When I was 16 years old, my biological mother — whose very existence I had only learned of a month prior, due to her being incarcerated in the state of Texas for drug possession — died from complications of stage IV colon cancer. I later learned that before her diagnosis, she had complained of stomach pains for a long time, but rather than being screened for a health issue, she was repeatedly given Tylenol — despite having a history of colon cancer in her family. By the time my birth mother was given access to real care, the cancer had metastasized. The Bureau of Prisons granted her a compassionate release, and she returned home to her family in Louisiana to die. As the cancer slowly ravaged her body, she prepared her own wrongful death suit to be filed upon her passing; it would be almost 10 years to the date of her death before the Bureau of Prisons would admit to their role in my birth mother’s death and settle with myself and her remaining children.
In my early adulthood, I too was impacted by incarceration, though only for one day. I was given no soap, due to lack of inventory, and a tube of a jelly-like substance that was supposed to double as toothpaste and gel; I watched women shower in open, crowded areas next to the living space; I saw no cleaning products being used to maintain the area.
The same apathy toward the wellbeing of incarcerated people is being demonstrated on a much wider scale right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. As both the Pfizer-Biotech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines continue to be distributed to Americans, the glaring oversight of the approximately two million persons currently incarcerated in jails and prisons is both a moral and epidemiological mistake. Incarceration should not be an automatic death sentence.
By the beginning of summer 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported that of the 2,700 inmates they tested for COVID-19, 70% had tested positive for COVID-19, though they stated that the figure “does not reflect the positive rates across the BOP system, which houses 146,000 prisoners.” At the end of December 2020, testing revealed that one in every five state and federal prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19, four times the rate of the general population. At least 2,400 incarcerated people have died from the virus.
The environment we’ve created in American correctional institutions have allowed this deadly pathogen to surge nearly unimpeded. Due to the confined areas within prisons and jails and the ongoing problem of prison overcrowding, social distancing is virtually impossible inside. Moreover, those incarcerated in the prisons, jails, and even juvenile correctional institutions are not allowed to have access to hand sanitizer because, due to its alcohol content, it is considered illegal contraband. Even simple protective measures like washing one’s hands can be challenging; some incarcerated people don’t have easy access to soap and water.
In light of the continuing severity of the pandemic, the U.S. criminal justice system has taken measures to alleviate prison overcrowding, such as releasing some non-violent offenders. In states like Ohio, some counties are holding criminal pre-trial hearings by telephone and lowering the cost of bonds. California, which houses the second-largest incarcerated population in the country, has allowed some violent offenders to go free if they suffer from a particular set of comorbidities.
But thousands of other men and women remain in correctional institutions during the pandemic, and the conditions inside are literally life-threatening. Some institutions in states like Florida have required people who are booked into jails to quarantine for up to 14 days, during which time they may have no access to legal counsel; at one point in Palm Beach County, more than a third of the jail population was in quarantine. A report from the University of Texas as Austin showed that between April and September of 2020, nearly 80% of people in Texas county jails who died of COVID-19 hadn't yet been convicted of a crime, and 58% of people in Texas prisons who died of COVID-19 were eligible for parole at the time of their deaths.
The handling of the COVID-19 vaccine offers another example of the public health negligence we have allowed to fester in American correctional institutions. Its distribution has been at best unmindful to the sensitive epidemiological threat ignoring incarcerated people’s care poses; in many cases, government officials have been purposely punitive. In early December while addressing the public concerning the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine for the state of Colorado, Governor Jared Polis explicitly stated, “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime.”
Though his sentiment is shared by many, this statement is immoral and illogical. Inmates are wards of their individual states, and correctional facilities are required under the law to care for them.
Further, 95% of those incarcerated in U.S. state prisons are coming home. The U.S. Department of Justice states that over 10,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each week. That means thousands of people who are possible carriers, being sent back into communities all over the country, spreading the contagious form of the pathogen and its newly emerging strains. The people who work in these facilities, including corrections officers, delivery drivers, and other staff, could also contribute to the spread.
Many experts all over the world are calling for the vaccination of incarcerated populations to be a top public health priority. Though details about states' vaccination plans are still rolling out, The COVID Prison Project, a nationwide watchgroup tracking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic upon the incarcerated population and correctional staff in the U.S., has reported that around 24 U.S. states and territories (including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico), have included the incarcerated population in their Phase 1 group for the COVID-19 vaccination distribution. Five of these states and territories, however, are prioritizing medically vulnerable incarcerated persons, such as people who are over age 65 or who have two or more chronic illnesses. As of the last COVID Prison Project update, around 15 states have incarcerated persons prioritized in Phase 2 or 3 of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and 12 states have no distribution plan in place at all. The floundering of the nation’s vaccination effort cannot afford to spread to the prison systems unless the goal is to see cells turned into tombs.
The Biden Administration recently announced that it will buy 200 million more doses of the Pfizer-BioTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines by late-July, in the hopes of vaccinating the entire American population by summer’s end. It is not clear nor has it been explicitly stated where in the distribution efforts the incarcerated population will fall.
In the interim, we as a community can aid those behind bars in surviving this pandemic by donating to community bail funds, which you can find using the National Bail Fund Network’s comprehensive directory. Lend your voice to grassroots efforts by sending officials such as your governor or local sheriff letters demanding the release of individuals who have less than a year of their sentence left or who are classified as medically vulnerable. When we stand in solidarity as one voice and one community, lives are saved.
Today, I’m an epidemiologist with a focus on infectious diseases. I got my degree at the oldest and one of the highest ranked schools of public health and tropical medicine in this country. I have also been incarcerated. I have also been without a home. All of these things make up who I am. My life matters. And the lives of all imprisoned people do.