Opinion: What about the prisoners who won’t get out?
- Lovisa Stannow
- May 1, 2020
- Houston Chronicle
The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging American communities — and few places are being hit harder than prisons and jails. Massive outbreaks of the disease have struck scores of facilities — and with so few tests being administered behind bars, the problem is undoubtedly far worse than is known. As the virus continues to spread in rural areas, which are home to many prisons, the curve is likely to keep going up for some time.
There’s still time to mitigate this crisis. The best way to protect prisoners from the coronavirus is to release them. Cramming prisons and jails with millions of people — many of whom no longer pose a threat to their communities, or never did in the first place — has always been a disaster. But now, in a pandemic, our criminal justice system seems especially arbitrary and cruel — and there’s powerful momentum to bring people home.
Yet at the same time, releasing people isn’t a sufficient response to the pandemic. For one thing, prisoners who have been convicted of a violent crime are highly unlikely to be let go. Take a prisoner I’ll refer to as Andrew, who is serving time for a 2008 robbery and whom I have gotten to know through his courageous advocacy to end sexual abuse in detention. Last December, Andrew suffered a heart attack during a beating at the hands of other prisoners. He was rushed to a hospital, where he spent three days in the ICU, receiving care that saved his life.
The least safe place for Andrew right now is prison. But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott likely sealed Andrew’s fate when he issued an executive order blocking the release of anyone convicted of a violent crime. The governor’s order fails to take into account that many people “age out” of violent criminal behavior, and that a prior conviction is not necessarily a predictor of future behavior. Nor does it look at a person’s experiences behind bars. Andrew is a survivor of multiple rapes in prison, and his willingness to speak out against the rampant abuse in the Texas system made him a target for retaliation from corrections officials. Indeed, the punishment meted out to Andrew has been so severe — the sexual harassment, the long stints in solitary, the constant and unnecessary transfers — that it is not safe to give his real name, even though he has given his permission for me to do so. And now, after years of mistreatment — and just four months removed from a massive heart attack — he will have to survive a pandemic in the custody of a state that has never cared about his well-being.
Liberal states like California and New York are hardly doing a better job on prison safety. For all the accolades that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has received for his pandemic response, he has failed to reduce facility overcrowding. The tragedy at Rikers Island has made the consequences of his inaction abundantly clear. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has released 3,500 prisoners. That may sound like a lot, but on average it’s a mere 100 people per state prison — barely a dent in crowded facilities — and all of those people were set to be released anyway.
Local officials have been far bolder. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the largest jail network in the country, has reduced the people in its custody by 25 percent. Some Texas counties are aggressively pushing for the release of vulnerable people from jail — but opposition from the governor’s office has stymied their efforts.
But the lack of political will to order the mass releases we need doesn’t have to doom the effort to slow the virus’ spread behind bars. Corrections officials must step up — particularly prison wardens. A warden has an extraordinary amount of control over daily life in a prison. Their remit includes everything from keeping kitchens stocked to making sure cellblocks are sanitized. They can monitor everyone in their facility, officers and prisoners alike. If a prison is a small city, the warden is the mayor, with near absolute power.
The merits of this top-heavy system can be debated, but what it means is that right now, during a pandemic, the steps taken by wardens are of life-and-death importance. So far, many simply are not doing enough. My organization hears daily from prisoners who can’t get soap, aren’t getting vital medicine and continue to be transferred between facilities even now. Communicating with the outside world — never easy to begin with in a detention facility — is getting increasingly difficult. Visitation has been canceled and staff are reducing prisoners’ ability to send and receive mail.
While social distancing and isolation are clearly necessary, too many corrections leaders are going about these practices in a way that is needlessly punitive. The tool that officials are using is called a lock down — an extreme measure that is usually deployed during security breaches. The term means something quite different in prison than in cities. Prisoners are cooped up in their cells, sometimes for all but 30 minutes a day, during which they must find the time to shower, get some fresh air and call home — provided that a phone is available and can be wiped down.
These draconian measures are profoundly harmful, and they can be avoided. The primary vectors for the coronavirus in prison are staff, who bring it in from the community. What wardens ought to be doing is assigning their officers to specific housing units and drastically limiting staff movement within the facility. This approach will protect prisoners as well as staff themselves, who have been thrust into the role of a front-line crisis responder.
Prison leadership must also do more — much more — to give prisoners opportunities to connect with their loved ones and with advocates on the outside. The extreme isolation that comes with a lockdown puts people who are locked up at great risk for sexual violence and intimate partner violence — just as it does in the community. By establishing free and confidential phone services to outside advocates — and repurposing attorney rooms so that they can be used by trained trauma counselors — wardens can ensure that prisoners get the crisis support they need now more than ever.
Institutions everywhere are adapting to life in a pandemic. So, too, must prisons. The best solution would be for governors to start emptying their prisons of people — to treat detention facilities like other crowded public spaces. Indeed, this country should be looking to incarcerate the fewest number of people possible at all times. But until we make that happen, wardens must do a better job keeping prisoners healthy and safe.
Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International.
Originally posted here