Unseen Victims of the Pandemic

There is a public health crisis of terror in our midst, and few seem to care.

Posted Jul 04, 2020

In September 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners. Corrections (which include prisons, jails, probation, and parole) cost around $74 billion in 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. At the end of 2016, it was estimated that in the United States, about 2,298,300 people were incarcerated.

2.3 million is a lot of people. To put it into perspective, the population of the state of North Dakota is just over 800,000. New Hampshire has 1.3 million. In fact, 37 of our 50 states have a population smaller than 2.3 million.

So what has happened to all of these prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic? By June 30, 2020, at least 52,649 people in prison had tested positive for COVID-19, an 8 percent increase from the week before. These prisoners are locked up together in incredibly close quarters. It has become a public health catastrophe that advocates say was both predictable and preventable.

Inmates and advocates are reporting that at six prisons and jails with rapidly escalating outbreaks, basic protocols to prevent the virus from spreading are being ignored, and they fear imminent mass fatalities and hospitalizations. Interviews with prisoners, their families, and attorneys, along with internal records, reveal that some prisoners sick with coronavirus have complained that they aren’t getting enough food and water while quarantined and that they don’t have access to doctors, temperature checks, basic medicine, phone calls, regular showers, outdoor time or sanitary supplies.

Inmates have reported being reprimanded for wearing face coverings. At least one inmate was reportedly disciplined for trying to use bleach to help clean a prison. Some prisoners with COVID-19 have been unable to talk to loved ones, who have been left uncertain if their relatives are still alive.

Prisons across the country have placed prisoners on lockdown. They're kept in their cells mostly around-the-clock—as a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Now prison reformers are worried that the response has increased the use of a practice they've long fought: solitary confinement.

Before the coronavirus, there were 60,000 people in solitary confinement. Now, in response to the pandemic, 300,000 state and federal prisoners have been confined to their cells. They've been placed in solitary confinement or in lockdown. In most cases, prisoners can't leave their cells for meals, exercise, or prison jobs and can't receive visits from family. There might also be limits on mail and phone calls. Prisoners and advocates are reporting that some infected inmates are in isolation without medical care or adequate food, cut off from family and attorneys.

And prisoners aren’t the only ones affected by this crisis. Prisons are filled with people who work there. Prison officers, probation officers, psychologists, health care workers, counselors, janitorial staff, and others all work at the prison and then return home to the homes and communities where they live. So the crisis, while horrible in an of itself, cannot possibly be confined to the prison population.

Why am I choosing to write about this public health catastrophe at Psychology Today? In the United States, as in many countries, we don’t treat prisoners as human beings. Most people are not concerned about the rights, health, and well-being of people who are locked up. 

But prisoners are human beings. While they have made choices that have led to them being incarcerated (and some of them are falsely incarcerated for choices someone else made), they are people who are serving time for those choices, most of whom will be released back into our communities and attempt to live lives similar to the rest of us. They have a right to physical and mental health like any of us do, and when they are traumatized by their experience, they bring that trauma home with them.

Right now, the trauma they are suffering is beyond the usual trauma of prison—they are living in terror of becoming deathly ill and dying. And they have reason to be. When we talk about human rights, most people would agree that it is a fundamental right that people should be able to live, and live safely. There are arguably many ways in the United States that right is violated; this one is happening right now.