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Analysis

No Soap. Broken Sinks. We Will All Pay For Coronavirus Ravaging Prisons.

It’s vital that we release our most vulnerable citizens from jails and prisons during this horrific pandemic.

Last Updated: March 26, 2020
Published: April 10, 2020

This origin­ally appeared in News­week.

As the nation toils to control the coronavirus pandemic, we each are called upon to do our part: wash hands, disin­fect surfaces, prac­tice social distan­cing. Yet those simple steps are an out-of-reach expect­a­tion, often even against the rules, for people who are behind bars in Amer­ica—­more than 2.1 million incar­cer­ated in jails and pris­ons, in addi­tion to the approx­im­ately 37,000 held in immig­ra­tion deten­tion.

In the name of public safety, local jails across the coun­try are consid­er­ing the release of indi­vidu­als who have commit­ted low-level, nonvi­ol­ent offenses and pose little threat. Cali­for­ni­a’s Alameda County Sher­iff’s Office sent home more than 300 pris­on­ers last week, and New Jersey is free­ing as many as 1,000 people deemed eligible for release. Mean­while, prosec­utors are urging local offi­cials to stop admit­ting people to jail absent a seri­ous risk to the phys­ical safety of the community. At the federal level, a bipar­tisan group of U.S. senat­ors is implor­ing the attor­ney general and Bureau of Pris­ons to trans­fer those who are most vulner­able—the elderly and sick­—to home confine­ment. Pres­id­ent Donald Trump is consid­er­ing issu­ing an exec­ut­ive order to accom­plish the same.

It’s vital that we release our most vulner­able citizens from jails and pris­ons during this horrific pandemic. But given that early release is not an option for all pris­on­ers, correc­tions facil­it­ies must also imme­di­ately reform their hygiene policies to protect those who are incar­cer­ated—and indeed, all of us—from further spread of the virus.

In New York City, now the epicen­ter of COVID-19 cases, as of Wednes­day, 75 incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als, 21 correc­tions employ­ees and eight people who work in health services have tested posit­ive across the city’s jail system, includ­ing at its largest complex on Rikers Island; offi­cials are now order­ing the popu­la­tion there to sleep head-to-toe as a way to main­tain 3 feet of distance from one another.

Condi­tions in jails and pris­ons are ripe for a devast­at­ing outbreak. An inspec­tion by Missis­sip­pi’s health depart­ment last summer found that one of the state’s largest pris­ons has dozens of broken or miss­ing sinks and toilets, and bath­rooms with no soap. Even hand sanit­izer is off limits: Due to its alco­hol content, it is among the items that appear on contra­band lists across the coun­try.

“If you spend even just a couple of minutes in any jail or prison area, you would quickly find that many of the sinks there for hand­wash­ing don’t work, or that there are no paper towels or no soap,” Dr. Homer Venters, a phys­i­cian, epidemi­olo­gist and the former chief medical officer of the NYC Correc­tional Health Services told the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

In order to access personal hygiene products that aren’t routinely provided or made read­ily avail­able, incar­cer­ated people are frequently forced to pay jacked-up commis­sary prices. A survey of price points across state and federal pris­ons shows that a single bar of soap can cost more than $2. Those pris­on­ers who do have the oppor­tun­ity to work either earn noth­ing or mere pennies on the dollar for their jobs, making these basic neces­sit­ies cost prohib­it­ive.

Over­crowding and the innate archi­tec­ture of many jails and pris­on­s—where pris­on­ers are frequently double- and triple-bunked, shar­ing one toilet—defy social distan­cing, too. Right now, a hand­ful of states and many pris­ons in the federal system have far more occu­pants than they were designed to hold. This trans­lates to danger­ously close quar­ters and filthy condi­tions in which commu­nic­able diseases can spread rapidly.

Mean­while, approx­im­ately half of Kentuck­y’s 80 jails are currently oper­at­ing at 125 percent of capa­city or greater. And in Alabama, pris­ons are also filled to the max; as of last Decem­ber, the state held approx­im­ately 10,000 people above what the current system was inten­ded to house.

Make no mistake: These condi­tions do not affect only those who are incar­cer­ated. The correc­tional officers and many others who work inside jails and pris­ons, from medical person­nel to main­ten­ance work­ers, are also at imme­di­ate risk. Every night, they go home to their famil­ies and communit­ies, where they can trans­fer the virus. What’s more, many of the over 10.5 million people who enter U.S. jails each year spend only a few days behind bars—­be­fore re-enter­ing soci­ety.

The depriva­tion of basic health and hygiene to anyone who is in the custody of the govern­ment is a disturb­ing viol­a­tion of human dignity any time. But in a pandemic, viol­at­ing the prac­tices that are pivotal to “flat­ten­ing the curve” creates a massive and unjus­ti­fied burden to the public at large.

Among the imme­di­ate reforms to improve condi­tions, all jails, pris­ons and deten­tion centers must provide free of charge any essen­tial products that could play a signi­fic­ant role in curb­ing the spread of coronavirus. They should follow the lead of some states that have already imple­men­ted these policies, like in Texas and Arizona, where correc­tions offi­cials announced they would provide free soap.

The same holds true for the nominal but often prohib­it­ive medical fees pris­on­ers are charged for the chance to see doctors and nurses. Access to COVID-19 test­ing and treat­ment is urgent as the diagnoses begin to accu­mu­late, espe­cially for those in crammed confine­ment. We must imme­di­ately forego copays for those who exhibit anything close to coronavirus symp­toms. Access to crisis care is not a pay-to-play propos­i­tion: Last week, Geor­gi­a’s Depart­ment of Correc­tions began waiv­ing $4 medical copays, as has the Pennsylvania Depart­ment of Correc­tions, along with Minnesota pris­ons.

Running water, soap, work­ing toilets and qual­ity medical atten­tion are the bare minimum of support needed to ensure the health and safety of those who are incar­cer­ated. We can’t afford to let them suffer out of sight. It will harm us all.