Imagine the fear that you felt in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. When everything was unpredictable and everyone on the news was dying. Now imagine that you are stuck inside of a building with over 400 people inside, unable to leave. Terrifying, right? This was the case for prisoners all over the United States. Unable to keep themselves safe or see the faces of their families as a deadly virus swept the nation.

You may be thinking, “Well they put themselves in this situation by committing a crime.” This may or may not be true, but either way, it is inhumane to subject prisoners to the risk of death by a preventable illness due to overcrowding and blatant disregard for COVID-19 safety precautions in prisons.

It seems that not many people care for the health and well-being of the incarcerated population. There is a large misconception that prisons are where all of the “bad people” go; The serial killers, rapists, and pedophiles. These people do go to prisons, but over 60% of people in U.S. prisons are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, most of them being economic related crimes. These are crimes like tax evasion, robbery, or selling of controlled substances. These people do not commit crimes for their own enjoyment, they are typically committed due to being marginalized in society. It is a last ditch effort for survival. Do they then deserve to be denied protection from the contagious virus that has killed over 700,000 people in the United States thus far?

Many prisons are not enforcing safety protocols in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to protect inmates from COVID-19. Common precautions such as mask mandates and social distancing, methods of keeping the general public safe, are not being enforced in prisons or jails across the country. In some cases, inmates have alleged the government isn’t supplying PPE or other protective measures to prisoners or staff at all.

Dr. Eric Reinhart and Daniel Chen found that if the US had reduced the rate of incarceration, the number of daily positive COVID-19 cases would have dropped significantly. By creating alternatives to prison for nonviolent crimes, there would be an 80% decrease in the prison population and in turn, a 2% drop in daily COVID cases in the country. Tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented. The Prison Policy Initiative claims that the coronavirus affects one in every three incarcerated individuals. In fact, “at its peak in mid-December, more than 25,000 prisoners tested positive in a single week.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons argues that all prisons in America are being provided masks and hand sanitizers for both inmates and staff, but they are only enforced by staff in quarantine settings. Staff are encouraged to wear masks in public, but this cannot be controlled and they are likely to bring the illness from the outside into the prison. It is also nearly impossible to social distance in prisons. Despite promises by the BOP, Maine inmates claim that the Department of Corrections is not providing hand sanitizer, that social distancing is not possible, and that masks are not being enforced.

It is clear that appropriate actions need to be taken by the government to lessen the amount of overcrowding in prisons and enforce safety precautions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alternatives to incarceration for people who commit nonviolent crimes could be probation, community service, and rehabilitation services. In 1990, prisons in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens took part in a rehabilitation program as an alternative to incarceration. Results showed an 81% reduction in recidivism within the 161 participants. This alternative cost $7,000 less per person than it would have to keep them incarcerated.

I understand how people who do not have experience with prison or incarcerated loved ones can easily brush the issue off as a consequence of committing a crime, but I am asking for you to have some empathy. See it through the eyes of these individuals’ families.

These people are already doing time for their crimes. Do they really deserve to have their lives put at risk by a preventable illness? 

Leo Goddard is a student at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this piece was written as part of coursework in Incarceration Nation class.


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