Coronavirus hits U.S. prisons, putting imprisoned populations at risk

Prison advocates have added the COVID-19 pandemic to its agenda as the virus spreads in at least two facilities nationwide.

The novel coronavirus has officially entered the United States prison system.

Imprisoned populations are at risk of contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus and rapidly spreading the illness without proper planning and preparation.

At Rikers Island, a prisoner has tested positive for COVID-19. According to The New York Daily News, a Rikers Island corrections officer has also tested positive. The inmate, now reportedly being housed in a secluded area, is being closely monitored by health officials.

Mayor Bill de Blasio says the mayor’s office of criminal justice is working to others in custody who are at high risk of becoming infected and could potentially be removed.

A Correction Department badge on an officer at the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center at Rikers Island, in the Bronx. This is the only prison bardge in the US, and is anchored in the South Bronx near Rikers Island. The Bardge handles inmates from medium- to maximum-security in 16 dormitories and 100 cells. (Photo by David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images)

An employee of the Georgia Department of Corrections has also tested positive for the coronavirus, the first case in the GA prison system. Their specific facility of employment has not been identified. The inmate at Rikers Island marks the first case of COVID-19 behind bars and experts and activists both warn without action, the number will surge.

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Several states have announced the early release of inmates, as well as an intentional, reduce in new arrests. According to Buzzfeed, in Los Angeles County, the population shrunk from 17,076 inmates to 16,459 in about two weeks. Their report notes in the Los Angeles County Jails, at least 35 inmates are in quarantine across three locations after showing symptoms of COVID-19.  

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, more than 200 low-level nonviolent prisoners were released early by being placed on probation or a reduction in bond, in preparation for a possible outbreak, CNN reports

In Philadelphia, the police department has issued a statement adjusting their arrest policy during the pandemic. The City of Brotherly Love has moved to take offenders of certain nonviolent crimes into custody, have their identity verified and background checked, then released and processed through an arrest warrant. 

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The prisons themselves are not alone in calling for an implementing swift change. Organizers and activists fighting for the rights of incarcerated people and criminal justice reform have added the preemptive fight against COVID-19 hitting the imprisoned population to their agenda.

Every March, The Dream Corps, founded by Van Jones, leads a mass congregation of people who are formerly incarcerated to confront the crisis of mass incarceration in their “The Day Of Empathy initiative. As the current global pandemic prohibits large gatherings, their mission will not be hindered.

The fourth annual “Day Of Empathy” will be a digital day of action. The Dream Corps is also working to pass an economic relief package to assist the most vulnerable. The organization is calling for “adequate planning for preparing jails and prisons for COVID-19 outbreaks and ensure that this especially-vulnerable population is equipped with adequate resources.”

Yo Gotti along with Team ROC, the philanthropic branch of Roc Nation, has called for the Mississippi Department of Corrections to answer for their prison conditions in a lawsuit and have added coronavirus medical support to their demands. A second lawsuit filed in February 2020 details the severe conditions of Parchman Prison in Mississippi. 

“These inmates have been subjected to inhumane health and safety risks, and now have to deal with the uncertainty and potential devastation of the coronavirus, too,” Yo Gotti said in an official statement. “It is imperative that the Mississippi Department of Corrections implement a plan within Parchman to provide the medical resources necessary to protect inmates that might be exposed,” he continues. 

REFORM Alliance, lead by Jones and Meek Mill, has launched the #NoPrisonPandemic movement, pushing for elected officials to make prisons and communities safer during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Viruses don’t respect borders or prison walls – they can spread everywhere. We need to stop the spread of #coronavirus in prisons before it spreads to our communities,” the organization said on Twitter, sharing the link to an online petition in a follow-up Tweet. 

The REFORM Alliance introduced its “safer” plan outlining recommended changes to create an environment less likely to spread coronavirus. This includes suspending technical violations and probation visit fines, alternatives to incarceration, free medical visits, hand sanitizer and medical gear, extra protections for staff and the release of elderly prisoners to home confinement.

As of March 18, at least 3000 individuals have signed the petition.