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Jose Saldana understands the kind of harm a pandemic like the coronavirus could pose to incarcerated communities. He’s seen it before. “Unfortunately, the Department of Corrections has a terrible history of adequately addressing health crises in the prison system. They have failed at every occasion that I’ve been incarcerated,” said Saldana. “From HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C, every time they do not respond well to health crises. Their only response is adding more punitive measures and taking away privileges as if that’s the cure for a health crisis.”

Saldana, 66, was incarcerated in New York for more than 30 years and remembers what medical neglect truly looked like inside. Saldana says that when state prisons were experiencing a tuberculosis epidemic, he witnessed how people who were perceived to be sick were placed in isolation with one another without being properly diagnosed. He considers it a hasty and thoughtless protocol that all but guaranteed the spread of the airborne virus. 

“You know, we’ll never know how many men and women died during these prior health crises because of their failure to act appropriately,” said Saldana.

Immediately after his release in 2018, Saldana became a campaign organizer with Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP),  a grassroots organization that advocates on behalf of incarcerated elders, the fastest growing demographic of those inside. Now, as director of RAPP, Saldana has been deeply concerned with what will happen when—not if—coronavirus reaches correctional facilities. Last week, the organization called upon New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release those most vulnerable to the virus immediately, including pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses, compromised immune systems, along with the elderly.

As of Mar. 17, over 4,200 cases of coronavirus have been reported in the United States, of which 68 have resulted in death. Correctional facilities are ripe for the quick spread of the virus due to their notoriously unhygienic conditions, rules and regulations that make some of the basic precautionary measures against the virus next to impossible to achieve, and the overall weak health profile of those who are incarcerated.

“Social distancing” and the separation of those infected with the virus is nearly impossible in such small quarters where incarcerated people are asked to live, eat, and sleep in such close proximity to one another. And given the number of people who cycle in and out of jails—10 million admissions per year in the U.S., with some people going inside more than once—there are plenty of opportunities for the virus to be introduced to incarcerated populations.

Basic hygiene products like soap, toilet paper, and tissues are limited, if available at all. Hand sanitizer, which has become one of the mainstays of coronavirus protection, is contraband in most correctional facilities, despite the fact that incarcerated workers in states like New York have begun producing it for public use.

As a population, incarcerated people already have a poor health profile, which only increases their risk. Reports have found that around 40% of the incarcerated population suffers from chronic ailments. They are almost twice as likely as people in the general population to have high blood pressure and diabetes, conditions that may be exacerbated by the low quality of meals served at prisons and the equally low quality of commissary food that incarcerated people purchase to supplement their diets. HIV is about three times more prevalent in U.S. jails and prisons than in the total U.S. population. For those inside, seeking treatment for chronic conditions like these is already difficult given the price of medical copays—prices that are exorbitant when adjusted for the extremely low wages earned for labor completed in prison.

Apart from those with chronic illnesses, the elderly present with perhaps the gravest concerns, since older people already fare poorly in prison. “The elderly are dying very quickly. Every four days in New York state prison, an elderly person passes away,” says Saldana. “We’re talking about 675, at least 675—since Cuomo took office, and the average age at death is 57 years old. You know, these elderly men and women are already dying at an alarming young age. Another virus, another element, especially one that is projected to target the elderly? This will be devastating.”

For those over 50, even outside of prison, the death rate for the coronavirus hovers around 1.3%, a percentage that spikes up to over 14% for those over 80 years old.

RAPP, Citizen Action of NY, VOCAL-NY, Parole Preparation Project, and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, the organizations that signed onto the letter to Cuomo, are among many advocates that have been sounding an alarm about the dangers incarcerated people will face as the coronavirus rapidly spreads across the country. In Indiana, a coalition of over 100 formerly incarcerated people, prison workers, volunteers, and advocates signed an open letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb urging him to grant those who are most vulnerable to the virus with medical furloughs and approve compassionate release for as many as possible. While furloughs constitute temporary release for those with medical conditions, compassionate release is an early termination of one’s sentence.  

While early release out of confined and potentially dangerous spaces is being championed among advocates as the most effective coronavirus prevention plan, groups like Worth Rises are also adamant that plans for early release are not accompanied by other burdensome measures.

“Decarceral solutions must not be implemented with the use of bail bonds or electronic monitoring, like some public health officials have suggested,” writes Worth Rises, a New York City-based advocacy group committed to ending the prison industry and its exploitation of the incarcerated. The group released a series of demands to elected officials on Mar. 12, including providing free hygiene and cleaning products, making all phone calls and video calls from correctional facilities free, particularly as in-person visits become increasingly prohibited, ending the use of cheap or free prison labor to manufacture safety products, and the immediate release of those detained pretrial or those with chronic health conditions.

“Bail bonds and electronic monitors come with exorbitant fees that will only divert resources from already struggling communities.”

Tamar Sarai Davis

Tamar Sarai Davis is the criminal justice staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.