Damning New Statistics Reveal the Truth of Unchecked Coronavirus Spread in Prisons

| revcom.us


From a reader:

“The coronavirus came into the prisons like a lit match in a dense forest, igniting only one tree at first, but then rapidly spreading throughout the forest.”—a Michigan prisoner.1

The U.S. has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any country in the world, about 60 percent of whom are Black and Brown people. Public health officials have been warning about the spread of the coronavirus in jails and prisons where physical distancing is impossible. A recent prediction model from academic researchers, released by the American Civil Liberties Union, projected that failure to reduce the number of prisoners immediately could add 100,000 to the currently projected death count from the COVID-19 for the U.S.2

According to the Marshall Project, which is collecting data on COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons, as of May 13 at least 25,239 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 25 percent increase from the week before. And since the first known death of a prisoner from COVID-19 in March, more than 370 other prisoners have died of coronavirus-related causes. By May 13, the total number of deaths had risen by 25 percent from the previous week.3 As of May 1, 8 of the 10 largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in the U.S. were in prisons and jails.4

As stark as these statistics are, they could be an underestimation of what is going on in the prisons and jails. The Marshall Project notes: “Much of the remarkable recent growth in coronavirus cases has been due to a small handful of states—Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Michigan, North Carolina among them—that began aggressively testing nearly everyone at prisons where people had become sick. This spate of testing would suggest that coronavirus had been circulating in prisons in much greater numbers than known, and that in the many states where tests have not been prevalent, far more people may have been carrying it than were initially reported.”5

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, reported, “In Ohio, my home state, more than 80 percent of the people caged at Marion [Correctional Facility] have been infected with the coronavirus because of the state’s lackluster response. Thirteen have died.”6

There has been a tiny amount of coronavirus testing in many other states. For example: New Jersey has tested less than one percent of its incarcerated population. Florida has tested only 615 out of a prison population of 95,000. Less than one half of one percent of all federal prisoners have been tested.7

Where prisoners have been tested, there have been reports of horrific infection rates. For example, in Ohio, where 6,375 state prisoners and staff were tested, the infection rate was over 60 percent! At the only facility in North Carolina where mass testing was done, 460 of the 770 prisoners tested positive, again nearly 60 percent.8 According to an April 29 Associated Press report, 70 percent of federal prisoners who have been tested have been found to be positive for the coronavirus.9

Any humane society would have taken steps from the beginning to protect these prisoners. Instead, the response has been stonewalling and lies. Public defenders and the ACLU have filed motions in court to release those convicted of low-level offenses, the sick and elderly, and those nearing the ends of their sentences. But the vast majority of prisoners are continuing to be held. Some federal prosecutors made the ridiculous argument that prisoners are safer in prison than outside. A Louisiana judge said that releasing drug users with “bad hygiene” would threaten society. Washington, DC, city officials told the public that jails were taking appropriate precautions, but investigation by public defenders showed obscene conditions.10 After pressure from some members of Congress, Attorney General Barr issued a memo on April 3 outlining terms for home release from federal prisons—but for only a tiny percentage of federal prisoners: 1,027 out of 174,000. And a number of the prisoners who were told they would be released had their release orders canceled.11

This is a “let them die” scenario that is taking place—a monstrous crime against humanity in the making. As a prisoner wrote in a letter to revcom.us, “This is devastating!.... It’s outrageous because I know that if I contract the virus it’s a possibility that my 7 year bid will turn into a death sentence....”12

From Communique #5 from the Revcoms, Mass Incarceration and the Coronavirus...a Death Sentence Waiting to Happen”:

This must end! We need an actual revolution to emancipate all humanity and the Revolution Club is organizing for that. And right now there is an urgent need to come together to figure out what we do about preventing this mass death sentence from going down. If you care about humanity, we need to talk about how.

1. The coronavirus behind bars: A letter from a Michigan jail. Detroit Metro Times. April 10. 2020. [back]

2. Flattening the Curve: Why Reducing Jail Populations Is Key to Beating COVID-19, ACLU. [back]

3. A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons, the Marshall Project. [back]

4. Stopping covid-19 behind bars was an achievable moral imperative. We failed. Radley Balko, Washington Post, May 1, 2020. [back]

5. The Marshall Project. [back]

6. “Let Our People Go,” The New York Times, May 13, 2020. [back]

7. Washington Post, May 1, 2020. [back]

8. Washington Post, May 1, 2020. [back]

9. Over 70% of tested inmates in federal prisons have COVID-19, Associated Press, April 29, 2020. [back]

10. Washington Post, May 1, 2020. [back]

11. Washington Post, May 1, 2020. [back]

12. Prisoners Write, Exposing Conditions Under COVID-19 Pandemic in America’s Hellholes, revcom.us. [back]

Andrea Circle Bear: Victim of Mass Incarceration + Coronavirus

An outrageous example of a prisoner on low-level charges dying of coronavirus was Andrea Circle Bear, a 30-year-old woman of the Cheyenne River Sioux. On April 1, she gave birth via caesarian section while on a ventilator—while the child survived, Andrea Circle Bear died on April 28. She was serving a 26-month sentence on drug charges. A federal judge initially approved her admission into a treatment program, but that decision was rescinded after federal prosecutors argued that her drug use presented a threat to the fetus. Instead, she was sent from a local jail in South Dakota to a prison facility in Texas, more than 1,000 miles away from her home. Despite her low-level offense, pregnancy, and at least one pre-existing medical condition, Andrea Circle Bear was denied release, contracted the virus, and died.

See also:

The Coronavirus Pandemic — A Resource Page

  • What IS the Corona virus COVID-19 and what do scientists know about this?
  • How is the capitalist-imperialist system making the effect of the Coronavirus worse than it has to be?
  • How do the “savage inequalities” of the system play out in the way this virus affects different sections of people? Who does it come down the worse on, and why?
  • How would the revolution handle the coronavirus or similar epidemics if it held state power?

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