COVID-19 has rendered the already substandard correctional health system virtually ineffective, returning citizens and researchers told a webinar Tuesday.
The webinar, a part of this year’s Innovations Conference hosted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also featured doctors and government officials.
“People in state and federal prisons have already been given their sentence. Now they are getting COVID added to that sentence, and sometimes that is a death sentence,” said Isaac Scott, fellow at the Center for Institutional and Social Change and human rights activist who was formerly incarcerated.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice Program, which sponsored the session, added that there have been approximately 50,000 resident cases in jails and prisons across the country.
The panelists outlined several reasons for the high caseload behind bars.
Dr. Homer Venters, epidemiologist and former chief medical officer of the New York City Correctional Health Services, said that inmates are told to wash themselves with soap and dry off with paper towels. But, they are given neither.
Dr. Venters added that many jails and prisons have failed to implement social distancing measures and that the sick call systems in many facilities are broken.
Worse, he said, “many sick call requests are thrown away.”
Referring to communication from health and other government agencies regarding COVID-19, Scott said, “Things that are slow on the outside are even slower on the inside.”
Scott also suggested that politicians neglected prison populations in their COVID-19 responses. He commented that it “took a lot of advocacy just to get inmates masks.”
Heidi Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, pushed back against Scott’s remarks. Touting her Department’s “proactive and aggressive” response to COVID-19, Washington noted that Michigan prisons met or exceeded all of the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines.
She added that Michigan swiftly tested all staff and inmates and supplied them with masks, issued daily communications to wardens and inmates, stratified patients by their level of risk, and housed prison staff in nearby hotels to reduce their contact with others.
Nevertheless, Dr. Venters claimed, “We have built a system of health behind bars that is separate and unequal from the one outside.”
Therefore, during COVID-19 and beyond, counties and states should release as many as people as possible who do not pose a threat to public safety, argued Dr. Venters.
Scott also discussed the inaccurate and dehumanizing media portrayal of incarceration, claiming it is “one of the main issues” facing the justice-involved population.
He recalled that 61-year-old Leonard Carter was deemed fit for release at a parole board. However, staff transferred him to the Queensboro Correctional Facility instead. He died there in mid-April after contracting COVID-19.
In all the media coverage of this story, there was “nothing to symbolize Carter’s humanity. He was just labeled as an inmate, a convict, and a number that died,” said Scott.
The panelists also took time to reflect on the ongoing national conversation on police brutality and racism in the criminal justice system.
Dr. Venters claimed, “There is nowhere that structural racism is more apparent than in jails and prisons.”
Scott responded, “When we look at criminal justice reforms and systems, if we’re not making the connection from slavery to mass incarceration, we are missing the attitude that has consistently existed in this country towards…black people.”
Incarcerated individuals are “viewed as the other, and it has its roots in racism,” said Dr. Venters.
Dr. Venters argued that transparency and equity in correctional health systems must be improved.
He added that “the people who oversee the health of people behind bars should be health experts, just like the ones who oversee healthcare on the outside.”
When addressing health issues in prisons, state health departments should seek counsel from prison advocates and community organizations, Dr. Venters said.
Scott noted, “We have seen change, and we will continue to see change because the people will not allow it to continue the way it has been.”
Michael Gelb is a TCR News Intern.