COVID & the Most Vulnerable Prisoners

Opponents of the death penalty note how it multiplies all the failures and inequities of a criminal justice system. For thousands of prisoners stuck in the US’s system of mass incarceration, the COVID-19 epidemic has turned prison terms into death sentences.

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By early February 2021, there were been at least 372,583 cases and 2,359 reported deaths among US prisoners, according to the Marshall Project, which has focused coverage on the issue. As of the end of 2020, more than one-in-five prisoners has been infected. In seven states, more than half of prisoners have been infected. In Nevada, 4.2 out of every 1,000 state prisoners have died.

The underlying problems that make prisons hotbeds for infection – within their walls, and spilling out to their communities – will continue to put millions at risk. The most vulnerable and overlooked inmates face even more peril, and need voices of family and friends outside prison walls to speak up, organize, and apply pressure.

Men incarcerated for sex offenses routinely face some of the longest jail terms handed down, so are often kept locked up into their most medically vulnerable elderly years. As well – uniquely among prisoners – they can be held indefinitely after completing their sentences.  For this group, risks from COVID are multiplied yet more.

elderly inmates
Long sentences mean more medically vulnerable inmates

Some 6,300 men are held in the US in post-sentence “civil commitment” by the 20 states and Washington, DC – along with the feds – that allow lifetime preemptive detention to prevent future sex offenses. Confined in putative “treatment centers,” governments hid behind medical confidentiality laws – so COVID infections and deaths in these internment facilities aren’t even reported in national totals. Knowledge of COVID’s impact among these men is only anecdotal.

Reports by inmates at New York State’s civil commitment facility in Marcy indicate that many have been sickened by COVID and several have died. State-run in-patient psychiatric facilities, such as Marcy, were “one of the hardest hit institutional settings per capita in New York State,” noted one report in April 2020.  For months the facility has been kept in lock-down, with inmates confined to their rooms.

In Florida, James Pesci, a civilly committed man at the Florida Civil Commitment Center was one the key organizers of resistance among the some 300 locked up post-sentence with no release date. Pesci published an in-house newsletter on the library printer – Duck Soupthat he went to federal court to fight the administration from silencing.

Florida Civil Commitment Center
Hotbeds of injustice & disease – Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia

“A supervisor can order any detainee placed in a secure management cell for the smallest of infractions,” Pesci wrote in a 2003 article. “These cells are filthy and never cleaned and the staff rarely does the required 15-minute security checks…. One detainee, who attempted suicide in one of these cells, splattered his HIV-infected blood over the walls and it remains there to this day.” In December 2020, Pesci, still in locked up for “treatment,” himself died at from COVID.

COVID deaths at Minnesota's civil commitment gulag
COVID deaths at Minnesota’s civil commitment gulag sparked a 2021 hunger strike.

Minnesota, perhaps surprisingly, is the state with the highest proportion of civilly committed men in the US. Anger was already high among inmates from failure to ever release the men under “treatment” – only 13 have every been unconditionally released in 25; more six times as many died in custody. The failure to address a burgeoning COVID epidemic that claimed three inmates in December 2020 finally provoked resistance.  In January 2021, a dozen activist inmates at the facility launched a hunger strike, garnering national publicity. “Several of the men said in interviews that they were prepared to be hospitalized or starve to death if the state did not respond to their demands,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.  The strike was called off after two weeks when state officials agreed to meet with inmates’ outside support group, consisting of their family, friends, and other activists.

When, not if

Something like a COVID-19 was in the cards. Infectious, deadly respiratory illnesses recur reliably. Despite the specter raised by SARS (2002) and MERS (2012), no serious pandemic before COVID-19 had emerged since the US started its experiment in mass incarceration in the 1970s. Prisons in the US are characterized by overcrowding and generally woefully inadequate health care in the best of times. The Marshall Project’s reporting shows as well the serious inadequacies systematic failure to take basic precautions to protect inmates and staff.

“Staff ignored or minimized prisoners’ COVID-19 symptoms, and mixed the sick and healthy together in haphazard quarantines,” the Marshall Project notes, discussing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the US’s largest single jailer. “Thousands of prisoners were shipped around the country in February and early March [2020], taking the virus with them….”

In Texas, a 79-year-old prisoner wrote from a federal medical facility, saying it “is now nothing more than a de facto Death Row for elderly and sick offenders. This facility is literally God’s waiting room.”

Staff at prisons have also been affected. As of early February 2021, there had been 100,377 cases among prison workers, with 175 deaths.

The ongoing rollout of vaccines will help, but the underlying problems that make prisons hotbeds for infection – within their walls, and spilling out to their communities – will continue to put millions at risk. The most vulnerable and overlooked inmates face even more peril, and need voices of family and friends outside prison walls to speak up, organize, and apply pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to fight these injustices.

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