As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across communities in the United States, many have discussed at length the catastrophe that would be if jails and prisons were infiltrated with the virus. The focus of such discussions has frequently been on the conditions of Rikers Island, a correctional institution in New York at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of people infected with the virus inside of Riker’s Island, including both staff and inmates, had surpassed 650 individuals at last count, which was weeks ago. It has likely got much worse since that time given the conditions inside the facility.
What may surprise people, especially in Tarrant County, is that
Prisons and jails naturally provide a dangerous environment for the spread of a deadly virus. Individuals who are incarcerated, and even the staff members working in those facilities, are simply incapable of social distancing or the multitude of other measures that the general public may take to stay safe from the virus. Proponents of criminal justice reform and bringing an end to the era of mass incarceration have cited the deadly pandemic as an opportunity to finally confront the dramatic growth of prison populations.
It is time to finally understand that the health and well-being of all Americans, including those that are incarcerated, are interrelated with the health and safety of our communities at large. Mass incarceration has become a public health hazard. Its effect can be seen here in Tarrant County, Texas. With the number of cases likely to continue to be on the rise, addressing the deadly pandemic in American prisons will certainly require a self-evaluation as to why the United States has the largest rate of incarceration of any country in the world.
Solutions for this crisis range from mass release of nondangerous inmates to providing early release programs to even avoiding arrests for nonserious offenses. Governors across the United States, including Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, have cited the need to begin releasing some of the incarcerated population to slow the rate of infection in densely populated areas. Texas could and should follow suit.
In fact, there are individuals incarcerated at Fort Worth FMC and other federal prisons who are eligible for release in just a few months yet are essentially being held hostage by the virus in their prison. Home confinement is an appropriate remedy in such situations.
Beginning to address and solve this crisis first requires a fundamental human understanding, that the most vulnerable and susceptible population in the United States may in fact be those that are incarcerated. And although many refuse to see it this way, their health and safety is intertwined with our own and they are deserving of a healthy and safety environment during these distressful times.