BY JOSEPH STURGEON
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have warned that a slew of communities will be disproportionately affected by it. Among these groups is America’s vast prison population. For decades, the presumed land of the free has specialized in holding people captive. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, this country has to decide what it will prioritize, whether it’s keeping people in prison or protecting public health.
Some states around the country have already made that choice. States with large populations, specifically California and New York, have already opted to release nonviolent inmates. Starting in late March, when coronavirus cases began to seep their way into their prison system, the state of California planned to release 3,500 of its inmates. Around the same time, to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, New York City released 900 of its inmates.
California is just one of two states with a higher prison population than Florida, which has not done much to curb the spread of the coronavirus within its prison system. Florida contains roughly 100,000 inmates within its prison system, and for a disease such as COVID-19 to spread within it would be catastrophic.
Florida simply isn’t doing enough to protect its incarcerated population from this pandemic. As of May 1, 151 prison workers have tested positive for COVID-19. In a private prison in Pensacola, 30 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus. Observing this, and also observing the fact that Florida possesses the country’s third-largest prison system, the state can and should be doing more to combat the spread of the coronavirus within its prisons.
Florida simply isn’t doing enough to protect its incarcerated population from this pandemic.
Instead, the situation has been grossly mishandled. The closest thing the Florida Department of Corrections has done to coronavirus protection is enlist the help of the incarcerated to make masks to be issued first to guards, probation officers and other staff, and only then to be distributed to certain correctional facilities. In a Martin County prison, an inmate was handcuffed and punished for refusing to take off his protective mask.
This isn’t how prisons should be managed during such a sensitive situation. Prison inmates nationally are 12 times more likely to have tested positive for tuberculosis, 4.9% more likely to have asthma and more than three times more likely to have heart-related problems. To keep such a large number of people in prison when they are more likely to have underlying health conditions, and thus are more vulnerable to COVID-19, than your average citizen is inhumane and unjust.
Social distancing is not something that can occur in prisons and jails, just like it can’t occur in schools, workplaces and amusement parks. Inmates are in close proximity to each other, and if any of them happen to be infected, the virus will rapidly spread.
Florida needs to follow suit with other states and release inmates that are elderly, non-violent, close-to-release and that have underlying health conditions. It’s one of several ways state governments can help to combat the spread of COVID-19 within this country.
Photo courtesy of The Atlantic