Covid Operations: We’re all in this together? 7 of the 10 largest Covid-19 clusters in the U.S. are jails and prisons. Do not look away.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, 7 of the 10 largest Covid-19 clusters in the United States are prisons and jails: Marion Correctional Institution, Marion, Ohio, 2,168 cases; Pickaway Correctional Institution, Scioto Township, Ohio, 1,632 cases; Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois, 812 cases; Cummins Unit prison, Grady, Arkansas, 695 cases; Neuse Correctional Institution, Goldsboro, N.C., 457 cases; Parnall Correctional Facility, Jackson, Michigan, 232 cases; Stateville Correctional Center, Cresthill, Illinois, 191 cases; for a grand total of 6187 reported cases, and that was yesterday. The numbers continue to rise. (For example, on Sunday, Marion Correctional reported 1828 cases among the prison population, 73% of the prisoners. As of yesterday, the number was 2168, a 6 percent increase in three days.) As of this afternoon, 26 states have fewer than 6100 reported cases. Really, what else is there to say? We made this particular mess, this is who we are, we built our own archipelago of death and now we are told we are all in “this” together. Do not look away.

In the past two days, two reports have come out, one concerning the certain catastrophe built into U.S. jails; the other concerning the certain catastrophe built into prisons and jails across the globe. While horrifying, none of this new or unknown.

According to a report by the ACLU and researchers from Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee, a failure, or better refusal, to reduce jail populations will result in an additional 100,000 to close to 200,000 deaths. Why? Overcrowding. “The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — with only 4 percent of the world’s population but 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated population …. Given the overcrowding and substandard conditions in most U.S. jails and prisons, standard public health interventions to `flatten the curve’ and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are simply not feasible. Most are unable to allow for six feet of social distancing among incarcerated people and staff and lack the facilities that allow for the recommended hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Moreover, the health care available in our nation’s jails is chronically substandard, further fueling the growth of the pandemic and increasing mortality rates among those infected while in jail …. Jails, in particular, also act as vectors for infection in their surrounding communities. Jails are revolving doors for incarceration and face 10.7 million admissions a year3. That’s an admission every three seconds in America.” None of this, absolutely none of this, is new or surprising. It’s bad, but it’s not startling.

According to a report issued today by Penal Reform International, with the Thailand Institute of Justice, what’s true of U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers is true as well for much of the world’s population. The report opens: “Over 11 million people are imprisoned globally, the highest number yet. Around 102 countries reported prison occupancy levels of over 110 per cent. The magnitude of issues and associated human rights violations stemming from over-imprisonment became clear in efforts to prevent and contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons.” Where in the incarcerated world are the women? In toxic, overcrowded, overly punitive, misogynistic, even femicidal prisons:  “Almost ten years since their adoption, the UN Bangkok Rules on women prisoners and non-custodial alternatives for women remain largely unimplemented. The global female prison population doubled in twenty years, yet justice systems and institutions remain largely designed for a homogeneous male population …. People who have not been found guilty of a crime outnumber convicted people in prison in at least 46 countries. Minorities, foreign nationals, women and the poorest people of our societies are all more likely to be detained on remand …. Prohibition-based drug policies have driven prison populations up. Over 2 million people are in prison for drug-related offences, 83 per cent of them serving a sentence for drug possession for personal use. A larger proportion of women than men are imprisoned for drug offences.” The report goes on to detail the particularities of abuse for the fastest growing prison population, globally as well as in the world’s leading incarcerator and leading proponent of incarceration as the only way forward. 

PRI’s Executive Director, Florian Irminger, summed up the four horsemen of today’s apocalypse, which is the apocalypse of the past four decades: “Overcrowding, lack of basic healthcare, limited access to clean water, inhumane living conditions.” None of this is new. It’s bad, but it’s not surprising. Overcrowding kills, overcrowding always has killed. As prison suicide and self-harm rates of the last four decades has shown, overcrowding morbidity has a woman’s face and body.  

We are told, and many of us would want to believe, that we are in this together. Together would mean that one doesn’t get to choose the outer boundaries of we. If we are in this together, let’s together end the overcrowding of prisons, jails, immigration centers, juvenile detention. Let’s not forget refugee camps: “As of May 2019, 90 per cent of the 73,000 people living in the al-Hol camp in Syria were women and children.” Wherever you are, local organizations and coalitions are organizing to empty the cells, immediately, and then to make sure that they are never again stocked with humans treated as so much trash. Reducing, and ending once and for all, overcrowding in carceral spaces is not rocket science. It simply involves all of us being in this together. Please, do not look away.

(Photo Credit: The Guardian/Tannen Maury/EPA) (Infographic Credit: ACLU)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.