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The Pandemic Exposes The Shared Fates Of The Jailed And The Jailer

Incarcerated people, corrections officers, and their families and communities are bound together by the threat of a deadly and fast-moving disease. The sooner we recognize this, and take decisive action, the more lives we will save.

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

On Saturday, March 28, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported the first known death of an incarcerated person from COVID-19. Mr. Patrick Jones, 49 years old, was serving a 27-year sentence for possession of crack cocaine when he died in a local hospital near the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) in Oakdale, Louisiana, 9 days after complaining of a persistent cough. Within days of Mr. Jones’ death, 60 residents of FCI Oakdale were in quarantine. A day earlier, the New York Daily News had reported that Corrections Officer Quincey Simpson, an 18-year veteran of the New York City Department of Corrections, had died of the same disease. By the end of March, 137 staff at Mr. Simpson’s place of work on Rikers Island had tested positive and COVID-19 cases among people who live and work in U.S. jails or prisons were being confirmed in at least 17 states. 

Though Mr. Jones and Mr. Simpson lived a nation apart and spent much of their last two decades on opposite sides of America’s deeply dysfunctional carceral system, their untimely deaths point to how profoundly the lives of those living and working in U.S. jails and prisons are intertwined. In the context of COVID-19, achieving appropriate quarantine for incarcerated people experiencing symptoms of infection necessitates professional and timely officer involvement: to facilitate a change in housing, provide the patient with information, and ensure their continued access to meals, hygiene, connection to social support on the outside, and — perhaps most importantly — compassion. Protecting the health of correctional officers and others in the correctional workforce, including healthcare providers and clergy, similarly requires that residents report symptoms when they arise, practice social distancing to the extent possible, and undertake all additional measures at their disposal to slow the spread of infection. 

Incarcerated people, their families, and their advocates have an additional stake in the fight to keep COVID-19 well-managed in corrections. If the rapid spread of infection produces significant staff shortages or labor actions by powerful correctional officer unions, it is incarcerated people — as it has always been — who will suffer the fallout. Prolonged lockdowns that are unlikely to help slow the epidemic; inadequate access to healthcare, visitation, other avenues of social support; and reduced rehabilitative programming and reentry planning are likely to follow any significant decline in the correctional workforce. This is far from a remote possibility. On Monday, the Washington State Department of Corrections launched a “rapid staff hiring” effort, writing: “with… COVID-19 expected to affect the Department of Corrections’ staffing levels… the department is implementing an expedited hiring and training process” for correctional officer positions. 

This is not surprising. COVID-19 threatens an occupational health crisis among correctional workers likely to be exceeded only by what is already playing out in our overcrowded hospital and EMS workforces. Correctional officers — who number in the hundreds of thousands nationwide — are already experiencing an epidemic of stress-related health conditions. The men and women working inside our jails and prisons have disproportionately high rates of chronic illness and behavioral health problems compared even to community law enforcement officers. Suicide, tragically, is increasingly common among those in the correctional workforce (and remains a leading cause of death among incarcerated people). These factors render many in the correctional workforce more susceptible both to infection and to adverse outcomes, including death, once infected with COVID-19. 

COVID-19 threatens the lives of incarcerated people and correctional professionals alike to an extent unparalleled in history; dramatic and immediate action on both these populations’ behalves is urgently needed. To mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in our jails and prisons, incarcerated people and correctional staff must work together and those of us in the community must support their efforts. 

Tragically, decades of dehumanizing people who are convicted of crimes — in correctional institutions and in our public discourse — has created an us versus them mentality that is difficult to break. Still, it must be broken, and urgently. A virus has no regard for uniform — whether the well-ironed, military cut of an officer’s dress or a resident’s oversized denims. 

In my organization, Amend, we’ve seen over and over the ways in which the health of everyone connected to a prison or jail is intertwined: American prison culture creates enormous stress and damage to all involved. The ongoing surge of COVID-19 into these environments makes that connection unavoidable. There are a few steps prison reform advocates, correctional officer unions, and correctional and public health leaders can take to better protect people living and working in our jails and prisons at this uniquely challenging time. 

First, we can dramatically decrease the number of people behind bars, which reduces the population at risk and makes social distancing more feasible. Early release should be prioritized for those who have served most of their sentences, and especially for those who are medically fragile or ill with other diseases. California recently announced the planned release of 3,500 residents over the coming 60 days, a laudable effort. But even that – a 3% population reduction in a system operating over capacity – is unlikely to prevent widespread transmission and adverse outcomes among residents and staff. We must think bigger, including finally acknowledging that many people convicted of violent crimes who are serving overly punitive sentences can be safely returned to their communities.  

Second, prisons should attempt to develop “mini-communities” of residents and correctional staff with required social distancing between communities (e.g. using staggered recreation and meal times) and encouraged social distancing within communities (e.g. broad and consistent education and messaging around maintaining 6 feet of interpersonal space whenever possible). This would allow officials to reduce harm within facilities by identifying and isolating COVID-19 cases and imposing 14-day quarantines for mini-communities with confirmed cases. Importantly: facility-wide lockdowns will not achieve these public health goals; changes will work only if staff and incarcerated people work together and understand what is happening and why through deliberate communication from medical staff.   

Third, prison systems with the capacity to produce critical protective resources such as surgical masks, soap, and cleaning supplies should immediately begin to do so, and should supply correctional systems that do not have the capacity. Neither correctional staff nor incarcerated people can engage in a common effort to mitigate the epidemic without these resources and many prison systems can begin producing them immediately using existing “prison industries” or job training infrastructure. Critically, people employed in these efforts must be paid a living, community wage. 

Doing what’s necessary to avert catastrophic spread of COVID-19 runs against established culture in many facilities. But the costs to everyone impacted by these systems — residents, workers, the friends and families of each, and their communities — are too high to ignore public health guidance now. It is almost a certainty that Mr. Jones and Mr. Simpson have already been joined by others in their same perilous circumstances; only the reporting is slow in coming. The fates of incarcerated people, corrections officers, and their families and communities are bound together by the threat of a deadly and fast-moving disease. The sooner we recognize this, and take decisive action, the more lives we will save.

Cyrus Ahalt, MPP, is Chief Program Officer of Amend at UCSF, a health-focused correctional culture change program that partners with departments of corrections for staff training, policy review, and research and evaluation to significantly reduce and fundamentally transform incarceration in the U.S. He has written extensively on a range of topics at the intersection of public health and criminal justice reform.