The issue of prison system failures that stem from pandemic regulations (or lack thereof) is a pervasive one across the globe. While pre-pandemic systems were already fraught with rampant human rights violations, the COVID-19 response in the criminal legal system only compounded the situation. Between 2010 and 2021, the global population of incarcerated individuals rose by a collective 8%, stuffing already crowded prisons to the brim. Overcrowding was found to be a continuous issue in over 118 countries. In the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, over 109 countries adopted policies meant to reduce prison populations, with the objective of quelling disease, but less than 6% of the global prison population actually saw release. And, after the courts caught up with covid backlogs, masses of people were admitted into prisons in a short period of time. Almost immediately after reforms meant to minimize the negative effects of COVID-19 went in, prison systems witnessed a virtual reversal to pre-pandemic methods and levels of incarceration.
When considering incubators for governmental failure to reduce overcrowding to protect inmates, the United States is a nation of particular concern. The U.S. has been, and continues to be, notorious for its gigantic prison-industrial complex. If we consider each U.S. state as its own country and compare them individually to worldwide trends, in 2018, 23 of those states would have ranked the highest out of any state or country in terms of incarceration rate. Even in 2019, when the U.S. prison population was at its lowest since 1995, the country’s incarceration rate still peaked considerably higher than that of any other country in the world. Unfortunately, the pandemic has by no means reduced any of these preposterous trends.
It was known early on that crowded prisons and jails are ideal environments for disease to rapidly spread. The failure to efficiently and effectively reduce incarceration levels at the onset of COVID-19 directly led to uncontrolled outbreaks that had devastating effects. By June 2020, the case rate for prisoners was 5.5 times higher than that of the population at large, coming in at 3,251 per 100,000 and 587 per 100,000 respectively. While this alone is frightening, when we look at the death rate of 39 deaths per 100,000 prisoners versus the rate of 29 deaths per 100,000 free citizens, we see that discrimination and/or lack of compassion toward prisoners was at play during this time of crisis. One individual with pre-existing medical conditions being held at FMC Lexington in Kentucky stated that, “After about the third day [in quarantine], we realized we weren’t going to get the medical attention that we needed. We kind of huddled up and took care of each other.” This abhorrent neglect was sadly a pattern across U.S. prisons. A disregard for the life of incarcerated individuals hindered prompt action aimed at stamping out the spread of disease and caused avoidable death.
These statistics are alarming because of the governmental awareness that overcrowding directly degrades the containment of infectious diseases within prisons and jails. When the stem of an issue could have been attacked, and prisoners released, it was instead fertilized. Why did this happen? A prevalent, warped societal perception of the rights to which prisoners are entitled.
We, as a people, forget that prisoners are guaranteed certain rights under United States democracy. Although the rights of prisoners are certainly curtailed, they are relevantly entitled to a minimum standard of living under the Eighth Amendment of the constitution and the right to life, protection from arbitrary death, and provision of healthcare without discrimination under the agreements of the United Nations. The Eighth Amendment grants incarcerated people protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Overcrowding of institutions leads to decreased standards of living and infringes upon this Amendment. The excess and unnecessary disease that resulted from overcrowding during the pandemic is therefore a breach of this right. Prisoners’ rights to life, as outlined by the UN, protects them against actions or inactions that may cause premature or unnatural death. Along the same lines, protection from arbitrary death puts responsibility on the state to provide basic necessities of life like water, food, sanitation, space, ventilation, and medical care in prisons. When a nation or state takes on an individual into their incarceration, they assume responsibility for the protection of their basic needs, and the shortcomings in this regard during the pandemic were incessant. The inaccessibility of space, ventilation, and of course healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected prisoners and caused careless and avoidable death within their populations, infringing upon their rights upheld by the U.S. constitution and UN.