COVID MONEY: Dirty & Deadly

Incarcerated people need jobs for the same reason everyone else does: money.

“There is an outrageous amount of fines associated with being incarcerated,” says Lindsey Feldman, an anthropologist at the University of Memphis who studies prisons. “The vast majority of folks coming out of prison are significantly in debt. Saving up money is a goal that a lot of people have while they’re in, but that’s real tough when you’re getting paid a nickel or a dime an hour.”

That’s true even if you land a job working for an outside corporation that is legally required to pay minimum wage. “You can take it all back with charges for things like room and board or victim restitution,” says Thompson. “Minimum wage is a mythology.”

Still, missing out on any money that could chip away at those debts is a significant loss.



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.



With inmates and staff members now testing positive for COVID-19 in local jails and state and federal penitentiaries, a humanitarian crisis is looming.

The social distancing that public health professionals are advocating — staying six feet apart to limit the spread of disease — is functionally impossible inside of a prison. “People refer to cruise ships as petri dishes, but nobody has invented a more effective vector for transmitting disease than a city jail,” a former New York City corrections commissioner told ABC News.

Perhaps the most troubling case of all is New York’s Rikers Island. The jail’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 18. By Tuesday morning, there were nearly two hundred confirmed cases.