Until COVID-19 is less prevalent behind bars, the pandemic won’t truly be over in the U.S., no matter how widely vaccines are distributed, reports the Christian Science Monitor.
How corrections systems manage COVID-19 moving forward will not only be a significant factor in when the pandemic ends, but in how the criminal justice system could be reformed,
Prisons and jails have poor sanitation and health care, and they house large concentrations of high-risk individuals, where social distancing is nearly impossible.
Among the 2.3 million U.S. prisoners, there have been at least 329,000 reported COVID-19 cases, taking the lives of at least 2,020—rates that far exceed the non-prison population. At least one in five prisoners has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to data collected by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press.
The health care system behind bars was “deeply flawed” before the pandemic, says Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails.
Some states have been doing better than others, says Michele Deitch of the University of Texas at Austin. Overall, she says, “the biggest [health] recommendations have really not been implemented adequately.”
What does work is reducing the prison and jail population. Some states did this at the start of the pandemic, but prison populations have been ticking back up recently. As long as that’s the case, says Deitch, “there’s a limit to how much [other] precautions can work.”
Annual line-of-duty deaths for corrections officers typically number about a dozen. Since March 2020, 115 officers have died from COVID-19, says Brian Dawe, national director of One Voice United, an advocacy group for corrections officers.
“We’ve got guys and gals doing double shifts day after day after day … who’ve slept in their cars and in their RVs because they were afraid to go to their families,” he says. “The strain and stress on them, it’s unfathomable.”