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Genocide In The Making: 2.3 Million US Prisoners, Detainees Trapped In 'Petri Dish' For Coronavirus

The U.S. incarcerates nearly 2.3 million people in around 7,000 prisons, jails and detention centers. About 60 percent are Black or Latino.

A large portion of this population either have not been convicted of anything and are awaiting trial; or were convicted for nonviolent offenses, including crimes as petty as possession of marijuana, trespassing, prostitution, or public urination; or are immigrants detained for the “crime” of fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries and seeking asylum in the U.S.

Now many thousands of those prisoners may face a de facto death sentence, as the coronavirus begins to tear through the prison system, feeding on barbaric conditions and exacting a deadly toll on a population that is dramatically less healthy and therefore more vulnerable to the virus than the “free” population.

Elderly people are the fastest growing group in the prison population, (3) and about 40 percent report having a chronic medical condition. (4) Being elderly and already ill are the two biggest factors leading to death from COVID-19. A large number are homeless people. (5)

The first serious outbreak is already unfolding at New York’s notorious Rikers Island jail system, where at least 180 prisoners and 141 corrections staff are infected, and all 88 beds of the complex’s sole infectious disease unit—which has no ventilators for prisoners—is full. (6) At least two staff members have died; (7) prisoners report watching “as a guard coughed, her cheeks turned red and she collapsed to the ground.” (8) Uncounted smaller outbreaks have begun at institutions around the U.S.

Jail and prison conditions are horrendous for human beings, but very welcoming to the coronavirus. Social distancing is impossible. Often prisoners sleep in large dormitories. A former Rikers’ prisoner described “a dorm shared by 50 men,” 18-24 inches apart, “40-50 inmates [using] the same toilet” as well as three phones. Others said that “Feces was on the walls of some holding pens and dorm areas,” and that when prisoners crowded around communal dining tables, “some of the tables are caked with food from previous meals.” (9)

Prisoners around the U.S. report that they can’t get basic cleaning supplies, much less protective gloves or masks, even though they are sharing everything with people who may be infected. Hand sanitizer is often contraband because of its alcohol content. A prisoner may use a sock to hold the phone, or diluted shampoo to try to wash down surfaces. Even hand soap has to be purchased by the prisoners themselves at many institutions. If a prisoner is handcuffed, they can’t even cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze. As one Cook County official put it: “Our jails are petri dishes.” (A petri dish is a small dish used to grow micro-organisms in laboratories.) (10) (11) (12) (13)

All of this is setting the stage for a deadly epidemic that could spread quickly and kill thousands. A leader of the federal prison workers union acknowledged that a pandemic could be “very dangerous for our inmate population.” Steven Jones, a 55-year-old federal prison inmate in Littleton, Colorado, put it more bluntly: “If the virus gets in here, and we are all expecting it to, we are doomed.” (14) [Emphasis added.]

The Criminal Indifference of the Prison Nation Authorities

As soon as the epidemic began to spread in the U.S., a wide array of forces—lawyers, prison reform activists, prison medical staff, civil liberties groups, and a few liberal politicians—began calling for the prison authorities to take urgent steps to protect the prisoners in their custody.

The most important demand was to release large numbers of prisoners, with the aim of both reducing the dangerous overcrowding in institutions (thus making the virus less able to spread rapidly) and to remove as many people as possible from this dangerous environment. Many people pointed out that even the oppressive leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran had furloughed 85,000 prisoners, about one third of their total prison population. (While Iran has a repressive government, it has only one ninth as many prisoners as the U.S. to begin with, and its rate of imprisonment is about 40 percent that of the U.S.(15) Which says a lot about the repressive character of this country!)

In the U.S., various city, state, and federal authorities made noises like they gave a damn, but so far most have released only a small percentage of their prisoners: New Jersey—1,000 of roughly 15,000 jail inmates (16); Los Angeles County—1,700 out of about 22,000 (17); New York—650 out of 7,000. (18) As of this writing, only Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) has released a substantial percentage—1,000 out of fewer than 2,000 prisoners. (19) On the federal level, Attorney General William Barr has indicated there will be few releases, if any. (20) At least one federal prisoner, jailed for a nonviolent offense, has died of COVID-19 already.

As Udi Ofer, director of the Justice Division at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “We are nowhere close to the rate of release we need to see to stop the spread of COVID-19. Every day that government officials do not act is another day that lives are put at risk.”

As far as conditions inside the prison, far from radically reorganizing things to minimize danger and improve healthcare, the authorities have mainly taken steps like banning all visits, making life behind bars even harsher. Many prisoners report getting no information about COVID-19 except what they learn on TV, or getting “advice” from authorities like “eat more fruits and vegetables” and sleep head to toe! (21)

A Crime Against Humanity in the Making; It Must Be Stopped!

This wilful abandonment of millions of mainly Black and Brown people to the ravages of a deadly disease is in line with the whole genocidal direction in which the U.S. rulers have been moving for the last 40 years, and of which the system of mass incarceration itself is one of the main features. It is a crime against humanity in the making, and it must be opposed much more broadly and vigorously.

All prisoners awaiting trial (and therefore presumed innocent) must be immediately released rather than face a potential death sentence without trial.

All prisoners being held on petty charges that no one should be in jail for to begin with must be released.

All elderly and seriously ill patients, and all of any age who have largely finished their sentences, must be released.

For those who remain, health conditions have to be rapidly transformed:

  • Social distancing must be implemented;
  • Hand soap must be free and widely available to all prisoners; plumbing must be repaired as needed to provide clean hot and cold water, and protective equipment (gloves, masks) and hand sanitizer made widely available;
  • Healthcare must be rapidly upgraded, including ensuring that severely ill prisoners will either be treated at hospitals or that ventilators and other lifesaving treatment will be available for them at prison facilities.

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