Opinion: Don't neglect prisoners during pandemic

Ira Memaj and Robert Fullilove

Understanding the epidemiology of the coronavirus is important. But it is equally important to ask these challenging questions: Who is disproportionally affected by the pandemic and how must we, as a collective, support vulnerable populations at this time?

A vulnerable group we cannot afford to disregard is the incarcerated population. If we ignore the them, jails and prisons will become an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jails and prisons often are characterized by inhumane conditions that can include the denial of routine medical treatment, population overcrowding, unsanitary practices, poor nutrition and a scarcity of the resources that can promote health and prevent disease.

Inmates stand behind bars at the San Vittore prison as protests broke out following restrictions that were imposed on family visits to prevent coronavirus transmissions, in Milan, Italy, Monday, March 9, 2020.

Such settings, in other words, place inmates at a higher risk of exposure to an infectious pathogen as well as for being at risk for inadequate care during a pandemic. How can social distancing and proper handwashing occur in prisons when people are confined in small spaces and cannot afford soap from the commissary? There are more than 130,000 incarcerated people in the U.S. who are both 55 and older and living with a pre-existing health condition.

Numerous correctional facilities, including Riker’s Island in New York City, have, at this writing, reported COVID-19 cases. To date, no concrete plans to respond to the pandemic have been released to the public.

Similarly, the Washington State Department of Corrections has not created protocols for assuring appropriate infection control procedures in settings where staff or inmates have tested positive. In fact, inmates were instructed to use dirty old socks to cover phone receivers when calling their families.

In states like Georgia and Louisiana, legal visits between attorneys and their clients have been suspended indefinitely, slowing the processing of cases of numerous inmates in violation of their constitutional rights. And in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in one of very few pronouncements about prisons and prison health, announced that inmates would be paid $0.65 an hour to make hand sanitizers. 

What are we to do as members of the lay public to confront this crisis? 

What cannot be accomplished by governments that too often lack the political will to respond may be achieved by citizenry who view the world as an ecological system, where each one of us is responsible for every other human being.

In regard to mass incarceration, whether it is through challenging inflexible and excessive penalties in the courts to setting up educational programs for those who are incarcerated, grassroots organizations and efforts often lead the way to criminal justice reform.

During this time of social distancing, as citizens, we can collectively join forces through the use of our phones, social media platforms and letter writing to support grassroots organizations that are fighting prison overcrowding, donating bar soaps, working with stakeholders for early release of elderly inmates and providing test kits for inmates or working to create medical care centers to safely quarantine infected inmates. 

It is imperative that ordinary concerned citizens join grassroots efforts to ensure the protection and safety of incarcerated populations during this pandemic. In part, it involves resisting the temptation to see this pandemic in self-centered and ego-driven concerns.

Now more than ever, we need to act together to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are not forgotten.

Ira Memaj is a public health graduate student and researcher of mass incarceration at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Robert Fullilove is a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Columbia University Medical Center.