April 2020 will be the month when mass incarceration becomes mass murder in America: large-scale, foreseeable, preventable. Amidst all the tragedy that COVID-19 will inflict upon us, the reckless and avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of people in prisons, jails, and detention centers may be our nation’s greatest source of shame.
Right now, the virus is insinuating itself into every one of the nation’s 6,000 prisons, jails, and detention centers. It is arriving on the breath or bodies of employees arriving for work or of prisoners being booked in or returning from court.
And because social distancing is impossible in these compressed worlds, every carceral institution will maximize the height of its own infection curve.
We’ve known for months that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has up to a 2-week incubation period. New studies suggest that half of all people with the virus may be asymptomatic or presymptomatic and that over 80% of all infections may come from contact with individuals without symptoms. That means that even if a prison had space to isolate everyone who was symptomatic, that would not stop the spread of the virus.
Essentially, we must assume that literally every single person who lives or works in our prisons, jails, or detention centers will be exposed to the virus over the next month and will become contagious.