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.