This op-ed was originally published in the Las Cruces Sun News.
Ohio. Arkansas. Illinois. Tennessee. Michigan. Texas. North Carolina. These states are home to eight of the top ten worst coronavirus outbreaks in the nation. The common denominator linking them? In each case, the disease took root in jails and prisons.
It’s no wonder. Overcrowding, inadequate access to soap, and substandard healthcare in detention facilities create the perfect storm for coronavirus spread. We don’t have to wait around to see if medical experts were right all along in warning that detention facilities are tinderboxes for infection. The proof is in the suffering and death we are witnessing at facilities across the country.
Detained people, especially people with underlying medical conditions, are afraid for their lives.
In Ohio’s Marion Correctional Institution, one of the nation’s largest hotspots of infection, more than 80% of inmates and 275 prison workers have now tested positive for coronavirus. Correctional officers and healthcare staff live and work in Marion and surrounding towns, causing the threat to spill over into communities at large.
Mass testing in the Marion prison did not begin until the virus already locked the facility in a chokehold. That’s partly because 95% of incarcerated people who tested positive had no symptoms, delaying detection of the spread.
New Mexico is just now beginning to conduct wide-scale testing of staff and incarcerated individuals at prisons. While it’s an enormous step in the right direction, we may well find that the damage has already been done.
Over the past couple of months, the ACLU has heard from dozens of incarcerated individuals, concerned family members, and correctional staff, raising alarm bells over the conditions inside of New Mexico jails and prisons. Detained people, especially people with underlying medical conditions, are afraid for their lives. Their family members worry their loved ones will never make it home. One correctional healthcare provider we heard from was so troubled by the general disregard for detained people and employees’ lives that she resigned.
In fact, our commitment to protecting the health and safety of people in custody has never been stronger.
We’ve marshalled all our resources to reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons, much like California and New York have already done, to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding in New Mexico. And while at times it’s felt like we’ve been running into a brick wall — most recently when the New Mexico Supreme Court denied our petition to release people who can safely be returned to communities — we’re not giving up. In fact, our commitment to protecting the health and safety of people in custody has never been stronger.
Scientists have warned that we must learn from world governments’ failures in preventing the virus from spreading if we are to avert future pandemics. Undoubtedly, our leaders must heed public health experts’ warnings more quickly, spring into action earlier, and refrain from politicizing future crises.
But there are more lessons to be learned.
The coronavirus crisis has shown a new light on the human cost of our country’s obsession with mass incarceration. Relying on a system that tears families apart and fuels racial injustice to improve public safety has always been foolish, unjust and counterproductive. But now, in the age of COVID-19, we see that mass incarceration is an urgent threat to public health.
While we’re encouraged the Department of Health has finally implemented a plan to conduct widespread testing in jails and prisons, testing is not enough. Jails and prisons are not designed to adequately care for people’s health.
Jails and prisons are not designed to adequately care for people’s health.
We still have time to fix this. We must take immediate action to defuse the impending public health disaster inside our jails and prisons by releasing people who are held for non-serious offenses. Beyond that, we don’t have to continue making the same mistakes moving forward. We can finally admit that locking people up should be a last resort, and that tackling the root causes of crime through treatment and prevention should be our top priority. Not only will we improve the physical health and safety of our communities today, we will create a healthier and safer society moving forward.