Originally published here 

Pandemics affect us all, but not all of us can protect ourselves: COVID-19 has exposed how the health of a society is tied to the health of its most vulnerable members: a contagious virus thrives, where proximity, weak health and interconnection permits its spread. Prisons are the epitome of a perfect microcosm.

Interconnected through staff to its surroundings, prison cannot be isolated from COVID-19, nor can the communities, which house these prisons, protect themselves from the virus spreading. As staff and correctional officers come and go, they are bound to expose inmates.

Mass incarceration causes overcrowding. the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world, both in proportion and total numbers. This mass incarceration has its roots in the 1980s war on drugs. This slowly evolved into a criminalization of poverty: police are used not just to uphold public safety, but to redress problems related to medical and economic problems. Arrests disproportionally target marginalized populations, the vast majority of whom are caged for nonviolent offenses.

Prison capacity has not expanded proportionally. Thus, U.S. mass incarceration ensured that prisons are stacked beyond capacity at times, but most certainly to the point of interdicting any social distancing. Even when at capacity, they are only required to provide 5X5-foot space for each person. Depending on the design of the prison, it could be rows of bunkbeds in a warehouse style with no way to distance.

Social distancing is not an option, as the visualization below shows.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative. Artist: Mona Chalabi

Overcrowding in prisons is a serious health concern. Over the last few years, the Department of Justice investigated several states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, for the serious harm that overcrowding alone causes to the health of inmates.

Inmates in a dormitory at Staton Correctional Facility Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in Elmore, Alabama, one of the prisons that were investigated for overcrowding. Source AL.Com

The medically vulnerable represent roughly half of the prison population. As the war on drugs increased; prison sentences significantly increased at similar rates. Forty years since the beginning of the war on drugs, one of the consequences of the long prison sentences is an older and medically vulnerable prison population. Among the 2.3 million of Americans behind bars, 400,000 are over the age of 50. Often, they have underlying health issues.

An estimated half the prison population has chronic conditions that render them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Prisons are not prepared for epidemics: medical facilities at prisons are not equipped to handle a pandemic. Hygiene is poor, and, prisons ban hand sanitizer, as it contains alcohol.

COVID-19 has already broken out in mass in prison. How badly prisoners are affected by COVID depends on from where they hail. In some facilities, between 75 to 80% of the prisoners tested positive for the virus. Others have not been testing, either due to lack of tests, or due to “sustained transmission:” due to the denseness of prisons, the spread of COVID is just assumed. Only patients, who require hospitalization, will be tested.

Deaths and infections are rising: As of June 9th, 2020, 43,622 people in prison had tested positive for and 520 prisoners have died from COVID-19. The rise in death among American behind bars has been five percent per week.

In short, COVID-19 has turned mass incarceration into a life or death matter