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Correctional Facilities: Left Behind in Times of COVID-19

By Qianxue Zhang August 10, 2020 • 5 min read Photo courtesy: Emiliano Bar

Table of Contents

We’re all together in the face of this global pandemic. COVID-19 has worsened injustices in correctional facilities. People in jails are dying before their time. Remember to look back to see who has been left behind.  

We’re all together in the face of this global pandemic.

The “novel coronavirus” that causes (COVID-19)” is no longer an unfamiliar topic. According to data reported on August 10, 2020, there are a total of almost 20 million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide. The total number of global COVID-19 deaths has surpassed 730,000. There are more than 5.0 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 163,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States (New York Times, 2020). COVID-19 really has been a tough time for everyone. According to the CDC, the main COVID-19 transmission route is from person-to-person, requiring people to keep social distance, wear masks in public, wash hands often, clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces to prevent the spread of disease. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], April 24, 2020). Countries around the world have responded with stay at home orders, remote work, and social distancing in public. Staying at home allows part of the population with water, soap, and reliable sanitation facilities to stay safe and play a role in preventing COVID-19. Still, a proportion of the population does not enjoy such conditions. Experts have noted that more than two million people in the United States lack access to water and sanitation facilities. Without access to water, sanitation and hygiene, they face greater risks of getting ill and dying from COVID-19.  

COVID-19 has worsened injustices in correctional facilities.

Neglected and marginalized groups, however, are not able to enjoy the protection of policies that apply elsewhere. Distributive justice,- defined by University of California Santa Cruz Sociologist Ben Crow as “who gets what and how much they get ” – really affects people in correctional facilities. Imagine sharing a room with four toilets, two urinals, and two showers with 65 people in the time of COVID-19! This is exactly what inmates face at Los Angeles County’s North County Correctional Facility (Lithwick, 2020). Think about it. How can prisoners maintain the required social distance, wash their hands frequently, and access clean sanitation facilities in such a situation? Policies that seem good for everyone do not guarantee that everyone benefits equitably because such policies ignore the groups like these inmates. It is a human need to defecate and urinate. There is no way to stop a person from answering nature’s call. Inmates cannot wash their hands frequently nor keep themselves clean. They are confined to a crowded environment and unable to keep social distance. They have no way to access better options. Obviously, this is injustice. In another case, inmates at Los Angeles County’s Twin Towers Correctional Facility were not provided with adequate soap and cleaning supplies; they had to add water to extend the service life of their products. In a reported incident, inmates had to use the same mop they had used days earlier to clean up a toilet overflow (Tchekmedyian & Hamilton, 2020). Even though there is no current evidence of COVID-19 infections being transmitted through sewage, we know that the lack of reliable sanitation can cause other diseases (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020)] such as diarrhea, helminth infections, plus malnourishment and stunting (Mara, Lane, Scott, & Trouba, 2010). The United Nations considers access to sanitation a human right. Facilities that are safe, hygienic, secure, and socially and culturally acceptable provide privacy and ensure dignity (United Nations, 2016). Inmates living in jails deserve these human rights too. Without access to safe and reliable facilities, they are exposed to greater risk of getting sick. With more than 100 inmates in one dorm at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, social distancing is impossible. Without other options, these prisoners are powerless in the struggle to stay healthy. Prison staff are also at risk. They not only work in correctional facilities, they interact with external communities. Staff members may bring the virus into correctional facilities, and they may take the virus back to their homes and communities. In the state prison in Hartsville, Tennessee, more than half of the prisoners and staff tested positive for COVID-19 (Smith, Bosman, & Harmon, 2020). More than 500 prisoners and 300 staff members in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois also were found to have the disease. (Grimm, 2020). When prisoners are infected, staff members and their families also get infected. As a result, the Cook County and Hartsville communities are put at risk when they interact with prison staff.  

People in jails are dying before their time.

At present, the United States has about 2.3 million people incarcerated in correctional facilities, accounting for 21% of the total number of prisoners all over the world (Speri, 2020). Mass incarceration and limited resources make it difficult to implement CDC guidelines on prevention of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. People are dying there. A recent report by the CDC gave data based on 37 jurisdictions across the United States. It indicated that as of April 21, 2020, there were 4893 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in total as the 420 facilities, more than half of whom, or 2778 people, were staff members. The total number of COVID-19 deaths was 88, of which 15 were staff members. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 15, 2020). Only 37 jurisdictions shared data with the CDC: this represents only 69% of all jurisdictions. Over half of the data reported the cases among staff members but not among prisoners. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 15, 2020). Due to the lack of testing of prisoners in some areas, the CDC report fails to represent the true situation of the United States. According to reporting by The Marshall Project, a non-profit group focusing on criminal justice, over 86,630 prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities in the United States who have tested positive for COVID-19 as of August 4, 2020. Over 760 people have died from COVID-19 in US prisons. Among prison staff, at least 19,160 have been infected and 62 have died. Currently, the most confirmed cases in correctional facilities are in the state prisons of Texas, Florida, California, Ohio, Arkansas and Michigan. More than 4,000 cases have been confirmed in each of these states’ prisons, and over 11,000 have been reported in federal prisons (The Marshall Project, 2020). The Marshall Project data is more comprehensive and more alarming than the data reported by the CDC. It has been documenting how many people in correctional facilities have been affected by COVID-19 since March. Data are updated weekly and continue to increase. There’s good news about this bad news. The Marshall Project research shows that more states are testing their prisoners and reporting the data. States and federal authorities are paying attention and acknowledge that correctional facilities are COVID-19 hot spots.  

Remember to look back to see who has been left behind.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, everyone has been affected. People feel anxiety and panic. Both governments and individuals are taking protective measures. There is no doubt about the importance of sanitation during this period. While part of the population enjoys adequate sanitation, it is necessary to look back to see who has been left behind. Vulnerable groups in densely populated places are left at risk of illness and death. In this crisis, it is crucial to guarantee everyone equitable access to sanitation facilities and services. To reduce overcrowding in correctional facilities, the World Health Organization recommends that political leaders release some inmates without compromising public security. At the same time, the importance of improving cleanliness and sanitation conditions is emphasized (World Health Organization, 2020). Reducing overcrowding and ensuring access to reliable health and sanitation services are equally important now in the time of COVID-19 and in the future. In this global crisis, we call on all sectors of society to pay attention to vulnerable groups and work together to fight these injustices.  

About the Author


Qianxue Zhang

Qianxue is a UCSC sophomore and international student from China majoring in psychology. She moved to the United States at 14 years old to pursue higher education. She is grateful for this opportunity to write for the PHLUSH blog to try to improve the world during this pandemic. She likes singing, food, and is an animal lover with two cats at home.  


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