The global population sharing one experience is truly highlighting the best and worst of humanity.
Jokes are continuously being made across social media platforms calling physical distancing practices a “personal prison,” but the reality of prisons right now is dramatically worse than the things we laugh about.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons claims they are “carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus” as they “carefully assess how to best ensure the safety of staff, inmates and the public.”
Many people and politicians are backing this statement and saying prisoners are protected, but accounts from prisoners across the country tell a very different story.
Thousands of inmates have been released in these past few weeks, leaving many with a story to tell about the current reality of federal prisons.
We have known for a long time that prisons and jails are unnecessarily populated, and prisoners are unreasonably held for longer than their sentences. This practice is currently making these facilities a breeding ground for COVID-19.
On April 20, The New York Times reported that around three-quarters of the population at an Ohio prison had contracted the virus.
“About one out of five confirmed virus cases in Ohio is now connected with the state’s prison system … as of Sunday, at least 2,400 inmates in the system had tested positive, and seven had died of either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections,” the report said.
One anonymous Oregonian prisoner, highlighted in an article published by The Guardian, said they “can’t believe [they] are still being made to work … washing laundry from hospitals with known cases of the virus.”
This brings up many questions about prison labor, which has long been questioned but little acted upon.
We can assume these laborers are being paid approximately $1 an hour, and that’s a generous estimate.
A 2017 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found the national average for wages paid to incarcerated persons was $0.63 per hour.
They are being forced to work in conditions that are by no means physically distanced; many are forced to buy and therefore ration their own hygiene supplies after work.
Considering the reality of these conditions, the situation is clearly not being as “carefully monitored” as the Bureau of Prisons claims.
In 2017, Harvard Law’s Gali Katznelson wrote an excellent research article exploring the way America views and uses the prison system as opposed to so many other countries.
She uses Germany as an example, showing the respect of humanity that is overflowing from their prisons but seems to be nowhere found in ours.
“In prison, individuals can wear their own clothes, structure their own days, work for pay, study, parent their children in mother-child units, vote and return home occasionally,” Katznelson said. “In these systems, respect for persons, privacy and autonomy are strongly held values.”
In the same article, she shows the contrast of the American prison system, discussing the 80,000 to 100,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, sometimes for upward of 40 years.
While many of us sit in our houses complaining about a lack of in-person social interaction, thousands of people are being held in small cells with absolutely no human connection.
Confined prisoners have been experiencing sometimes years of psychological damage, but now they seem to be the only prisoners protected from the latest threat.
It is a horrifying fact that the most neglected prisoners are now the safest for exactly that reason.
As the “should prisoners vote?” debate is continually brought up in political conversations, the answers we give truly reveal how we think about prisoners.
Even those of us who consider ourselves progressive or open-minded cannot deny the stigmas or discomfort we feel when discussing the rights of inmates.
The U.S. criminal justice system is corrupted in more ways than we can count, but those of us without personal ties to the system tend to ignore and even benefit from these facts.
This pandemic is simply highlighting and forcing us to confront the massive issues we so often avoid out of a simple fear of discomfort.
As we sit “trapped” in our homes, let’s remember to acknowledge and fight for those who go without a voice.