Written by Rohan Ravirala
Nine months after COVID-19 first arrived in the United States in February 2020, the government has yet to admit its failures when handling a national health crisis. As the virus continues to sweep through states and disproportionately impact marginalized communities, both Congress and the Trump administration are reluctant to enact meaningful legislation that adequately protects unemployed Americans and undocumented immigrants. While the government is struggling to handle problems related to eviction and unemployment, they are taking considerably less notice of an issue that has been prevalent since the onset of the pandemic: the spread of COVID-19 throughout prison populations.
Incarcerated individuals are more susceptible to the dangers of coronavirus due to the nature of the system they are confined within: the prison industrial complex (PIC). This term, as defined by the prison-abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, describes the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. Despite the inhumane living spaces, ill-prepared food, and patriarchal violence that exist in carceral institutions, many people still believe that prisons execute an essential role in American society. Politicians routinely speak about repairing portions of the PIC, but reform may not necessarily be the right answer to fixing an establishment deeply rooted in racism and settler-colonialism.
So how serious is this crisis? The Marshall Project, an organization which has been tracking coronavirus in the prison population of the United States, reported that as of August 14, 2020, there were 102,494 positive cases, with almost 900 resulting in deaths. In Texas prisons alone, there were 1,744 cases for every 10,000 prisoners in the state, meaning that more than 17% of prisoners came back from testing with a positive diagnosis. The rate at which the virus passes from person to person is significantly higher in prison institutions relative to normal day-to-day transmission in the United States. Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston examined several state and local facilities during this summer and discovered that the rate of infection was 4.4% among prisoners, almost 5 times higher than the United States average transmission rate.
Not only is the coronavirus spreading rapidly through prisoners, but also through other employees and officials working in proximity to them as well. Nurses, correctional officers, and wardens are picking up the virus and spreading it among the prison population; more than 30,000 of these individuals have tested positive around the country since the pandemic began. Even after several months of the virus raging, there seems to be no sign of relief; COVID-19 is continuing to harm victims of the prison industrial complex as they are trapped within a system ill-prepared to handle such circumstances.
The crumbling conditions of carceral institutions throughout this country and the failure to improve them illustrates the reason for their drastic number of cases. Prisons are not equipped with the resources to protect their prisoners in any capacity. Mass testing is not widespread, prisoners are not given personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and sanitizers, and infrastructure is not designed to follow the recommended social distancing guidelines to avoid contamination and spread. Some states even had increases in the number of people admitted to jails and prisons during the past several months, leading to individuals getting clumped together into buildings that are unable to accommodate such densities. The American Civil Liberties Union scored each of the 50 states on their handling of COVID-19 in their confinement facilities to analyze the overall response of the United States carceral system, and the results were predictable: no state scored above a D-. The ACLU also noted that if there is not a drastic reduction in jail populations, more than 100,000 lives could potentially be claimed by the virus. Putting all these problems together, it is undeniably clear that prisons are deteriorating as the virus is becoming more aggressive. The idea of reform may seem intuitive to resolve these substantial issues, but it is essential to consider the origins of the carceral state in the United States– the system is, in fact, not broken, but rather doing exactly what it was intended to do.
Just as most institutions in the United States were built off of the exploitation of oppressed people, the prison industrial complex is no exception. The 13th Amendment of the Constitution specifically created a loophole that allowed for the continuation of slavery within the boundaries of incarceration. White authorities, who still held all the political power following the Civil War, took advantage of this exception and began discriminating against and imprisoning former slaves. It was clear that the rights and health of Black citizens were worth less than the profit gained from their labor as prisoners, a dark foreshadow to how the prison industrial complex would handle the COVID-19 pandemic more than 150 years later. Throughout the 1900s, the prison industrial complex continued to lay its foundation, expanding massively as politicians began to adopt “tough on crime” stances to gain support from the majority white population. Not only did the PIC lock up thousands of Black citizens, but also reinforced the United States’ sinister history of native genocide through the disproportionate imprisonment of Indigenous people. The era of mass incarceration began towards the end of the 20th century as presidents, congressmen, and judiciary figures from both sides of the aisle ignored the concerns of health and safety for marginalized populations and offered their support to the growth of prisons. The PIC, however, is not an unfortunate outcome of decisions made by a few political figures; it is an institution that reflects the profoundly racist past of this country– one built on genocide, slavery, and white supremacy. Considering the entire racial history of prisons in the United States, it is no surprise that the prison industrial complex is vulnerable during a global pandemic.
Over the past several months, people have begun to notice the lethal relationship between COVID-19 and the prison industrial complex. Conversations around police brutality emerged during the midst of the pandemic, as millions around the country took to the streets in defense of Black lives even as the number of coronavirus cases amplified rapidly. Police departments have routinely avoided COVID-19 safety guidelines, which could potentially spread cases to thousands of people as protestors, many of whom are Black, had no choice but to fight back against the militarized police state. And although it is important to recognize the dangers of policing, the discourse cannot only focus on a singular entity. Prisons are equally complicit in enforcing white supremacy by imprisoning Black and Indigenous people. How can a system that was designed to persecute be reformed? Advocating for the improvement of a defective system would only give it additional funding so it can change the methods by which it oppresses marginalized people. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it evident that the current criminal justice system is not one that has failed; it is working well, and tearing it down is the only solution.
As power has shifted back and forth among the two political parties over the past several decades, neither has offered a meaningful solution to protecting incarcerated individuals from a dangerous pandemic.
Some progressive politicians have proposed prison reform to reflect carcerality in Northern Europe, but this would fail to address the reasons why coronavirus has hit prisons the hardest. The prison industrial complex, by design, is a racist institution that will never prioritize the lives of those incarcerated, and COVID-19 is simply a channel by which it can continue to terrorize marginalized communities. Though they may seem necessary, it is possible to dismantle these institutions and reimagine a new system: one that does not rely on carceral methods of imprisonment, but one that fosters accountability and healing, promotes survivor-led justice, and protects Black and Indigenous lives.
Edited by Valerie Speirs