In the state of New York alone, there are over 90,000 people behind bars.
Over 90,000 human beings: Parents, uncles, aunties, sisters, sons, friends cousins and grandparents confined to local jails, state jails and federal prisons, among other facilities. But in a time of crisis, how do we care for this forgotten population? Better question: Do we actually care for our incarcerated population?
Correctional facilities have already been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times reports that in New York City’s jails, “167 inmates, 114 correction staff and 23 health workers” have tested positive for COVID-19. Based on the nature of this infectious disease, we can expect numbers to increase. Rapidly. After all, people in prisons live in extremely close quarters, cells often go uncleaned and the incarcerated are often given limited amounts of soap—let’s not begin to talk about latex gloves or face masks. While approximately 650 people had been released in New York City and states like New Jersey and California (among others) are making efforts to reduce their populations in jail, there is still more work to be done.
Yusef Salaam, Ph.D., is an activist, public speaker and one of the Exonerated 5. After spending nearly 7 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Salaam knows all too well about the unsanitary living conditions in jails and prisons.
“When you have people in prisons who have to bunk with someone, if one person gets sick, the whole place, that whole unit will get sick. That’s how serious it is,” says Salaam.
While the imprisoned seem to be forgotten in the midst of this pandemic, it’s troubling that prison labor is used to the benefit of the general population. In March, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York had begun producing its own line of hand sanitizer, known as “NYS Clean.” The product is to be distributed free of charge, but according to USA Today, incarcerated people are producing the hand sanitizer and being paid as little as 16 cents an hour (with a maximum wage of 65 cents an hour).
Salaam says that prison labor is unequivocally a bailout.
“I’m trying to wrap my mind around the whole notion of an inmate bailing a country out because we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the hand sanitizer to go around.” Salaam, who once worked at a prison tailor shop, continues, “As a society, it would make great sense for them to say, ‘You know what, let me reduce some of the time that you to do because you’re participating in this bailout.’”
Vice reports that incarcerated people aren’t actually making hand sanitizer; rather they are rebottling and labeling existing hand sanitizer—there are also discussions of increased wages, but nothing has been confirmed. Similarly, The Intercept reports that the imprisoned (specifically those with convictions) are being offered $6 an hour to dig mass graves at Hart Island. Apparently, the New York City owned-and-operated public cemetery has long been maintained by prison labor.
But will incarcerated people—some of whom are digging mass graves for others—live through the pandemic? Where does a semblance of humanity exist?
“I think inmates are very fearful of the impact of COVID-19 in the prison industrial complex because they know that they are part of the forgotten population,” said Salaam, in conclusion.
Watch our interview with Yusef Salaam in the video above.