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Vulnerable People at Risk for Covid-19: The Jail and Prison Population

Prison corridor with many doors and bars

Coronavirus has had a noticeable impact on just about every corner of the world. When we think about populations that are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, a couple of demographics come to mind, including aging adults and people with pre-existing medical conditions. One group vulnerable to COVID-19 that we might overlook are inmates within the American prison system.

In this article, we’re going to be unpacking:

The impact of COVID-19 on the American prison system

How slow releases are worsening the problem of COVID-19 in prisons

What you can do to help the problem

—and more.

Let’s begin by elaborating on the impact of COVID-19 in prison.

How the American Prison System Has Been Affected by COVID-19

The reason that COVID-19 affects prisoners more seriously has to do with the fact that many inmates within the U.S. prison system are elderly, in poor health, or a combination of these two factors. Decades of long-term sentencing within the U.S. criminal justice system has led to the 18- to 24-year-old prison population being vastly overrun by older inmates.

Policies have drastically lengthened the sentences of people convicted of felonies and reduced their opportunities to receive parole. Between 2000-2016, the number of people incarcerated over the age of 55 tripled. Older jail and prison inmates who don’t have access to quality healthcare are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions like asthma or hypertension, raising the risk of life-threatening complications occurring during coronavirus.

As correctional facilities work to figure out how to circumnavigate the challenges that COVID-19 presents, over 1,200 jail residents and 70 jail staff members have died due to the pandemic, at the time of this article.

So, what are some specific reasons why COVID-19 is running rampant in correctional facilities?

Why Are Correctional Facilities Struggling to Contain COVID-19?

A corridor in a prison at night showing jail cells

Mass incarceration has led to prisons and jails that contain unhealthy environments that act as gasoline on the fire when it comes to the spread of coronavirus. What you get with mass incarceration is a case of overcrowding.

It's hard to adhere to social distancing if you're in an environment that's flooded with people. We've seen schools turn to remote learning, offices lean toward remote work, but we haven't seen the same types of changes occurring in our nation's prisons. Instead, we see prisons operating at 100% capacity.

If you want numbers to back up our claims, 40 out of 50 of the biggest cluster COVID-19 outbreaks in the country have been in prisons and jails. If there is a silver lining to this news, it's the fact that some local governments have been making efforts to reduce their jail populations. Prisons, on the other hand, have not.

We've all seen the restaurant industry suffer as a result of the pandemic. A big reason why many restaurants aren't able to function normally has to do with ventilation. Indoor dining areas can be seen as a breeding ground for COVID-19 if ventilation isn't operating exceptionally well. Many prisons in the United States contain poor ventilation and bed setups that place prisoners' inches apart. The results of poor ventilation and tight quarters leave much to be desired in terms of the positive COVID-19 test rates occurring.

How Does Race Tie in with the COVID-19 Pandemic and Incarceration?

We must note how deeply the Black community has been affected by COVID-19 in prisons and jails. Close to 1/3rd of all Black men will be imprisoned during their lifetime, and Black communities have dealt with more COVID-19 cases and deaths than the white population. Elderly and infirm inmates are the two groups most at risk for contracting and experiencing complications from COVID-19.

How Has COVID-19 Caused More Violence Within Correctional Facilities?

One storyline you might be surprised to read about is how prison and jail violence are rising.

Since COVID-19 has led to a lower number of staff present in correctional facilities, violence within these institutions is naturally rising. States like Alabama have already been dealing with complaints that their state prison system isn't doing enough to protect prisoners' safety and well-being. Three different people were killed in Alabama prisons after the initial onslaught of COVID-19 in March and April. A total of 15 Alabama prison inmates have been killed since the U.S. Department of Justice requested last year that the state step up its efforts to protect inmates' safety. Alabama continues to have the highest prison homicide rate in the nation.

All of the problems we've touched on have highlighted the need for prison reform to take place as a means to manage the threats that coronavirus poses. Let's take a look at how people who support prison reform during COVID-19 are looking to respond.

How We Can Respond to the Problem of COVID-19 in Correctional Facilities

brown wooden table and chairs

We see that faulty healthcare plays a big role in the spread of coronavirus in correctional facilities. Most states require incarcerated individuals to pay a $2-5 co-pay to receive medical care. People in prisons generally make well under $1 an hour, which makes the idea of having to dish out a co-pay an unappealing prospect that might deter an individual from seeking medical care. If we eliminate these co-pays, we could see a positive impact on incarcerated people's health.

People being locked up unnecessarily is another issue contributing to the COVID-19 outbreak in jails and prisons.

Early Releases from Jails and Prisons

Slow releases of jail and prison residents are only exacerbating the overcrowding problem fueling the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Several people have been calling for the early release of prison and jail residents who are most vulnerable to the damage that coronavirus can incur.

The sad reality is that correctional facilities aren't seeming to get the message when reducing the threat of coronavirus in prisons and jails. An organization known as the Prison Policy Initiative tracked 668 jails this past summer to reveal that 71% of those jails saw population increases from May 1st to July 22nd. If organizations like state prison systems have been reducing their populations in response to the pandemic, the reductions have been minuscule at best.

A major complaint is related to early inmate releases during the pandemic because correctional facilities aren't making the least controversial adjustments to their practices. Even during the pandemic, people are being incarcerated for smaller offenses like probation violations, and prison inmates aren't being released even if their sentence is almost up. We should rethink situations like keeping a person imprisoned in a minimum-security prison while they're on work release if it helps mitigate the pandemic's damage.

If you're curious how specific states are working toward lowering their prison and jail populations, Brennan Center for Justice has a great piece that provides readers with a state-by-state breakdown.

This all boils down to the fact that federal prisons, state prisons, and local jails must strive to improve the quality of healthcare and living conditions while simultaneously releasing prisoners that don't need to be imprisoned.

Probation and Parole Agencies Must Utilize Virtual Communication

We understand that people on parole and probation need to check-in and have visits with offices that manage their cases. What we don't understand is why these check-ins and meetings have to be face to face. Check-ins can be done over the phone, email, or video calls.

Stay on Top of What's Happening With COVID-19 in Prisons

Keep up with what's happening in the American prison system by listening to health-motivated podcasts from DCP entertainment. Creating positive change in the world has to begin by being in the right frame of mind and spirit. Inner Space is a DCP podcast hosted by world-renowned psychologist Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, where the topic of improving our mental health is of the utmost priority.

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