering whether inmates will get the care that they need if and when they need it.

Many face jail or prison time for nonviolent crimes in the United States—from parole and probation violations to those in jail without conviction simply because they can’t afford bail, leading to overcrowded facilities and little budget to assure safety and health is a priority. Decarceration, in this case, could do more than reduce the problem of overcrowded prisons—it could save the lives of those who might not have needed to be there in the first place.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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