We wanted to make sure you saw this New York Times opinion piece by Michelle Alexander describing the lethal emergency facing people incarcerated during the COVID-19 pandemic – who are particularly vulnerable to contracting the virus and very unlikely to receive adequate healthcare. The article thoughtfully calls for collective compassion for individuals who are incarcerated during this lethal pandemic, and highlights the immediate call to reduce prison populations to help prevent the further spread of the virus. Alexander also shares a letter from an incarcerated person who is currently inside the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio–a facility with one of the largest Coronavirus outbreaks in the country–that details the conditions and day-to-day battle of the people trying to survive COVID-19 behind bars.
An excerpt from the letter reads:
“I walked to the back of the dorm today to check on my friend. He is confined to his bed by Covid-19. Weakness, fatigue, intense vertigo and difficulty breathing allow him to leave his bed area only to defecate (he has to urinate in a drinking jug) or an occasional shower. It has been two weeks now. I have somehow become his nurse. I cook and help with laundry, homework and whatever else he needs. He was asleep. I was relieved. I finally had a moment of rest. These last two corona-months have been crazy. I have been sick, helping the sick, or both.
“I struggled to understand what she [the nurse] meant by “volunteer.” The officers are not only paid but paid extra for their efforts. I suspect that if the pay were to stop, they would stop. She waxed passionate when she talked about how some officers had to handle garbage (a job normally reserved for inmates). That sight affected her deeply. She was impressed by people who would willingly handle garbage for a short period of time for $22 an hour but considered it normal for prisoners to do it every day for $22 a month. The conversation saddened me because the nurse meant well. She was sincere. She was one of the good ones…
“She [the nurse] just feels this way about prisoners. The social category of prisoner qualifies one as undeserving of a decent civilized life. Herein lies the cause of the profound spread of the virus throughout the institution: the collective sense of the undeservingness of prisoners. A vaccination would be nice. Proper P.P.E. would help. But the real cure for our woes is an affirmation of the inalienable entitlement to life for people in prisons and jails.”
The article reports that majority of voters believe that safely reducing the number of people who are incarcerated can help combat the crisis, however, “most states are responding like Ohio [in refusing to release people from prisons], even though national polling indicates that 66 percent of likely voters support measures to reduce prison overcrowding in response to the coronavirus, including a clear majority who support various forms of decarceration.”
Alexander ends the piece with this:
“If we, as communities and as a nation, fail to free people in this pandemic because we’d rather risk their lives than allow them to come home earlier than our criminal injustice system originally planned, we should consider ourselves guilty of utter disregard for human life.”