View Point: PRISONS AND COVID-19 

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By Peter Chow

Kinross Correctional Facility at Kincheloe has the second largest prison Covid-19 outbreak in Michigan with 1,130 active prisoner cases and 7 deaths, as well as 118 staff infected.  Chippewa Correctional Facility, also at Kincheloe, has 863 prisoners with Covid-19 and 2 deaths, with 69 staff infected.

Both prisons house men in open bay dormitory settings: “piled up” on top of one another when in their 8-man housing cubes, when they eat their meals in the chow hall and when they use the phones.

As one prisoner said, “I understand I’m in prison. I understand where I’m at, but I don’t wanna lose my life in here. … I wasn’t sentenced to death.”

Over 20,000 Michigan prisoners and 2,550 staff have contracted the virus, a case rate of 4,971 per 10,000 prisoners.
94 inmates and 3 employees have died, a death rate of 27 per 10,000 prisoners..

Nationally, in the US, 258,000 prison inmates have contracted Covid-19 and 1,657 have died from it. Inmates are four times more likely to test positive and two times more likely to die from COVID-19.  In the Central Michigan Correctional Facility, almost two-thirds of inmates,  2,047, have tested positive for COVID.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate.  With 4% of the world’s population, the US has almost 25% of the world’s prison population of 9.8 million. In 2016, in the US, there were 2.3 million people in prison, 746 people incarcerated per 100,000 population.  The incarceration rate of Canada is 114 per 100,000, England is 146 per 100,000, Australia is 160 per 100,000, Spain is 133 per 100,000,   Norway is 73 per 100,000, Netherlands is 69 per 100,000 and Japan is 48 per 100,000.

The prison population in the US exploded, from 196,000 in 1972, to a peak of 2.3 million, mostly because of Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs.  Draconian sentencing, congressional constraints on judicial discretion in sentencing, measures such as the so-called three strikes law, and harsher punishments for crack cocaine Black crimes but not powdered cocaine white crimes were all factors that have contributed to the USA having a high number of people, particularly people of colour, in prisons.

Black non-Hispanic males were imprisoned at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents.  White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000.  Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000.  Asian Americans have lower incarceration rates than any other racial group, including white Americans.

People of colour make up nearly two-thirds (63%) of the incarcerated population.  African-American people make up a third (33%) of the incarcerated population, compared with 13% of the general population.

In response to the growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons, public health experts, civil rights attorneys, and advocacy groups have made urgent appeals for prison depopulation, for mass decarceration, particularly of the most medically vulnerable inmates, including individuals over 55, pregnant women, those with co-morbidities, and individuals in pre-trial detention, people convicted of non-violent offences and people in immigration detention centres. Other countries have carried out mass decarceration, including Iran which released 90,000 inmates, but there has been only a trickle in the US.

Experts in correctional health and human rights have argued that these decarceration levels are insufficient. Protecting people residing in correctional facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic is a constitutional mandate and should be a public health priority.  Imprisonment should not preclude the need to uphold the highest attainable standards of protection for people who are incarcerated.  Federal guidance on COVID-19 for correctional facilities has fallen far short in protecting individuals who are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 by not recommending a substantial population reduction in jails and prisons as a crucial intervention. The eighth amendment of the US Constitution clearly guarantees freedom from cruel and unusual punishments; however, the illness and deaths caused by COVID-19 in prisons show the inherent cruelties within the correctional systems of the USA.

Neglecting the legal mandate to protect people who are incarcerated during the COVID-19 ;pandemic is morally unconscionable.

sources:

themarshallproject.org
A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons | The Marshall …
aw.ucla.edu | UCLA Law The Project tracks Covid-19 conditions in jails and prisons

thelancet.com fulltext COVID-19 and mass incarceration: a call for urgent action …
Oct 2020

www.nytimes.com

www.freep.com
New COVID-19 cases in Michigan’s prisons reach record high
20 Nov 2020

4 COMMENTS

  1. Unless there’s a non-COVID reason to let them out (eg low risk of re-offending, non violent crime, small record, model inmate) then there’s no reason to let them out.

    Many in prison robbed, hurt (either physically or sexually) or even killed people.

    There are other ways to protect from outbreaks. Guard/visitor screening, regular testing, keep inmate interactions limited to cellmates.

    • I recently spoke with a CO who works at the local remand centre. They said that it’s taken a little more creativity and management but they have been able to make things work with regard to distancing. However, they’ve found violence among prisoners has been lower than typical and because of all the additional precautions and screening they’ve been able to effectively eliminate contraband in the prison like weapons and drugs. They’ve overall seen a positive impact from covid.

  2. Canada conducted covid decarceration and saw some violent offenders re-offend pretty quickly after release.
    So Chow feels the added risk to the public is worth it because the health is at risk of those who had their personal freedoms stripped in jail for a reason?
    Guess I forgot prisons are only full of the innocent.

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