White Coats 4 Black Lives and Managing Coronavirus in Prison

There is urgent need to remedy the outbreak of coronavirus behind bars.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

The coronavirus is smarter than us. We — and I use the term broadly, meaning the public, and not necessarily you the reader and me — talk about “lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key,” as if we can make people disappear into the prisons and forget about them, never to be among us again. Well, the virus doesn’t think that way. It goes into the prisons, incubates and infects many, and then comes right back out into the community to infect more. 

It's outrageous and unacceptable that the CDCR is so badly mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic that thousands of prisoners are getting sick and many are dying. The Amend Group at the University of California San Francisco Medical School and the WHITE COATS 4 BLACK LIVES MOVEMENT have done a great job bringing this horrendous tragedy to public attention.

I call the response on the part of the CDCR and other state departments of correction “callous incompetence.” It’s callous in the sense that the staff and administrators in CDCR are displaying how little they really care about the pain, suffering, and deaths of prisoners. They do next to nothing to take care of their health and mental health needs. But that callousness is what leads to incompetence. They simply don’t care enough about the people who are affected (and infected) to carefully plan a public health strategy. There are two urgent first steps in any competent plan to provide for the public health needs of prisoners: 1. De-carceration. Release as many prisoners as possible so they won’t get infected and die; and 2. Avoid consigning the prisoners who remain to solitary confinement. 

On the first point, California Governor Newsom has ordered the release of close to 10,000 CDCR prisoners. That is a step in the right direction, but it is far from enough. The Amend Group recommends releasing 50% of the prisoners at San Quentin, a bare minimum if the proper social distancing, hygiene, and case-tracking is to be achieved. The CDCR has not moved very far in accomplishing that protocol.

And in terms of solitary confinement, the CDCR, like most departments of correction around the country, gets failing marks. The Amend group at UCSF has issued guidelines for managing the pandemic in the prisons, with clear demarcation between medical isolation and solitary confinement.

We have to get serious about preventing coronavirus illness and death among prisoners who are locked into facilities where social distancing is impossible, hygiene is horrible, and oversubscribed medical services are unable to provide adequate testing, tracking, and treatment of the many cases of COVID-19 within the prisoner and guard populations.

“Lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” is a failed attempt to make social problems that our society does not have the will to solve disappear into the prisons. People who were failed by our deteriorating public school system disproportionately end up in prison. And people with serious mental illness who are failed by the public mental health system too often wind up behind bars.

But the pandemic is proving we can’t make social problems disappear into the prisons. There are 10 times as many people with serious mental illness in our jails and prisons as there are in our psychiatric hospitals, but 93% of them will eventually be released from prison. Typically, they leave prison with more severe psychiatric disorders, greater disability, and a more dire prognosis. Thus, the prisons tend to make the society-wide problem of serious mental illness much worse, just like the failure to release enough prisoners and avoid solitary confinement for the rest worsens the society-wide pandemic.