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Mass Incarceration, Mandatory Prison Labor Could Lead to Huge Coronavirus Death Toll

United States prisons and jails could become major sites of coronavirus outbreaks, warn public health experts, correctional staff, and prison reform advocates. According to a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), unless prison and jail populations are “dramatically and immediately reduced,” 100,000 more people than currently projected could die of COVID-19.

The ACLU’s projected coronavirus death toll is twice as high as the estimates from the federal government due to jails acting as “veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus.”  The organization argues that the spread of COVID-19 in jails will lead to significant deaths both behind bars and in communities via jail staff and released prisoners unless counties significantly reduce their jail populations. “We are likely facing a massive loss of life, both in jails and in communities around the country, if dramatic steps aren’t taken to reduce the incarcerated population in this country,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s Justice Division.

The ACLU’s model uses data from 1,200 midsize and large jails around the country housing 740,000 people. The study does not include state and federal prisons, which have already seen COVID-19 outbreaks. In Ohio, over 1,900 inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. So far, at least 23 inmates have died from COVID-19 in federal prisons.

To limit the spread of the coronavirus, the Bureau of Prisons has ordered all federal prisoners to be kept in their cells. However, some prison factories have remained operational despite the lockdown to produce materials for the military. “There’s no social distancing. It’s like what you see when you have a big exposé at some sweatshop in China,” said Kareen Troitino, a correctional worker in Miami. “We’re being made to keep producing these military jackets, which are not necessary at this moment. It’s just pure greed.”

States are using incarcerated people to produce supplies for their pandemic response efforts, including face shields, cotton masks, gowns, and hand sanitizer. Inmates at Albion Correctional Facility, a medium-security women’s prison in New York, work on an assembly line for $4 per day producing hand sanitizer for the state to distribute to healthcare workers and government officials. They do not have reliable access to disinfectant or soap and are not being given face masks, despite working in close quarters. “We are given no choice. If we refuse to come into the factory, we are threatened with disciplinary action,” said Sandra Brown, one of the women incarcerated at Albion. “It’s as if our lives don’t matter.”

Public health experts warn that these prison assembly lines are a perfect environment for COVID-19 to spread among incarcerated people. “That is a recipe for disaster,” said Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University’s Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. “They are already more vulnerable because of prison conditions, and now we are compelling them to put themselves at even higher risk.”

Sources: The Washington Post 4/21/20; ABC News 4/22/20; The Guardian 4/22/20

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