- A third wave of coronavirus cases threatens the lives of people who are incarcerated and communities across the country, but the calls to reduce prison populations have lessened.
- Immigrations Customs Enforcement is adding to the problem by re-incarcerating people who have been freed from prison and conducting deportations – potentially spreading the virus across the country and abroad.
- Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who covers public health. William Goedel, PhD is an Assistant Professor (Research) in the Department of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health. Sophia Gurulé is an immigration policy advocate and public defender.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The United States is well into its third wave of cases. With the country reporting more than 100,000 cases a day and more than a 1,000 deaths per day, the pandemic is expected to be much worse than it was in the spring.
People who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable, given their tightly packed facilities, poor living conditions and abysmal access to medical care. Yet despite the increasing danger, calls to decarcerate and free people have gone down significantly and policymakers have seemingly moved on.
For instance, in the COVID-19 plan released by Joe Biden’s transition team there is no mention of reducing prison populations. Agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are once again conducting raids and filling detention centers. In some cases, they are quite literally reversing prior measures taken to mitigate the spread.
For instance, 55-year-old Julio Colcas was awaiting deportation after serving two years for a drug related charge and freed in the spring to reduce prison populations and prevent coronavirus spread in the facilities, but was rearrested last month by ICE agents. To save lives and protect public health, we need to free them all: release people from prison, and end raids and deportations.
Prisons are especially dangerous during the pandemic
Prisons are a tinder box for the coronavirus. Incarcerated people are packed in tight cells with hundreds of other people. New people introduced to the facility and staff going in and out can introduce and re-introduce the virus and spark an outbreak.
According to data collected from March to June, the incarcerated population had a case rate of 3.3% nationally compared to 0.6% in the general population. More than 163,000 people have tested positive for the virus in these facilities and at least 1,300 deaths according to The Marshall Project.
According to numbers released by ICE, 6,922 detainees have tested positive with 8 deaths – this number is likely an undercount however, as it does not count those who have died from the virus after being released or deported. We know that many ICE facilities across the US have faced outbreaks – like at the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, where an overwhelming 75% of those incarcerated tested positive for the virus at one point.
The way prisons and ICE facilities have decided to deal with the pandemic is to subject those who have tested positive for the virus to solitary confinement — which is considered a form of torture. This adds an additional layer of stress and psychological trauma to someone who is already battling a deadly virus.
As a result, people have been fearful of getting tested for the virus because they do not want to end up in solitary. Quarantine and isolation does not mean subjecting people to punitive practices that further take a toll on their health.
Of course, prisons and immigration detention facilities already had an abysmal record on healthcare to begin with. Earlier this month we heard reports of immigrant women in Georgia getting hysterectomies against their will. At other ICE facilities, immigrants have been doused in chemical disinfectant causing serious burns to the skin. In prisons in California, there were shortages of masks, sanitizer and soap. In some facilities in New York, those incarcerated allege that symptoms are being ignored and staff don’t always wear masks.
Still, despite the pandemic and their abysmal ability to control it – law enforcement continue to lock people up on frivolous charges. Nowhere is this more evident than in the violent response to protests; not only are police corralling people into packed paddy wagons at protests, they are also arresting people days and weeks later.
For its part, ICE has continued to conduct raids, approving a scheme that would allow agents to deport people without going through a judge – a process known as expedited removal. While ICE temporarily stopped raids during the pandemic, they continued to transfer people across the country and deport people with symptoms – spreading the coronavirus across US localities, throughout ICE detention centers nationwide, and abroad.
Conducting deportations during a pandemic only increases fear amongst undocumented communities and prevents people from seeking the care and testing they need. Undocumented people are at high risk for the coronavirus because they are more likely to work in industries where they can get exposed, live in crowded housing environments with multiple generations, and lack health insurance. ICE’s actions not only directly spread the virus, they have ripple effects in communities across the country.
The coronavirus does not distinguish between who it infects, whether the person is charged or incarcerated for alleged violations of civil or criminal law. Many local jails contract with ICE: the first person to test positive for COVID-19 in an ICE facility was incarcerated at the Bergen County Jail, which holds people in criminal pretrial detention as well as ICE detainees per its contract with the federal agency. Many people who complete their prison sentences, are ordered released due to COVID-19 vulnerabilities, or otherwise released on bail and attending court, are immediately transferred to ICE detention, either per formal agreements or by everyday “local police” work.
People in criminal custody are also often subjected to the same ill treatment and abhorrent conditions that ICE detainees face. Looking at these two groups separately can also create a false impression about virus spread.
Take the Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island for example: ICE reports that only 3 cases have occurred among its detainees. However, there are currently 99 active cases in the prison as a whole. Reports that those detained at Wyatt were not given new masks frequently, limited mask wearing and poor sanitation prompted a federal judge to release an ICE detainee. In addition to this, it was reported that ICE detainees were not included in routine rounds of universal testing for the virus.
As the death toll continues to climb from the virus, we cannot forget incarcerated people in our demands to protect the population. As we push for further restrictions on gatherings and indoor facilities and mask mandates; we must also push for the release of people from prisons and jails to mitigate the spread of the virus – because no one is sacrificial.
Abdullah Shihipar is a writer who writes on topics of public health, race, class and other social justice issues.
Sophia Gurulé is an immigration policy advocate and public defender providing direct legal representation to incarcerated immigrants in deportation proceedings.
William Goedel is an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health.