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  • Frank Romo

A Public Health Crisis in America's Prisons

Updated: Jan 25

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the United States since early February, changing nearly every aspect of our lives. Although the pandemic has taken the world by storm, the United States has yet to get a handle on controlling the spread of the virus. The infection rate across the U.S. has been increasing drastically since the beginning of the pandemic with minimal signs of subsiding. COVID-19 outbreaks have taken place in cities large and small ranging from hotspots in major metropolitan areas like New York City and Los Angeles to small rural towns in Iowa and North Dakota. Unfortunately, even nine months after the initial surge of COVID-19 cases, the United States continues to break daily records outpacing every other country in both confirmed cases and fatalities. In fact, the United States recently reported its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began, and now boasts a 7-day weekly average of about 170,000 new cases per day (with a recent peak of more than 250,000 new cases in one day). As of January 25, 2021 the Johns Hopkins COVID Resource Center recorded 130,485 new cases of COVID-19, along with 1,769 new deaths. The United States now stands at over 25,734,127 total confirmed cases and 429,758 total deaths, leading all countries in both categories.

Although the spread of COVID-19 across the United States has been well documented, we have still yet to see the entirety of the pandemic's effects on our social institutions and population. Despite the vast amount of media coverage on the pandemic, there is still a dearth of information on the disproportionate effects this pandemic is having on vulnerable populations. Recent studies have shown that people of color are currently being hospitalized and are dying at a much greater rate than their white counterparts. Organizations like the CDC acknowledge that greater vulnerability for people of color is likely a cause of discrimination within the healthcare system, lack of access to accurate medical information, and other societal factors such as housing and workplace insecurity.

As the pandemic rages on, it is likely that communities of color and institutions predominately populated by people of color will continue to be ravaged by this virus with little recourse. Even as the data grows and researchers seek to advocate for better health outcomes for communities of color, there are still large segments of the population whose health and welfare are overlooked and deemed secondary in nature. One group that has been particularly endangered by the nation’s poor response to the pandemic are the millions of people incarcerated in the United States federal prisons, jails, and immigrant detention centers. Due to the overcrowded nature and unsanitary conditions, inmates and staff are put at risk of contracting and spreading the virus everyday. On top of that, minimal access to adequate healthcare services further exacerbate this problem. Recent data and reports have revealed that the prison population has already been gravely affected by this virus and that they continue to live in deplorable conditions even as we experience one of worst public health crises the world has ever seen.

The United States of Incarceration

One very troubling, but commonly known, fact about the United States is that it has more people incarcerated per capita than any other country in the world. According to the CDC, on average an estimated 2.1 million U.S. adults are housed within approximately 5,000 correctional and detention facilities on any given day. In addition, the people incarcerated per capita are vastly overrepresented by people of color, with African-Americans bearing the greatest brunt of the mass incarceration machine that is the United States government. When pairing these alarming incarceration statistics with the fact that the United States now has close to 15 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, ICU bed shortages, and a lack of first responders, one can see the dire situation that comes into view for the millions of people incarcerated in United States detention centers.

Overpacked prison cells, as well as limited beds, medical supplies, and staff, have led to overwhelming numbers of cases at these facilities with no signs of slowing. The spread of COVID-19 has been so highly contagious in correctional institutions that it has now accounted for over 430,000 confirmed cases among inmates and staff at reporting facilities. Many of the issues associated with the spread of COVID-19 in these facilities, as stated in a CDC report, are a direct result of overcrowding, lack of institutional protocols and resources. According to the CDC report “crowded dormitories, shared lavatories, limited medical supplies [and] continual introduction and transport of newly incarcerated persons in multi person vehicles" has led to some of the worst circumstances for trying to contain the Coronavirus in federal facilities.

This past year, more than ever, has revealed the inhumane conditions that millions of people are subject to every day in America's prison system. These haphazard conditions in these facilities are being amplified ten-fold by the rise of the deadly Coronavirus and are now threatening thousands of lives behind bars everyday. This worldwide pandemic has not only revealed the United States' inability to preserve the quality of life for the average citizen, but it has clearly exposed the blatant and persistent health and human rights issues at the core of America’s criminal justice system. The stories outlined in inmate testimonials and in reports across the nation demonstrate how prisoner's health and welfare continue to be ignored and how the already dangerous conditions in these facilities have been easily exacerbated by the pandemic - placing millions of people into dire, life threatening situations.

As early as March 2020, the New York Times reported that over 200 prisoners and guards had already contracted the virus. Month after month, additional reports came out detailing the horrid conditions across New York City jails. One of the main perpetrators in New York City was the infamous Rikers Island Jails. In detailed interviews with the New York Times, inmates reported having to make their own soap and disinfectant materials to wipe down common areas. Inmates also described their living conditions throughout the pandemic as people were sleeping on concrete floors packed as closely together as two feet apart making social distancing impossible.

"It took two days to get a bed. I had to lie on the floor in intake with about seven other people, not within 6 feet of each other, but 6 inches. Two days of that on a concrete floor. Very unsanitary, no one was taking precautions, no one had masks, no wiping down with antibacterial cleaning supplies."

- The New York Times

The crisis taking place at Rikers Island was not an isolated incident. Around the same time in early March, the Gothamist reported that prisoners in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, and the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan were facing similar life-threatening issues. One inmate interviewed in this article outlined the dire conditions by stating that while at MCC he "hadn't showered for more than two weeks, and that he and his cellmates [didn't] have hot water or soap to wash their hands." In further confirmation of these egregious claims, reporter Chris Hayes of MSNBC tweeted that there was "no hand sanitizer or soap" at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Although New York state facilities have been the most highly publicized, they are not the only correctional facilities gaining attention for their mishandling of COVID-19 outbreaks. In early November, the Los Angeles Times reported on the massive outbreaks within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation all across the state of California. Some of the most recent numbers include 900 confirmed prisoner cases at one facility (within a two-week span), and a total of over 77,000 confirmed cases of guards, nurses, and administrative staff throughout the prison system. Despite numerous reports of haphazard living conditions within these facilities there still seem to be prisoners begging for support eight and nine months after their initial pleas. One inmate penned an email to the California Department of Corrections stating the following:

“Officers, nurses and even doctors only wear masks when it is convenient...and the only time it is convenient for them is when the facility has visitors.”

- The Los Angeles Times

Throughout the pandemic it has been very difficult to get accurate data on vulnerable populations - and the prison population in the United States is no different. Since the beginning of the pandemic, inmates' cries for help have fallen on deaf ears and resulted in minimal changes to protect their safety and welfare. Despite reports of widespread outbreaks and violations, there has been no way of documenting the total number of cases and deaths occurring behind bars making it even more difficult for advocates, family members and concerned citizens to demand change in these facilities.

Capturing Nationwide Data

In an attempt to combat this lack of information, various organizations like the UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program, The Marshall Project, and the Prison Policy Institutehave been working diligently to gather and report on Coronavirus outbreaks in jails andvprisons. In particular, projects like the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project(led by Professor Sharon Dolovich and Aaron Littman at UCLA Law) are currently scraping information from state correctional department websites and invoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request access to COVID-19 data. Without this hard work of demanding access to records by the UCLA COVID-19 Project, none of this information would have come to light and many more prisoners would have gone unheard, sick, and otherwise neglected by our federal system.

The UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project has now created the nation's most comprehensive dataset of COVID-19 outbreaks among incarcerated populations. Since the creation of their publicly available datasets, there has been a mass outpouring of people advocating for early releases and better medical treatment for incarcerated people across the United States. In an attempt to add to this remarkable work by UCLA, our team at RomoGIS has managed to put together the first nationwide map documenting the COVID-19 outbreaks in prison and jail facilities.

Building a Nationwide Map

Following the groundwork laid by researchers at UCLA, we began to build our own map by sifting through the vast amount of data and geo-locating all of the nationwide facilities. At first, this task proved very difficult because many of these federal facilities did not disclose information about the number of inmates, let alone the number of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19. Furthermore, since most of these facilities are federally owned, finding basic information such as common addresses and facility names also proved very difficult due to the clandestine nature of these operations. However, by combining the data provided by UCLA with some of our own diligent research, our team was able to map and report on over 1000 facilities across the nation.

In an exploratory analysis of the data it is clear that prisoners are being disproportionately affected by the virus at an overwhelming rate in practically every state across the country. This data depicts a grim outlook for prisoners as outbreaks continue to grow across the U.S. and thrive in the prison and jail facilities. In addition, with only a small portion of facilities actively reporting data, it is still very difficult to understand the full impact this virus is having on the prison population.

Using tools available through ESRI's ArcGIS Online platform we were able to create a nationwide map recording nearly 350,000 confirmed cases in the prison's population and nearly 80,000 confirmed cases within the prison staff population. The resulting maps demonstrate how detention centers are acting as super spreader locations for the virus and infecting prisoners and staff at an alarming rate. It is clear that prisoners are being disproportionately affected by the virus while prison staff cases only account for small portion of the overall infections and deaths.

In order to allow users greater access to the data our team built an interactive mapping dashboard to showcase the total numbers from every reporting facility. The interactive dashboard allows users to click on specific facilities to learn more about the reported number of cases, testing results and deaths at a particular location. The dashboard also allows users to filter the data by state and county to generate quick statistics for a specific region. These filters and actions were implemented to help users easily access the data and create quick visualizations to help support ongoing research and advocacy efforts in the regions most affected by this catastrophe. The goal of this mapping project is to help bring greater awareness to this issue and provide accurate data to the advocates, concerned family members and friends who fear for the health and safety of incarcerated people.

Covid-19 has brought awareness to many issues of inequality in America, ranging from a much needed universal health care system to a more robust medical infrastructure to battle virus outbreaks for vulnerable populations. America’s prison system, like so many other institutions, has been challenged by the virus and exposed for what it really is - an unsustainable and inhumane system that places peoples' health, welfare and well-being at risk every single day. Inmates’ safety and welfare is crucial to conquering the spread of the virus.

These individuals deserve human rights and safety regardless of their prior convictions; especially at a time where the harsh realities of this pandemic highlight the inhumane system of the prison industrial complex. Without proper access to hygienic and safety equipment incarcerated persons will continue to be causalities of the flawed and discriminatory (in)justice system of the United States.


A very big thanks to all contributors Hermes Chavez, Jordyn Bankston, Kakoli Dutta, and Toni Romo. View the original article here.

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