A Death Sentence: As Jails Struggle to Stem Coronavirus Outbreaks, Delays Could Spell Disaster

Illustration for article titled A Death Sentence: As Jails Struggle to Stem Coronavirus Outbreaks, Delays Could Spell Disaster
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On March 19, the chief physician of New York City’s jail system, Ross MacDonald, issued a warning on Twitter: “A storm is coming.”


In a plea directed at city prosecutors and judges, MacDonald said he noticed how swiftly courts were closed in response to COVID-19.

“This was fundamentally an act of social distancing, a sound strategy in public health. But the luxury that allows you to protect yourselves carries with it an obligation to those you detain,” he continued, adding that public servants who care for inmates have been planning for a public health crisis in jails for months, trying to pool resources and mitigate the havoc the coronavirus will bring to the city’s jail system.


“We will put ourselves at personal risk and ask little in return. But we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom,” MacDonald warned.

“A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing? What will you have done?” He asked. “We have told you who is at risk. Please let out as many as you possibly can.”

Nearly two weeks later, the storm MacDonald warned about is hitting jail and prison systems across the country, the makings of a public health crisis that threatens to steal the lives of inmates, staffers, and physicians. Data from prisons and jails—particularly regarding the health and safety of the incarcerated—is notoriously hard to track. But what we do know is alarming.


From the New York Times:

A week ago, the Cook County jail in Chicago had two diagnoses; by Sunday, 101 inmates and a dozen employees had tested positive for the virus. A nearby Illinois state prison reported a coronavirus-related death on Monday, and Michigan prisons had 78 positive tests. The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City had 167 confirmed cases among inmates by Monday. And at least 38 inmates and employees in the federal prison system have the virus, with one prisoner dead in Louisiana.


While Cook County Jail and Riker’s Island have gotten substantial coverage about the conditions in their facilities, physicians, civil rights and prison reform advocates across the U.S. have voiced concerns about an unmitigated spread of the virus within the country’s overcrowded jails and prisons.

In St. Louis, a coalition of local and national civil rights organizations petitioned a federal judge last week to ensure people locked in the city’s jails aren’t being held there because they can’t pay cash bail.


“Missouri’s jails are filled with some of the most vulnerable people in the state, and the reality of incarceration means jails are hot spots for disease even under normal circumstances,” Mary Fox, Director of the Missouri State Public Defender office, said in a press release. “COVID-19 is unlike anything Missouri has seen, and reductions in the jail population will be necessary in order to avoid significant suffering and death.”

“There are people all across the state caged in jails, many of them serving sentences on low-level charges or detained on cash bonds that they cannot afford to pay,” Blake Strode, Executive Director of the civil liberties advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, said in a press release.


In an interview with the St. Louis American, Strode added that it was “more critical than ever to ensure that no one in this region is jailed for their poverty and without the process they are due.”

It is all but impossible to enact the protections recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in jails and prisons. Hand sanitizer is not allowed, and the incarcerated have to share close quarters and showers and sinks that may not be functional. “Social distancing”—maintaining a space of at least 6 feet from other people—is impossible when people may be sleeping nearly 100 to a room.


Several jails, including Los Angeles County and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, have moved to release hundreds of their incarcerated in order to better manage the spread of the virus. But some warn that not enough is being done.


The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the ways the health and wellbeing of Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life are connected. While those who work and serve time in our nation’s jails and prisons are frequently excluded and forgotten by public officials and policymakers, continuing to ignore these populations in the face of a nationwide health crisis will have a broad ripple effect across society.

From the Times:

“By keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus,” and the demand for hospital beds, ventilators and other lifesaving resources, said David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender’s office in New York City, which represents nearly half of the 2,500 inmates in the city’s two federal jails. “They are playing roulette with people’s lives.”


It’s simple: Even if you do not value the lives of the incarcerated (which also includes people who may simply be in those institutions because they couldn’t afford to pay bail, or get a suitable defense), you cannot say you support doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who are risking their lives to fight the coronavirus and create conditions where more people, behind bars and outside of them, will get it.

We are still several weeks away from the peak of the disaster—as overburdened as our hospitals seem at this moment, projections from experts show that our situation will get exponentially worse before it gets better.


One recent report from The Intercept perfectly illustrates the severity of the situation—and our reliance on the same incarcerated people who are often demonized or ignored in conversations about health and safety.

On Monday, the publication reported that New York City is offering those incarcerated at Riker’s Island $6 an hour and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help dig mass graves on Hart Island. The offer was confirmed by a spokesperson from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, though it was also stressed that the work wasn’t “COVID-specific.” Hart Island, which the city owns and operates a public cemetery on, has “long been maintained by prison labor,” writes the Intercept.


Inaction at Riker’s sends a clear message that officials are willing to sacrifice the lives of the incarcerated—and those who work alongside them—all while placing the burden of burying the dead back in their hands.

Staff writer, The Root.