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America has paid little or no attention to preventing the coronavirus (COVID-19) from infecting the 2.2 million men and women locked up in our correctional facilities. This disconnect from people who are incarcerated must end.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus a pandemic and fear of the virus spreading has prompted some two dozen governors to declare states of emergency. Schools are closing, religious services are on hold and people are working from home whenever feasible. It is therefore necessary to develop and implement rational emergency health and hygiene procedures to stop the spread of the coronavirus within the cramped and many times unsanitary quarters of our prisons and jails.

Roach Brown

At present, rather than developing well thought out humane public health procedures to address the spread of COVID-19, correctional systems all around the country and the world have eliminated all contact visits; some states have been conducting video visits which can cost up to $30 dollars for a half hour visit. The knee jerk measure of canceling visits from loved ones at the estimated 122 federal prisons and some 1,700 state facilities is pure overkill. Unless there are approved special events, visits are extremely regulated with minimal if any physical contact. Despite restrictions including intrusive examinations to stem the flow of contraband, precious moments with relatives and friends are spiritually uplifting and encourage non-violent behavior as they are reminders of life.

Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons has increased inmate phone call minutes from 300 to 500 per month, companies providing the service slam men and women with astronomical costs per minute. Meanwhile, inmates using the email system pay five cents per minute to receive and send an email. Why are emails free for all of society while prisoners must pay? Families should not have to pay to see or communicate with their incarcerated loved ones.

Instead of draconian ineffective procedures, what is critically needed is the early release of elderly and infirm men and women who are no longer a criminal threat to the community and have served most of their prison sentences. High priority should also be given to eliminating the medical co-pay for all prisoners, who request to see medical staff during this emergency, and the immediate distribution of Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approved “effective” alternatives to alcohol based sanitizers for use by prisoners.

Immediate action is required due to the harsh conditions in most prisons and jails that can greatly contribute to the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Numerous detention facilities house more than twice the number of people for which the buildings are designed. Combined with staff shortages, confrontations that end in injury and/or death are regular occurrences. Basic hygienic necessities such as hot water, soap and toilet paper are scarce or nonexistent. The CDC recommended 20 seconds of hand washing is impossible under such conditions. When inmates are in transit to and from court appearances and/or sometimes within the correctional facility, their hands are cuffed behind their backs or they are shackled in waste chains. Covering their mouths when sneezing or coughing as advised by the CDC is impossible when handcuffed or chained.

Men and women in correctional facilities do not expect special treatment, but they do desire humane treatment as they pay their debt to society. In that spirit, government and prison officials can grant early release to elderly and/or infirmed men and women who are no longer a danger to society. Another option is a transfer to minimum security facilities or secure medical institutions. Public health officials warn senior citizens, with preexisting health conditions are the most at risk population if exposed to COVID-19. To keep elderly men and women with health problems confined under present conditions places them and their caretakers at risk and the surrounding communities as well when infected prisoners require treatment outside the institution.

Iran has released more than 77,000 prisoners due to the potential impact of the coronavirus. Indiana and other states are considering several forms of release with varying degrees of resistance. More people in our prisons are dying of old age, with an elderly prison population now exceeding 200,000. The guidelines state that Corrections has the authority to extend the limits of confinement for medical treatment, educational and training programs and for reasons consistent with the public interest can be extended indefinitely.

The CDC recommends that hand sanitizers consist of at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective against COVID-19. However, alcohol is contraband in correctional facilities and inmates can be severely disciplined for obtaining a squirt of hand sanitizer. Thurs, CDC-approved alternatives for alcohol-based sanitizers such as Lysol and diluted bleach solutions should immediately be made available to prisoners.

Like it or not, correctional facilities are part of our communities, housing our family members, friends and acquaintances. As the world grapples with this latest viral attack, we must remember those who are trying to earn their way back to open society. They do not warrant being virtually cut off from the positive contact of family and friends while left defenseless against a virus that has the potential to kill. In the case of COVID-19, the financial and human cost of maintaining the status quo vastly outweighs the cost of implementing humane and effective preventative measures to counter the spread of the virus in our jails and prisons.

On Tuesday, March 24 from 10 a.m. to noon, WPFW-FM (89.3) will broadcast a special Roach Brown-hosted “Crossroads” program, “The Incarcerated Community Coronavirus Special.” The community is invited to tune in.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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