HSU’s Formerly Incarcerated Students Club hosted a webinar on March 5 to highlight the effects of COVID-19 in prisons and ways in which those effects could be mitigated. The Formerly Incarcerated Students Club also works with Project Rebound, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated students return to life outside prison and advocates for solutions to the United States’ high prison rates.
With incarceration rates being as high as they are in the US, prisons can be a prime breeding ground for COVID-19, and often are left without much in the way of support or resources to help combat it. This lack of support can greatly endanger the lives of many people in prison who are highly vulnerable.
The state and the CDC both have implemented guidelines for ensuring that prisons remain safe, but these guidelines are often not nearly enough to ensure that people are actually secured. COVID rates in state prisons are often significantly higher than the rates seen in the state as a whole. Considering that at least 17% of inmates are over 45 and are at increased risk of severe symptoms, this lack of security can be a death sentence for people whose crimes are relatively minor.
According to Jazmin Delgado, President of the FISC and student support for Project Rebound, the responsibility for this comes primarily down to states failing to properly implement safety measures in state prisons. While prisons may test staff and inmates, only half of US states actually require prison staff to wear a mask, and most do not stock adequate soap and disinfectant for inmates in accordance with CDC guidelines. This comes partially from a lack of resources, but also a lack of effort.
“State facilities are either A) not implementing these guidelines,” Delgado said. “Or B) not implementing them to the fullest of their abilities.”
Ultimately, a large part of the problem is that prisons are simply not built to allow for proper social distancing and safety measures. Prisons in the US have people constantly coming in and out, both staff and inmates. Additionally, people are packed so close together that the only way for them to properly isolate themselves would be solitary confinement, which is itself deeply undesirable and discourages inmates from revealing if they have symptoms or not. This has led to large spikes in the numbers of cases of COVID-19 in state prisons, which can become spikes in the surrounding areas when correctional staff return home later.
According to Project Rebound’s Jeremy Teitz, these guidelines are almost impossible to implement and getting harder with rising prison populations.
“How are these guidelines that are already near impossible to follow going to be followed when jail populations are increasing?” Tietz said. “Jails aren’t made for social distancing, and I’m not sure how the CDC thought jails would implement these guidelines.”
Incarceration in the US is a problem that is getting worse. Project Rebound hopes to assist students who have served prison sentences and to advocate for solutions to this continually rising issue, such as lowering sentencing for nonviolent crimes and allowing for individuals to get their felony records expunged and reenter the workforce. In the words of Project Rebounds Program Coordinator and HSU Graduate Tony Wallin, this is an issue that affects everyone, not just people who are currently imprisoned.
“We’re at this weird time where things have exploded and you don’t see people who aren’t affected,” Wallin said “One in three people have a criminal record. There are the same amount of people who have criminal records as have college degrees.”