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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.