A Prison Public Health Crisis in Connecticut
By Lorenzo Jones
For months, medical experts have emphasized that practicing physical distancing is a critical factor in slowing the COVID-19 coronavirus spread. Taking that step can be the difference between life and death.
But what happens when you don’t have the option to physically distance? A crowded prison is an ideal environment for a disease like COVID-19, spreading easily and quickly when people are in close quarters.
Even a brief stint in a Connecticut prison, either because a person cannot post bail or for a minor offense, can become a death sentence, especially for those with existing health issues. Arguably a disproportionately severe punishment for an allegation of a minor crime. That’s the situation for many incarcerated people in Connecticut.
Nearly half a million people (470,000 incarcerated people, out of the 2.3 million people in jails and prisons across the country) are in prison awaiting trial, which means they haven’t yet been convicted of a crime. Frequently, it’s because they are unable to pay the bail amount set for their release. The pandemic’s financial hardships make the burden of raising bail money from friends and family even more difficult than usual.
The pandemic has also slowed down the process of getting a court date, so those in pretrial detention are spending even more time in prison. In essence, it makes being poor a crime with a possible punishment of death.
Prisons As Infectious Disease Breeding Grounds
The pandemic has amplified the fact that prisons are a breeding ground for infectious diseases. However, crowded living conditions and inadequate healthcare in prisons have provided fertile ground for infectious disease for several years. For example, approximately 90 percent of known Tuberculosis cases occur among prison populations. Other communicable diseases, such as Hepatitis C, HIV, and Meningitis, have also flourished within prison walls.
There is no question that jails and prisons are hotbeds of the coronavirus. The facts are staggering:
- By November 10, 2020, more than 180,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19.
- COVID-19 is responsible for the death of 1,412 incarcerated people nationwide.
- More than 27,600 prison employees throughout the country also have tested positive for COVID-19, a figure that The Marshal Project anticipates it is almost certainly higher.
- 1,686 incarcerated people have contracted the virus
- COVID-19 is responsible for seven deaths
Incarcerated people aren’t just at risk for the virus. The pandemic has affected other aspects of prison life that create additional hardships for the prison population. There have been reports of prison staff not cleaning cells, let alone disinfecting them. Other allegations include removing personal property and court dates that have been pushed back, keeping those unable to post bail incarcerated for more extended amounts of time.
Mental Health Services
A significant issue for the prison system during the pandemic has been how to manage the mental health issues of existing and incoming incarcerated people. Throughout the pandemic, mental health services available to incarcerated people have been limited, and routine elective outpatient psychotherapy has also been suspended for most.
The services that remained—such as triages, assessments, and check-ins—had to be conducted at the person’s cell side, through the locked door, making it difficult to keep conversations private and information confidential. While some services have resumed in offices again, space limitations for physical distancing measures are an issue in many facilities. Prison staff shortages also make it difficult for incarcerated people to get an escort to receive outside therapy or treatments. It’s estimated that 21 percent (or 2,423 out of 16,154 incarcerated people) of the prison population in Connecticut has a severe mental illness.
Visitations are restricted except for legal counsel, and it’s highly recommended that even those take place over the phone. The lack of visitors makes isolation a big concern and exacerbates mental health issues. Although incarcerated people get two free phone calls each week, additional calls cost money, which is out of financial reach for many due to the impact of the virus on the economy.
People in Connecticut and across the country have been advocating for the release of incarcerated people who don’t pose a risk to the community as a public health precaution. Although some incarcerated people have been released, the process is too slow.
Unless you have a personal connection with someone in prison or their loved ones, or you’re a staunch advocate of justice or prison reform, this situation may not have even been on your radar. We need your help to send a message to legislators to pass legislation during the next legislative session to release as many incarcerated people as possible. The failure to act is a death sentence to many and a disservice to everyone. The time to act is now.
Lorenzo Jones is co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice.