COVID-19 poses deadly crisis for workers behind bars

By Brian Williams
December 21, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep its way through the U.S., those facing some of the worst conditions are working people behind bars. Inmates have been infected at a rate that is more than four times higher than that of the general population and death rates are over twice as high, especially among those who are older.

Prisoners have been crammed into overcrowded facilities, many of which are old and poorly ventilated. Prisons and jails across the country are notorious for inadequate health care. Guards and other prison personnel who came down with the disease facilitated its spread.

With plans now being put in place for a COVID-19 vaccination, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee has prioritized prison guards for the first phase of immunizations, but not prisoners.

There are 2.3 million people in prisons, jails and other detention centers, such as immigrant and juvenile facilities — more per capita than any other nation. This includes nearly half a million people who have not been convicted of a crime but are awaiting trial.

As of Dec. 3, 1,555 prisoners have died from COVID-19. Of inmates tested nationwide, over 17% were infected with the disease. The two states with the highest deaths were Texas with 218 and Florida with 189, the COVID Prison Project reports.

More inmates have been infected by the coronavirus than these figures indicate, as at least a million prisoners have never been tested. In Florida, for example, there are 176,000 people behind bars, but only 84,500 of them have been tested. Of these over 20% tested positive.

In New York state, Release Aging People in Prison — a group that advocates the rights of elderly inmates — has been organizing regular protests seeking clemency for these prisoners. Since 2016, over 6,400 people in New York prisons have submitted clemency applications, with thousands unanswered for years, RAPP says. And New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who puts himself forward as a progressive — has granted just three for those convicted of violent behavior, and only 21 other clemencies.

“The New York Department of Corrections medical standard is inadequate,” Jose Hamza Saldaña, director of RAPP, who had been incarcerated in New York for 38 years, told the Militant  Dec. 5. “From the beginning authorities have not taken any measures except to suspend all visitation. Conditions have not changed much.”

In response to a rapidly spreading outbreak of COVID-19 at the San Quentin prison in California, about 20 inmates, all of whom tested positive, stopped eating in a protest to gain greater access to showers, fresh air, electrical power, medical care and an end to doubling up men deemed asymptomatic in a single small cell. More than 2,200 prisoners — 75% of those incarcerated there — were infected and 28 died.

At the Adroscoggin County jail in Auburn, Maine, 28 prisoners went on a two-day hunger strike in mid-October seeking greater safety precautions around COVID-19.

Despite promises by prison officials that steps will be taken to improve medical care and safety conditions, large outbreaks of the disease continue to occur, even where officials imposed oppressive lockdowns. At the State Correctional Institution in Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania, 444 prisoners — more than half its population — tested positive last month. Eight inmates have died from the disease there since mid-November.

Some prisoners in Laurel Highlands “had not left their cell blocks, breathed fresh air, attended religious services, or visited a library in 250 days,” the Philadelphia Inquirer  reported.

Even before coronavirus, health care for working people incarcerated in city and county jails were abysmal. From 2008 to 2019, according to a Reuters study, 4,998 people in U.S. jails died who hadn’t gone to trial, much less been convicted.