When Brittany White was incarcerated in Alabama, a woman on her work crew died of a staph infection.
As the coronavirus spreads across the United States, White is thinking about that incident and what it says about the extreme risk that people in prisons, jails, and detention centers are now facing.
“Many incarcerated people do not have access to bleach, to disinfectant. These are often withheld from incarcerated people, which helps to promote the unsanitary environment that people function in,” she said.
White is the decarceration campaign manager for LIVE FREE, an arm of the organization Faith in Action focused on ending mass incarceration and gun violence. She was one of several advocates who participated in an online panel discussion last week about how to mitigate the harms of the pandemic on incarcerated people.
They all made one thing clear: if public officials don’t take swift and extensive action, prisons will be a breeding ground for the coronavirus, posing a fatal threat to incarcerated people and fueling the spread to communities on the outside.
“We have a pandemic that does not respect the borders of any institution,” said Dr. Homer Venters, president of Community Oriented Correctional Health Services.
Venters explained that part of the problem is that public health organizations don’t determine health policies for criminal systems––sheriffs and corrections commissioners do. As a result, many prisons, jails, and detention centers are filthy and lack basic hygiene supplies.
“Most of the jails and prisons I’ve been into around the country don’t really have enough sinks, and certainly if there’s a sink that works, there’s often not paper towels, there’s not soap,” Venter said. “The most basic infection control tools that we hear about constantly are out of the reach of many people behind bars.”
“We have a pandemic that does not respect the borders of any institution.”
David Patton, head of the Federal Defenders of New York, described two facilities operated by the federal Bureau of Prisons as “god awful places” in the best of times.
“There are mice and rat infestations. Twice in the past year there have been raw sewage floods at the [Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan]. There is a constant lack of appropriate medical care. I could go on and on. And again, that's the best of times,” he said.
See also: Allegations of black mold, flooding, and unsanitary eating and sleeping conditions at the Craighead County Detention Center led to a series of lawsuits by 13 prisoners between March and April of last year.
ICE detention centers also have a terrible track record.
“Detention centers across the country... have a history of outbreaks, including mumps, scabies, chicken pox, and other highly contagious diseases. The conditions of mass confinement and consistent medical neglect pose a threat to our entire communities,” said Bárbara Suarez Galeano of the Detention Watch Network.
In Texas, family detention centers like Karnes County Residential Center are putting pregnant people and children at risk. Erika Andiola, who works with the refugee and immigration legal services organization Raices, said that at least six children at Karnes currently have cold and flu symptoms, but getting healthcare has been a struggle.
“Not too long ago there was a child, a one-year-old, who had nonstop diarrhea for 20 days and it wasn’t until we had several members of Congress call the detention center and a lot of people putting pressure that they decided to release the child with his father,” Andiola said.
“The conditions of mass confinement and consistent medical neglect pose a threat to our entire communities.”
To stop coronavirus outbreaks from turning bad conditions deadly, justice advocates are demanding the release of as many incarcerated people as possible, starting with those who are elderly and medically vulnerable.
Federal officials can use clemency power, governors can commute sentences, and local officials can release people in jail on signature bond. Prosecutors, sherriffs, and police chiefs can reduce the number of people in the system by using their powers of discretion to limit arrests, warrants, and prosecutions.
Across the country, communities are putting pressure behind these, and other demands. The Justice Collaborative, who organized the panel discussion, has compiled information about ongoing campaigns, along with tools people can use to hold their local criminal systems accountable.
In the South, there are active campaigns in Orleans Parish, Louisiana, and Nashville, where public defenders are calling for releases. In Florida, anti-prison activist group Dream Defenders recently published their own demands for action to decrease Miami jail populations in response to the pandemic in a report titled Freedom from Cages is a Public Health Issue. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Court was among the first to take action. Over the weekend, the court began a process to release hundreds of people from the county jail.
To stop coronavirus outbreaks from turning bad conditions deadly, justice advocates are demanding the release of as many incarcerated people as possible.
At the federal level, progressive lawmakers have demanded a plan from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Maryland spoke on the panel, saying that she and her colleagues were awaiting a response from the BOP.
“As we face this pandemic, it's clear that every racial, socio-economic faultline in our society is being highlighted and exacerbated,” Pressley said.
On Friday, the BOP issued a plan that focuses on restricting family and legal visits, falling short of the measures needed to protect incarcerated people and communities in general.