“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The Russian novelist and philosopher, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote these words more than 100 years ago, himself sentenced to imprisonment for four years in Siberia in the mid-1800s. This assessment has taken greater resonance during the novel coronavirus pandemic as people in detention centers have been acutely impacted. As America struggles to claw its way out of the prolonged pandemic and looks to the incoming Biden Administration for a light in the tunnel, this light must shine on the crisis raging across American prisons, jails, and detention centers. This is certainly a question of how to bring a halt and recover from the devastation of the pandemic, but as Dostoyevsky articulated, it runs much deeper to the type of society we envision, of how we turn the page not only on the disaster of the Trump regime, but address the longstanding structural inequities that were not just exposed by the coronavirus, but which helped COVID spread and thrive. Thus, it is essential that the Biden Administration works with local and state authorities to ensure those held in detention have immediate access to a vaccine, and more substantially, it means that the Administration centers efforts to both improve conditions within detention centers and to facilitate the innovation and expansion of alternatives to detention.
Prisons and jails have never been good for one’s health. This is as true in America as it is in countries around the world, and include a troubling depth of health problems. These health harms are a result of the nature of these sites – confined in close quarters, overcrowding, insufficient infrastructure, high transit in and out of facilities – as well as their common character of a disregard to human dignity and human rights – abuse and violence from staff and other detainees, inadequate or non-existent oversight and accountability mechanisms, and simple denial of rights and access to health services. People with pre-existing conditions, such as HIV or mental health challenges, have regularly struggled to receive appropriate care, medication, or support. Furthermore, detention sites have also served as hotspots of infection for a range of infections, from tuberculosis to Hepatitis C to dental health. The use of solitary confinement and verbal and physical violence, as well as the basic fact of detention and removal from one’s community, have resulted in acute and long-term mental health harms not to mention the direct physical results of violence itself. People who use drugs have struggled through withdrawal, or have continued drug use while in detention relying upon shared syringes or homemade pipes, and upon release have faced higher rates of fatal overdose. While a number of efforts have been made to address some of these issues, they have been inconsistent and insufficient.
The coronavirus has thrived in this environment. The very nature of closed facilities and the continued societal devaluation of people held in these settings have spawned hotspots in jails and prisons across the country. Over 173,000 people incarcerated have become infected with the coronavirus and approximately 1,300 have died. This is not even including those held in other detention sites, such as compulsory drug treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, or immigrant detention centers. Workers in prisons and jails have not escaped this spread. Over 37,000 workers have become infected and nearly 100 have died. Public health directives on ways to reduce COVID-19 transmission, such as social distancing, quarantining, hand washing practices, and personal protective equipment, have not been applicable in detention centers across the country, where some don’t even have soap or access to water. Common measures to implement “social distancing” have veered toward use of solitary confinement, a practice understood internationally as a form of torture. And while detention centers are viewed as closed, they are never completely so. People, including workers, enter and leave thereby bringing in infections and risk bringing them to their own communities.
The majority of those held in jails and prisons in the United States are in local county or state facilities. There have been measures taken by local officials in dozens of states, which have resulted in a drop of roughly 8 percent in prison populations and 30 percent in jail populations. These should be applauded. However, they are not enough to both resolve this crisis and to ensure it does not happen again. Many promises to release people on compassionate grounds or find alternatives to detention have largely been just that. Court orders to safeguard the health and safety of people in detention, in states such as North Carolina, have gone unmet if not ignored. As American residents across the country have taken to the streets and ballot box to demand criminal justice reform and investments in health and social services in lieu of punishment, political action has been slow to respond. And now we climb closer to obtaining a vaccine. A recent New York Times article asked the question of whether those in detention should receive the vaccine, a question provoked after promises to prioritize workers within facilities.
The answer is clear: yes. If we are to get a handle on this devastating pandemic, the millions of people held in detention centers across the country must be prioritized in our vaccine distribution. And then, as we look to recover from this pandemic, we must commit to rethinking and reinvesting in how we view a range of social challenges and problems commonly addressed through detention. We must invest in alternatives to detention that have been proven to be more effective in promoting safety and health and in utilizing scarce public resources. We must demonstrate a “degree of civilization”, as Dostoevsky commented, that is not just “back to normal” but that is “built back better”.