UW faculty conduct research related to urgent contemporary human rights concerns; when possible we invite them to share their perspectives here. Dan Berger is an associate professor at UW Bothell and a UWCHR faculty associate. Prof. Berger is an interdisciplinary historian focusing on critical race theory, twentieth century U.S. social movements, and critical prison studies. His recent publications include the books Rethinking the American Prison Movement and Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. He is also a coordinator of the Washington Prison History Project, an interactive website and archive which gathers documents of and testimonials from currently and formerly incarcerated people and other justice-involved communities.
As the coronavirus pandemic deepens, prisons are once again a site of severe coercion and dangerous inaction. On March 21, Washington state announced that it has approved prisoners—first at Coyote Ridge in Connell, to be followed by three other facilities—to manufacture up to 5,000 to 6,000 hospital gowns a day to aid national COVID-19 response efforts. According to a Department of Corrections press release, the effort will begin with 60 incarcerated people and three staff (making about 2,100 gowns a day) and will accelerate to involve 160 incarcerated people and twelve staff working at prison factories.
This is not the first time that incarcerated people have been used as super-exploited first responders. For decades, California has used incarcerated people to fight wildfires, and prisoners were tasked with recovery efforts in Florida after Hurricane Irma. Even in the current pandemic, New York state has put prisoners to work making 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer—although prison regulations prohibit incarcerated people from having any themselves.
The hospital gowns will be produced through Correctional Industries, the profit-making arm of the state’s prison system. The state has not said whether workers will be paid any differently for their life-saving efforts, but most prisoners in Washington are paid between $0.40 cents to $1.60 an hour for any work they do. These jobs typically provide no marketable skills or resources to help people upon release. Such is typical of these coercive labor practices: the incarcerated people who fight fires in California earn between $2.90 and $5.10 a day and often cannot get jobs upon release as a result of their conviction history, despite their training and accomplishment as firefighters.
In addition to the silence on wages, the state has said little about the work conditions in its prisons. The Department of Corrections (DOC) has provided scant information about measures that Washington is taking to prevent its prisons from becoming overrun with coronavirus. Initial reports from incarcerated people have been bleak. At the Washington State Reformatory, where there has already been at least one confirmed case of a staff member with coronavirus, incarcerated people received a note telling them to cover the phone with a sock to prevent the spread of germs. Incarcerated people can only access alcohol-based hand sanitizer—the only kind of sanitizer known to be an effective disinfectant—in “supervised locations.” Otherwise, hand sanitizer remains contraband.
The Problem is Prison
The biggest alarm, however, is prison itself. As a recent report by UW professors Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans has documented, 18% of the state’s prison population is over 50. Another 20% is between 40-50. That means more than one-third of the 19,000 people in Washington prisons are particularly vulnerable to dying from coronavirus. And because Black people receive life sentences at much higher rates, the vulnerability of age is compounded by the racism of the criminal legal system.
The actual risk posed is even greater. A number of incarcerated people under 50 have underlying medical conditions, which are often caused or exacerbated by incarceration. Younger people still account for a large number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations. The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City has an infection rate seven times higher than the rest of the city, which now has the highest concentration of coronavirus cases in the country. And even without a pandemic, jails and detention centers, which typically see people move in and out at a faster rate than prisons, are particularly brutal vectors for the spread of disease.
Everything about incarcerations runs counter to public health. The DOC, which was slow to encourage social distancing, now enforces the policy through threat of lockdown or infraction. Yet prisons are too crowded and too small to practice social distancing: many incarcerated people share a cell with at least one other person. As the spread of coronavirus at the Life Care Center nursing home illustrated when the outbreak first hit Washington, physical distancing is impossible in cramped, overcrowded institutions. Responding punitively does nothing to account for the structural limitations incarceration imposes.
Further, prison systems cannot handle an outbreak. Prison healthcare is notoriously atrocious. Just last April, the Washington DOC medical director was fired for gross negligence that resulted in the deaths of several people incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex. And the health risks are not just born out by incarcerated people themselves. The virus will leave prison the same way it came in: through staff. As staff get sick, they will likely spread it to other people in their communities. And because prison healthcare is too abysmal to handle the illness, anyone needing medical attention for COVID19 will be brought to the already under-resourced hospitals in the rural counties where prisons are located—accelerating its spread. There is no indication that the DOC has halted its traditional practices, such as transferring prisoners between different facilities or continuing to operate the Correctional Industries factories even while other workplaces have closed. Yet these and other routine functions of prison life would quickly exacerbate the pandemic throughout the state.
Flatten the Curve: Let Them Go
While Washington state has ostensibly abolished the death penalty, its approach to incarceration now puts thousands of people at risk–in and out of prison–of a most painful and preventable death due to coronavirus. The safest measure to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic is to massively and quickly reduce the number of people incarcerated in jails, prisons, and detention centers.
The State Supreme Court recently ordered local jurisdictions to postpone hearings and release some people from jail. Yet counties still have the authority to decide the speed and scale of compliance—and most have moved slowly in meeting that challenge. King County, for instance, has released just 302 people out of a population of more than 1,900, and officials say their goal is to still hold 1,200 people in two jails. The county has transferred some elderly prisoners to bigger facilities rather than release them.
Swift action is needed, today.
On March 23, Columbia Legal Services filed a lawsuit against Governor Jay Inslee and Department of Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair demanding the state move immediately to release three categories of people: those 50 and older, people with serious underlying medical conditions, and people with less than 18 months to release. These populations are not just the most vulnerable to coronavirus, they are also the most likely to succeed upon release.
The suit also asks the DOC to take necessary steps for those who remain incarcerated, including providing ventilators, appropriately trained staff and physical space for healthcare, and ready access to alcohol-based hand-sanitizer for free.
The lawsuit joins several other efforts pushing for mass release in Washington, including a letter from several advocacy organizations highlighting the need to release people from immigrant detention, an ongoing campaign from La Resistencia to shutdown the Northwest Detention Center, and a series of letters from the COVID19 Mutual Aid Solidarity Network pertaining to jails and prisons. Similar efforts are happening in states across the country (most incarcerated people are held at the state, not federal level, which is why governors and state departments of corrections can make the biggest difference).
Prisons are a blight upon public health. The pandemic makes that clear. It shows what has always been true: we lock up too many people for too long, in dangerous and abusive conditions. And this foolhardy exercise in institutional cruelty affects us all. The fact that almost everyone in prison is poor and working class; that Black, Indigenous and people of color as well as transgender people, are so disproportionately incarcerated has perhaps obscured this reality for too many for too long.
We have a global public health need to release as many people from prison as possible, as quickly as possible. Every day wasted is a failure that will be measured in the deaths of someone’s friend and family member.