The U.S prides itself on being the land of liberty and justice for all. By failing to properly protect and care for the incarcerated during this pandemic, our justice system is not only preventing prisoners from paying their debt to society, but losing sight of what liberty and justice for all truly represents. The United States represents roughly five percent of the world’s population, yet has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population and approximately 26 percent of the world’s coronavirus cases. As prisoners remain in close quarters and often don’t have access to quality medical care, prisons can very easily become epicenters of coronavirus.
This is what has appeared to have happened.
In the U.S, the five single largest outbreaks happened in detention centers, and American prisons have an infection rate of a whopping 3,251 cases for every 100,000 incarcerated people as compared to the general population’s rate of 587 cases per 100,000. Not only is the infection rate significantly higher in detention facilities, but prisoners are three times more likely than the general population to die of coronavirus.
This leads us to a critical question: Why did the U.S have such a massive prison coronavirus outbreak?
Given that the U.S has a colossal prison population and the largest number of coronavirus cases worldwide, it does make sense that the nation’s prison outbreak is the largest. However, that does not mean that the outbreak could not have been smaller or even prevented. In a joint statement from the WHO and UNAIDS, the organizations laid out three steps to reduce the size and frequency of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons: the first measure they laid out was reducing overcrowding in cells in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The second was implementing adequate protective and preventive measures for the incarcerated. This would include testing prisoners and providing care for the sick. The third guideline was continuing treatment for preexisting conditions, as those in prison tend to have higher rates of HIV, Tuberculosis, and substance abuse disorders, making complications with the coronavirus much more common.
There are many countries who have abided by these guidelines, as well as many who have not. Take Russia, which has refused to release prisoners who had already served their time. In this, the Russian government acted directly against the first guideline mentioned, reducing overcrowding. In Poland, a country where the guidelines have been strictly followed, temperatures are checked before one enters a prison, a simple and highly effective precaution. In Germany, prisoners must wear masks, and high risk prisoners are put in quarantine for their own protection. In France, 14,000 of their 59,000 inmates have been released. As a result of these precautions, only 29 in every 10,000 prisoners in France are infected with the virus, and Poland comes right behind at 0.4 percent. To put this into perspective, the rate in American federal prisons is a staggering 443 for every 10,000, and if each state’s prison infection rate was averaged, the result would be around 345 in 10,000.
When examining why the U.S has had these issues within prisons, it is hard to find a clear answer. This is because the United States has not taken one centralized approach in combating the virus (unlike most other countries). Although states have similar issues such as overcrowded prisons, (which have not improved due to recent arrests at protests as well as pushback from many communities over releasing prisoners due to health concerns), states have taken drastically different responses to the pandemic.
Prison healthcare quality and protocols differ on a state-by-state basis. To date, the state of Texas has had the most cases of COVID-19 in prisons with 9,592 prison cases, while the state of New York, which was the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak in the United States, had only 541 cases. At first, one might look at New York and see success, and perhaps consider using New York’s protocols as a blueprint for handling the spread of the virus in jails and prisons. However, New York has in fact only tested three percent of it’s prisoners, and 40 percent of those who tested were positive. On the other hand, Texas is attempting to test every inmate. Perhaps this large difference in testing may be explained as CDC guidelines only suggest that prisoners with symptoms get tested. But in California, inmates are complaining that even though they have symptoms, they are not being tested. These nationwide disparities and lack of standardization only exacerbate this internal crisis.
Even the standard of the CDC cannot be upheld by all 50 states.
Living during a pandemic is surely new for us all, and of course there is no cookie-cutter solution to reducing the spread of the virus. While some say that the huge differences in states’ pandemic responses benefit us as a nation because we can see what works and what doesn’t, as a California prisoner said, it can be scary to be a part of what feels like a “science experiment.” Without a clear standard, prisoners nationwide are unsure of how safe they are, or if their prison is taking the proper precautions for their safety.
Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that giving prisoners “a heavier penalty… than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed” is a violation of human rights. When one is incarcerated, they have either been given a trial or are awaiting a trial. When our leadership allows coronavirus to run rampant in prisons, and when we fail to give proper medical care, we are imposing a heavier penalty than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed for those convicted. For the 470,000 unconvicted detainees, we are sentencing them to death without a trial.
Hey! My name is Nitika and I am a 10th grader from New York City. I enjoy reading, talking to my friends, and binging tv shows.