What Our Response to the Pandemic Reflects About the Lives of Prisoners During Disasters

Image: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

by MORGAN SMALLS

For the past few weeks, the coronavirus has forced many countries around the world to handle unprecedented challenges. The response, or lack thereof, for prisoners during this dire time is nothing unfamiliar. Though we have never experienced a pandemic like this before, there have been pockets of time where regions of our country were faced with disasters of similar severity. The common thread between those disasters and the pandemic we are currently experiencing is the neglect of the prison population. 

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was one of the most disastrous hurricanes to hit the United States. Over 1,800 people died and millions were left homeless from flooding. In late August, as the hurricane made its way towards the South, mandatory evacuations were ordered to protect all citizens – besides those considered expendable. As 20 feet of water reached the city of New Orleans with 175 MPH winds, officials refused to evacuate inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), because the prisoners needed to “stay where they belong.” One woman recounted her experience in OPP during Hurricane Katrina, stating that as her cell began to flood, she was moved to a “smoke-filled” room with male prisoners. The deputy locked her and the other inmates inside the room for three days without food or water. Another inmate mentioned his experience in OPP and recounts guards macing prisoners and shooting them with beanbags; he even remembered seeing two dead bodies in the prison’s medical ward during the flooding. Similar circumstances arose in South Carolina during the time of Hurricane Florence, which sparked internal protests in Lee Correctional Institution from prisoners due to a lack of evacuations. Seven prisoners died and many more officers were injured as a result. 

As we experience an unprecedented pandemic, the inhumane way we have treated those who are imprisoned mirrors the way they have been treated during other disasters. From unsanitary conditions to lack of medical resources, these circumstances have become exacerbated by COVID-19. Social distancing becomes impossible due to overcrowded prisons  where multiple people can be housed in a cell. Officials have urged the public to take extra measures regarding sanitation, such as washing your hands frequently. This, however, cannot be achieved in prisons, since hand sanitizer is considered contraband. A federal detention center in New York, a state with one of the highest number of those infected in the country, refused to test  an inmate who was experiencing coughing and body aches because testing is “prioritized for health care workers and patients who exhibit high fever and acute respiratory symptoms.” Not only are inmates in terrible living situations, there are also many who have pre-existing health conditions, such as HIV. Those in prison already live day-to-day with inadequate health care. Contracting a virus as deadly as the coronavirus, while having a compromised immune system and receiving minimal care, is extremely dangerous and potentially deadly. 

Lawyers and activists have also voiced concern for ICE detainees. ICE agents are continuing to conduct raids in places such as Los Angeles, where raids continued even after the state ordered stay-at-home restrictions. Not only do raids go against public health recommendations that are in place to keep everyone safe, they lead to overcrowding in detention centers. This prevents detainees from practicing social distancing as the pandemic worsens and separates families during this time of uncertainty. 

Officials around the country, including Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner, have urged the release of low-risk offenders. Decisions like these are unprecedented within the criminal justice system. There appears to be a slight shift in our cultural response to disasters that impact the prison population. Though there is much more work that needs to be done, humanizing prisoners during times of disasters and treating them as people is a step in the right direction.


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