The COVID-19 pandemic has drilled into us a standard set of precautionary measures: Wash your hands, maintain distance from other people, and avoid groups. But there is a population within our society that is unable to take the precautions that we take for granted: incarcerated people.
Incarcerated people are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. The shared cells and common spaces of incarceration institutions make social distancing impossible. The regular use of restraints make it difficult to do something as simple as covering your mouth when you cough. Many incarcerated people can’t get hand sanitizers because these products are alcohol-based and considered contraband by most facilities. (Though ironically, some states require incarcerated people to produce hand sanitizer.)
In the past, limited water supplies in prisons has made hand washing difficult, and water contamination has made it dangerous. And if quarantine becomes necessary for incarcerated people, it often means extended stays in lockdown, solitary confinement, and the limiting or cancelling of family visits.
Prisons are unprepared to combat public health crises, and this lack of preparation kills.
Prisons are unprepared to combat public health crises, and this lack of preparation kills. During the 2018 influenza outbreak, incarceration facilities across the nation failed to purchase enough vaccines to inoculate the population they served. Less than 10 percent of jails are accredited for infectious disease control.
Infirmaries in incarceration facilities are chronically understaffed and underequipped to deal with day-to-day health problems that arise, let alone pandemic events. Prisons in Arizona, for instance, were successfully sued by 33,000 incarcerated patients due to a lack of adequate healthcare. Despite the success of this lawsuit, Arizona state prisons were still not meeting their obligations.
This type of neglect is a nationwide problem, and the problem is only going to get worse as the incarcerated population ages. The over 50 population is the fastest growing age group in the incarcerated population nationwide, increasing by 25 percent between 2009 and 2013. This older population is particularly susceptible to the coronavirus and other outbreaks. With people of color and low-income individuals disproportionally represented in incarcerated populations, it is these groups that bear the brunt of this healthcare failure.
Three Things Congress and Elected Leaders Can Do
There are several steps our political leaders can take to fix the underlying daily health crisis faced in incarceration facilities and mitigate the damage of pandemics like COVID-19:
First, Congress and legislatures around the country need to shrink the incarcerated population, particularly older people. As people get older they age out of criminal behavior. Yet we continue to overincarcerate people, forcing them to age in prison and rely on the flawed prison healthcare system. By releasing older individuals who are unlikely to reoffend, we provide them with access to a healthcare system equipped to deal with their needs and lower the strain on the overtaxed prison system.
Second, we can support incarcerated people during pandemic events by ending the practice of charging incarcerated people copays for medical service, ensuring that income is not a barrier to treatment.
Finally, Congress should increase the funding for prison healthcare to ensure that the system has what it needs to care for incarcerated people, not just during public health crises, but on a daily basis.