By Christopher Westfall
COVID-19 has prompted our communities to widely adopt two practices to limit the spread of the virus: handwashing and social distancing. Yet Massachusetts not only discourages these public health precautions for incarcerated people, but also often makes them impossible to adopt.
The current pandemic has prompted public health alerts about frequent and thorough handwashing methods. But the Commonwealth’s captive populations in jails and prisons live in unsanitary conditions and are seldom able to practice handwashing. Often sinks are overflowing, soap is unaffordable, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer is banned.
Worse yet, our jails are overcrowded. With so many people packed into cells and common spaces, it is impossible to have fewer than ten people in a room or for incarcerated people to stay more than six feet apart. The people subjected to these reckless social distances are not given the choice to leave a group or the power to request a correctional officer to back away to the CDC recommended distance. Instead, incarcerated people are forced into these risky situations by an unresponsive prison system that is ill-suited to handle a global pandemic.
Jails and prisons are not built to deal with this unique problem. When a large group of people are confined in a small space, one infection can quickly spread amongst the entire group. Especially because COVID-19 is contagious days before someone becomes symptomatic, even a facility that quickly quarantined an employee or incarcerated person who started to show symptoms would be too late to stop the spread. Prison, like a cruise ship, acts as a petri dish for the coronavirus.
Finally, it is in everyone’s self-interest to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in our jails and prisons. If an outbreak occurs in jail or prison, the surge of patients will need masks, hospital beds, and ventilators that are in short supply. Our hospitals need everyone to do the few things that are known to slow the spread of infections, and an influx of preventable cases from jails and prisons could overwhelm the healthcare system.
The only public health solution that takes this threat seriously is to remove as many people from jails and prisons as possible. Massachusetts should start by releasing incarcerated people who are particularly susceptible to the virus, loosening restrictions on pretrial release for those only in jail because they are unable to afford bail, and ending sentences that are close to completion. Prison is a petri dish for COVID-19, and the public health consequences of ignoring this threat will only be realized when it is too late.
Christopher Westfall is an Attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services and a Racial Justice Policy Fellow.