PANDEMIC IN THE AGE OF THE CARCERAL STATE
As the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus continues to grow, fears are rightfully sparking around the impact this pandemic will have on already marginalized and vulnerable groups of people — including those incarcerated in jails, prisons, and detention centers.
At the current rate of infection, thousands of people behind bars could become infected and sick.
The danger of infection is particularly high for those held hostage by the carceral state who already endure sub-standard and limited access to healthcare. This is no longer a hypothetical — there are already confirmed COVID-19 cases popping up in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the country.
Detention centers are of particular concern — as people are constantly being admitted and released at high rates. In Florida for instance, more than 2,000 people are admitted and nearly as many released from county jails each day. As courts close across the country, those incarcerated continue to languish in cells — stripped of their constitutional right to a speedy trial, access to courts which they need for release, and in some cases, legal visits.
Similarly, US immigration detention centers remain full and over-crowded. Nearly 40,000 immigrants, including families, are currently held at detention centers and local jails across the US. On Thursday March 19, the first ICE employee tested positive for the coronavirus.
As states have implemented efforts to flatten the curve, many states are prohibiting ombudsmen, lawyers, and journalists from entering facilities. Oversight visits to prisons and jails across the country are already being cut amidst the pandemic. State agencies, independent groups and court-appointed monitors are being blocked from entering facilities.
Additionally, more informal oversight—such as family visitation—is also disappearing. All across the country — family visits have been suspended, along with programs run by educators and religious volunteers.
Without proper oversight, we must remain vigilant and increasing mindful of the ways the state will abuse its power as layers of accountability diminish and disappear entirely. In this moment, we should be concerned that jails, prisons, detention centers and court systems may, in response to the pandemic, worsen conditions by increasing restrictions on the people they have incarcerated. When H1N1 struck in 2009, many jails and prisons imposed segregation, isolation, and lockdown en mass.
Additionally, we see prison slave labor continuing across the country. In North Carolina, people in prison are still working in chicken plants. In Arkansas, prisoners are still forced to tend to livestock — as well as being sent out of facilities on work release.
Because prisons and jails cannot operate without staff, who move in and out of these spaces every day, heightened restrictions seem largely futile. The most meaningful way to keep the most people safe seems to be by decreasing the number of people incarcerated and increasing protective measures like gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, frequent handwashing and adequate access to healthcare.
Together we must demand decarceration and abolition, as a strategy of public health to combat COVID-19, and as a public health strategy long term, for the health of our country.