Incarceration in the Age of COVID-19

by Glenna Li

Image: NY Daily News

What You Can Do:

  1. Learn more about incarcerated individuals’ rights:
  2. Contact your local Representative to support the First Step Act, which would reduce unnecessarily long sentences and improve living conditions in federal prisons.
  3. Donate to The Liberty Fund, a New York City bail fund dedicated to releasing New Yorkers subjected to unnecessary pre-trial detention:!/donation/checkout.

Victor Mercado died at Elmhurst Hospital on October 15, 2021, due to COVID-19, shortly after the Bronx District Attorney’s office granted him emergency release from Rikers Island [1]. Mercado’s death is not an isolated incident. Without access to adequate healthcare, prison mortality rates due to COVID-19 have been higher than the general population’s, as the infection rate is three times that of the general population [2]. As the United States navigates the pandemic, the most vulnerable invariably bear the brunt of the damage. While living conditions in correctional facilities are historically inhumane, the pandemic highlights the grim realities incarcerated individuals face.

Controlling the spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities has proved unsuccessful. Following COVID-19 protocols, such as social distancing, is difficult due to a lack of proper ventilation, sanitary resources, and floor plans facilitating physical separation between incarcerated individuals. Mercado was held at one of the eight facilities on Rikers Island, a New York City jail complex located between the Bronx and Queens in the East River. 85% of detainees held at Rikers have not been convicted of a crime [3]. Incarcerated individuals at Rikers have reported a lack of essential items such as soap, sanitation wipes, and disinfectant, perpetuating poor living standards that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic [4]. Notorious for overcrowding, Rikers Island leaves incarcerated individuals prone to contracting disease.

Mercado’s death was preventable, but Rikers’ tenuous COVID-19 precautions and healthcare services make incarcerated individuals defenseless against the virus. Those who are incarcerated have little say over the medical treatment they receive. At Rikers, it can take weeks to schedule a doctor’s appointment, and strict rules in incarcerated life make it harder to seek specialized help. For example, corrections officers are required to accompany incarcerated individuals to doctor’s appointments, but the pandemic has created a severe staffing shortage that has led to thousands of missed appointments [5]. Neglecting immediate health needs can increase virus transmission and worsen treatable illnesses. Mercado may still be alive today if he was transferred to the hospital earlier or able to navigate incarcerated life without an imminent threat of exposure. In fact, incarcerated individuals’ lack of bodily control has ignited a mental health crisis among those at Rikers, with several committing suicide over the past year [6]. Rikers Island facilities must improve their physical infrastructure and medical resources to protect incarcerated individuals from infectious diseases.

Estelle v. Gamble (1976) established that incarcerated individuals have a constitutional right to receive health care [7]. Under the 8th Amendment, “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” is “cruel and unusual punishment.” According to the CDC, only seven state prison systems have a hospital-level inpatient facility, on-site care is understaffed, and prisons often hire under-qualified doctors who cannot promptly respond to urgent health concerns [8] [9]. Additionally, more prisons are hiring private contractors to provide health care than ever before: 60 percent [10]. Compared to prisons with government-provided healthcare services, prisons with privately-delivered healthcare have higher death rates. In 2009, 68% of incarcerated individuals in jails did not receive a medical examination [11]. Having limited access to healthcare resources inhibits incarcerated individuals’ ability to receive crucial treatment and cultivates institutional distrust, which can cause them to withhold mental and physical illnesses.

Jails and prisons are not prioritizing incarcerated people’s health; are U.S. correctional facilities being “deliberately indifferent” to incarcerated individuals’ lives? As people of color are more likely to become incarcerated than white people, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting marginalized communities of color within and outside correctional facilities [12]. Those who are incarcerated are often predisposed to physical and emotional trauma, increasing their susceptibility to various health conditions. Correctional facility conditions reflect just how far Americans are willing to neglect historically-marginalized persons. As a result, incarcerated individuals deserve better care than the treatment provisions unilaterally dictated by correctional facility operators. Helping incarcerated individuals navigate their traumas through proper health care services—by providing regular checkups with credible doctors and mental health experts, and instituting proper sanitation guidelines—will empower them to overcome decisive barriers in their lives. Presently, society is choosing to punish rather than restore. Especially during the pandemic, correctional facilities’ authoritative structure offers incarcerated individuals little voice and attention. Furthermore, surrounding incarcerated individuals with compassion through healthcare is in the interest of public health, as numerous individuals enter and exit jails everyday.

Being proactive in combating illness will save correctional facilities more money and lives than the current practice of offering the bare minimum. Incarcerated individuals should not be detained for the sake of inane confinement, but to prepare for societal return. Unfortunately, incarcerated individuals are leaving correctional institutions worse off than when they came in. The majority of people at Rikers are awaiting trial, yet the demeaning treatment they immediately receive is physically and mentally dispiriting. Incarcerated individuals have no option but to leave their bodies vulnerable to disease. The deaths, including suicides, demonstrate how living conditions in correctional facilities do not support life. 

Corrections facilities’ mishandling of COVID-19 should act as an appeal to treat incarcerated individuals more humanely. There is no doubt that being isolated from one’s community and living a life with no bodily agency deteriorates hope, which every person—no matter their past—has a right to pursue. Those at Rikers lack the bodily autonomy to protect themselves from COVID-19 and advocate for their health needs. Until incarcerated individuals have the resources to safeguard their bodily autonomy, they will no longer have to act out of desperation and live in fear.