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COVID-19 in U.S. Jails and Prisons

Article by Rana Sahar,

COVID-19 has reached prisons and jails in the United States, raising concerns that overcrowding and inadequate health care leave incarcerated individuals virtually defenseless against the rapid spread of the virus. This week, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety launched the COVID-19 Furlough Review Panel, which will authorize early release for a limited number of qualifying individuals who successfully complete a review process. But the ACLU’s Louisiana chapter has criticized this response as inadequate, noting that only a small fraction of the state’s prison population is even eligible for potential release. Health professionals have called for releasing “as many people as possible” to stop the spread of the virus.

The Marshall Project issued a report documenting that jails and prisons are particularly ill-equipped to manage infection control given crowded and unsanitary conditions, where soap can be unavailable and even alcohol-based hand sanitizer is often considered contraband. With an aging prison population more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions than the general public, older incarcerated adults are in particular danger given the risk of more serious health complications. Furthermore, jails and prisons may not be properly treating or diagnosing COVID-19 patients: an individual incarcerated at Riker’s Island published an article in The Guardian describing how conditions are poor, people are already showing COVID-19 symptoms, and significant barriers to the most baseline treatment remain.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners requires that facilities meet health and sanitary requirements. Inhumane conditions exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis and slow responses to the growing rate of infection in prison populations will be deadly. Public officials should listen to health experts and abide by UN guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. They should ensure that incarcerated individuals who get sick have access to effective treatment. And they should act fast to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prison—by prioritizing the release of prisoners and by protecting the health and safety of those who remain incarcerated.



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