Dear Editor, 

We know the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in our communities, but imagine what it is like behind bars. As of November 30 there have been 440,611 COVID-19 cases among people incarcerated in U.S. prisons (Home, 2021). COVID is spread easily in confined areas, but social distancing is nearly impossible within carceral settings. With this pandemic, a sentence to time in prison could become a death sentence. Prisons need to lower their numbers, fix their poor living conditions, and protect those in custody with lifesaving options such as PPE, healthcare, and vaccines. 

Increases in the length and severity of sentencing due to the tough-on-crime era caused prison populations to increase exponentially to nearly 2 million individuals. This led to an overcrowding issue that has heightened the effects of the pandemic (Coronavirus vii…, 2021). Although some releases occurred, overcrowding remains. Overcrowding combined with tight budgets leaves few, if any, resources for PPE and other necessary healthcare supplies and services (AMON 2020). This forces prison residents to use socks and other such items as face masks and limited supplies of soap and hand sanitizer leaving them with no way to clean themselves once it is gone (Coronavirus vii…, 2021). All of these challenges contribute to dangerous levels of viral spread within these institutions. 

To fix carceral overcrowding and health conditions, some suggest decreasing the number of people incarcerated. We have done this, but not nearly enough. Since the pandemic began, police have been more willing to write a citation/ticket rather than arrest individuals for Class C misdemeanors (Trautman & Infantolino, 2020). Also, due to the pandemic, federal prisons have decreased their population by 3% and state prisons have dropped their population by 5 percent (Coronavirus vii…, 2021) but prisons are still running above capacity. This increased capacity puts residents not only at risk for illness but also increases the possibility of violence among residents and staff. 

Additionally, there is some controversy over whether prison residents have a right to the COVID vaccine (Kishi et al., 2021). In some jurisdictions, individuals in prison were among the first vaccinated because they were in higher-risk groups due to their health or the places they lived. With prisons operating as a hotbed of viral spread for the above-mentioned reasons, residents of prisons are at extremely high risk of infection which should place them into the first group of those to receive the vaccine, but this often was not the case. Everyone should have the right to the vaccine even if they choose not to get it, and individuals living in high-risk conditions should have priority to be immunized over those who do not. Most people in prison were sentenced to a period of time in prison, not to death. It is unfair for the correctional system to keep residents in conditions that could end their lives; this is not justice, it is cruel and unusual punishment. There are at least two ways to remedy this problem: release low-level offenders or fix prison conditions. 

While decreasing the prison population may come with risk, more social programs will help reintegrate former prison residents back into society which may prevent or lower recidivism and lower the prison population. It also costs less to supervise an individual in the community rather than in custody and the money saved could be spent on protecting unreleased residents and improved healthcare. 

Some may suggest that prison residents deserve to live in these conditions because of the actions that put them there. They may argue we are already decreasing the prison population so it is not an issue, and prison residents should not receive the vaccine first or at all because their own actions landed them in custody. However, prisons provide justice via incapacitation, retribution, deterrence, and hopefully rehabilitation but they are not designed or intended to endanger individuals’ lives. While residents may have done something society disagrees with, this does not mean an incarcerated individual’s worth should be determined by a singular action. Additionally, while the number of people in U.S. prisons is declining, it is declining at a rate so slow it does little for those who are currently incarcerated. Finally, being in a high-risk environment should not determine whether someone deserves a vaccine. The conditions of prisons put residents at high risk, but the actions that put an individual in prison are not justification for withholding a potentially life-saving vaccine from them. 

The pandemic has impacted the prison system enormously, and whichever side you may be on regarding this issue, prison residents are humans. If we want to reduce public health problems we need to release those who are no longer a risk to society and make sure those still incarcerated have the sanitation, healthcare, distancing, and vaccinations they need to contain this horrible disease for them and for all of us. To help you can contact your local or state representatives and advocate for: early releases for the residents who do not pose societal threats; more social programs to help former prison residents, and healthcare for all humans, even those we rarely think about, especially those in prison.

Hope Miller

George Mason University student

* References available upon request

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