COVID-19 is a dire threat to the vulnerable in jails and prisons. Here’s what we can do about it.

Dial Fellows

Civil-rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis discusses the life-threatening danger that COVID-19 poses to the millions of people in U.S. prisons and jails, and how his organization, Civil Rights Corps, is responding.

As the U.S. works to contain COVID-19, the disease spreads rapidly through our prisons and jails — places where social distancing is nearly impossible, sanitation resources like hand sanitizer and soap are limited or not allowed, and where bathrooms, laundry, and eating areas are widely shared.

Civil-rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis, an Emerson Collective Dial Fellow, calls these conditions a “ticking time bomb” for prisoners, many of whom are especially vulnerable to disease. In the last month, dangerous outbreaks have been reported in prisons and jails in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Louisiana, and the UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project has documented over 400 COVID-related deaths in U.S. prisons and jails so far. A recent epidemiological model by the ACLU estimated that if the U.S. ignores incarcerated people in the public health response to COVID-19, as many as 200,000 people could die from the disease — double the government estimate.

Karakatsanis’s organization, Civil Rights Corps, is working to protect incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable. In April, it filed emergency lawsuits in Miami, Chicago, and Houston, arguing for the release of inmates who are at grave risk of death from COVID-19, as well as arguing that these facilities need to provide basic protection like soap, cleaning supplies, safe distancing, and medical treatment.

Alec Karakatsanis, founder of Civil Rights Corps, and his team continue to challenge mass incarceration, and to create a legal system that promotes equality and human freedom.

Senior advisor to Emerson Collective Adam Frankel talks to Karakatsantis about the threat of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, and his legal approach to stopping the spread of disease before it’s too late.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the ways injustice and inequity permeate our society, and that’s especially true when it comes to America's jails and prisons. What kind of threat does the virus pose to people who are incarcerated, and what should be done about it?

This pandemic is occurring at a time when the U.S. cages human beings at rates unprecedented in modern world history. We have about 2.3 million human beings who are confined to cages in this country right now. No society has ever tried to accomplish that kind of transfer of human beings from their schools, homes, jobs, families, churches, and communities into government-run facilities.

This is also not some random distribution of the population. Our jails and prisons and police target particular groups of people. The vast majority, about 90% of those people in the criminal system, are poor. The U.S. jails black people at a rate six times that of South Africa at the height of Apartheid. It’s very particular people who are now inside our jails and prisons and being exposed to the threat of imminent illness and death, as a result of this pandemic.

Now, this viral epidemic is occurring on top of a system that is already woefully incapable of meeting even the most basic human needs for all of the human beings that we’re confining there. The conditions that we have allowed to fester in our jails and prisons are grotesque. Under ordinary circumstances, people are sleeping on top of one another, covered in feces and mucus and blood and urine. They are deprived of access to exercise and fresh air and sunlight. Those are the routine, daily conditions all over the country. Naked people are chained to door handles and to their own wheelchairs. People are not being given the medical treatment, mental health care, medication that they need.

We need to understand these basic facts about our world, because the myths that have been created have led a lot of people to not care very much about the human beings who are in our jails and prisons. I worry very much about that in a time like this, because what I’m hearing all over the country, particularly from judges, is that they don't need to act to release people from jail to get them out of harm's way and to prevent an outbreak that could ripple throughout the rest of the community — because these people somehow deserve to be there.

It’s very particular people who are now
inside our jails and prisons and being exposed
to the threat of imminent illness and death,
as a result of this pandemic.

What are you asking judges to do, as a remedy, or at least a partial remedy, for this dangerous situation in jails and prisons right now?

First and foremost, to do what every infectious disease and public health expert is advocating: get as many people as possible out of these crowded jail facilities. These places are ticking time bombs.

With all of the overcrowding, it is absolutely impossible to observe even the most rudimentary of the CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of this disease. You have no hand sanitizer, no soap, no ability to separate yourself from other people, no fresh air circulating. You’re already, statistically speaking, in one of the vulnerable groups, because people in our jails and prisons are statistically way less healthy than people who are on the outside, and you're told there’s nothing you can do but sleep on top of each other in crowded conditions.

Getting people out of jail is both a matter of basic human dignity and overwhelming public health safety. By keeping all these people there, not only are they threatening their lives, but they're threatening the lives of their whole communities. Not only do people go in and out of jail every day; not only are there new people who are arrested; but think about medical workers, jail staff, guards. All these people are coming into contact, and all over the country they are getting sick, and they are returning back to their families and the community.

Getting people out of jail is both a matter
of basic human dignity and overwhelming
public health safety.

Tell us about what your organization, Civil Rights Corps, is doing in response to COVID-19 and the conditions in jails and prisons.

In partnership with a host of other organizations across the country, Civil Rights Corps has filed emergency lawsuits in Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and just outside of Detroit. This list of cities is growing weekly.

Releasing people, especially those at the highest risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, is the fastest way to prevent more suffering. Sadly, in Chicago, in the Cook County Jail, seven human beings have now died from COVID-19, and we know that with each passing day, the risk of even more illness and death grows. At a minimum, jails and prisons must take immediate steps to protect incarcerated people from the virus, by providing access to soap and basic hygiene, creating and maintaining social distancing, and adequately monitoring those with symptoms.

Though it’s an uphill battle, there’s progress. Courts in Chicago, Oakland County, Michigan, and Miami have issued orders requiring the local jails to adhere to CDC guidelines and providing free access to soap, cleaning supplies, and paper towels. In some cases, the court has ordered the jail to identify incarcerated people who are at highest medical risk. Those lists are a critical first step in continuing the fight for the safest resolution: to release human beings from cages in the midst of this global pandemic.