Coronavirus inside prisons doesn't just affect inmates. It affects communities of color

“We can expect even more racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths if we allow the virus to spread freely throughout jails.”
Image: Prisoner with handcuffs in cell
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By Patrice Gaines

Ignoring incarcerated Americans during a public health crisis could greatly increase the number of inmates of color and correctional officers of color who die from COVID-19, according to an American Civil Liberties Union study.

Both inmates of color and prison employees of color have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

As the outbreak spreads, families, organizations and politicians have been calling on the federal and state governments to quickly reduce the prison population by releasing people early and by only jailing people for serious offenses. Advocates want early releases for low-level offenders, pregnant women with little time left to serve, older people and those with compromised immune systems.

There are 2.2 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, and people of color, who make up 37 percent of the U.S. population, comprise 67 percent of the prison population, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy center.

“Most correctional staff are also people of color, who will return to families and communities of color while potentially carrying the virus,’ the ACLU study says. “We can expect even more racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths if we allow the virus to spread freely throughout jails.”

Meanwhile, families with loved ones who are incarcerated worry about the unhealthy conditions and the inability to social-distance in crowded cells and facilities.

Detroit teen Duan Bradley is afraid his father, who has less than two years left on his eight-year sentence, will die as a result of the virus before he can make it home.

"He told me it’s impossible to keep his hands clean, they can't keep 6- feet distance from one another and six people sleep in the same room," said Duan, 17, who did not want to say why his father is serving time in a Michigan prison, but offered, "It wasn't something real bad, something he should die for."

As public support for her mother’s clemency grows, Miquelle West is worried she might not make it out of prison alive.

"I had a huge fear. I couldn’t communicate with her. I didn’t know what was going on,” West, a Los Angeles fashion stylist, said. Her mother, Michelle, now 58, has been incarcerated since 1993, convicted of drug conspiracy charges and a drug-related murder she maintains she knew nothing about.

“I don’t want my mom to not get out because of something she can't control -- this virus,” West said, adding that she is feeling slightly better now that she’s been able to speak to her mother. "She's feeling good -- and not coughing."

Most prisons have stopped visitors and volunteer programs from entering. Some institutions have begun testing, others have done very little.

Some lawmakers have sounded the alarm as the public health crisis has worsened.

Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) speaks at the Congressional Black Caucus prebuttal to the State of the Union address in Washington on Feb. 4, 2020.Michael Brochstein / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

"We need some national guidelines," said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, adding that procedures regarding COVID-19 have been "inconsistent from prison to prison."

Bass and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., have written to Attorney General William Barr twice asking for information regarding the Bureau of Prisons' handling of the coronavirus in prisons and among people held in custody. Among Bass' other efforts is a bill she co-sponsored that asks for the release of juveniles in federal facilities.

Bass said she and others also want a halt to the incarceration of suspects for minor offenses.

"Why would you put somebody in a prison where they might get sick -- because they can't make bail? Why put people in prison because they have a minor parole violation?' Bass asked. "Now we have a wave of black and brown folks being ticketed because they are not wearing masks. It makes no sense.”

In response to calls from NBC News, the Bureau of Prisons sent a lengthy statement explaining practices and said, in part, the agency “is carefully monitoring the spread of the COVID-19 virus” and it “ is our highest priority to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities.”

But the danger of contracting the deadly virus continues for inmates.

In North Carolina, a crew from the women's prison in Raleigh continued cleaning state offices at the Department of Public Safety headquarters weeks after the department suspended work release programs over COVID-19 concerns. The prison became home to the second-largest outbreak in the state’s prison system with 90 positive cases a month later.

In New York City, some 1,259 corrections employees have contracted the virus and six have died, along with five other jail employees and two correctional health workers, according to a New York Times article May 20. A majority of the officers in New York City are black and Hispanic. African Americans and other people of color are also at a higher risk for contracting the virus and dying from COVID-19.

As calls to reduce prison populations increase, advocates point to the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Andrea Circle Bear, 30, as one example of how a life could have been saved. Circle Bear, a Cheyenne River Sioux, was sentenced to 26 months for a low-level nonviolent drug crime. She was 8 ½ months pregnant when she contracted the virus at the crowded federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas. Her baby was delivered while she was on a ventilator; Circle Bear died three weeks later.

While Barr has called for the release or home confinement of federal prisoners vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, many federal facilities have not yet complied.

The demand for urgent action has been growing among advocates and groups.

Scott Roberts, the senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns at Color of Change.ACLU

Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, in partnership with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, launched the #ClemencyWorks Campaign, circulating petitions that urge governors to exercise their clemency power to release some of the most vulnerable among those incarcerated, Scott Roberts, the senior director of Criminal Justice Campaigns at Color of Change, said.

More than 70 organizations nationwide have signed onto the #ClemencyWorks Campaign, building movements in their own communities, calling on "DAs, their mayors, sheriffs and judges, locally elected people who have the ability to drastically decarcerate,” Roberts said.

While some states such as Colorado and New Jersey have responded to the concerns by releasing people, critics say systemwide changes have been minuscule.

“Federal prisons are moving at the speed of molasses, if at all. We think we've been effective in releasing about 20,000 people to date,” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy for the ACLU's Justice Division. “And when we look at those people released and why they were incarcerated, we say, ‘why were they there in the first place.’”