The news from the nation’s prisons and jails is increasingly grim. On Sunday, there were reports that 1,828 people incarcerated at Marion County Correctional Facility in Ohio, 73% of its total population, have tested positive for COVID-19.
One staff member has died and another 109 have tested positive.
Similar reports are coming in from federal and state facilities across the country. But this crisis in our criminal justice system isn’t due to the coronavirus. Rather, the pandemic is exposing a pre-existing crisis in our prisons that we are long overdue to fix.
In April 2019, the Justice Department issued a damning report concluding that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons were so bad that there was probable cause to believe that incarceration in the state’s prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The state’s prisons were old and decrepit.
There were clogged toilets, mold-covered showers and inadequate hot water. In January 2020, Alabama’s prisons were at 170% capacity, the most overcrowded in the nation. One facility, Holman Prison, was in such bad condition that it was partially closed in January, after investigators learned of open sewage in the prison and prisoners reported rats roaming around and maggots in the kitchens.
While Alabama’s failings may be extreme, the state is not alone. Problems in the nation’s federal and state prisons as well as its jails have been well documented.
In facilities throughout the country, incarcerated people have no opportunity to engage in frequent handwashing, obtain masks that could prevent the spread of infection or maintain a safe distance from others with contagious diseases.
This country’s jails and prisons were not prepared to contain an outbreak of the common cold, let alone a pandemic.