Trapped in a Pandemic: When Jail Without Bail is a Death Sentence

According to the Legal Aid Society, on March 26 the COVID-19 infection rate at the local jails in New York City was more than nine times higher than the rate citywide and 87 times higher than the country at large! A perfect illustration of this is the population in Rikers Island, a prison in New York City. Again, according to the Legal Aid Society, of the 5,000 people currently housed on Rikers, five hundred and fifty-one of them are serving less than a year for low-level offenses. Six hundred and sixty-six people are in Rikers due to a technical parole violation—including missing curfew, testing positive for drugs, or missing meetings. Another 811 were arrested for a new crime that would have likely been processed as a misdemeanor but was remanded due to their status as parolees. And for these offenses, they are stuck in the crowded conditions that all prisoners suffer, whether in penitentiaries, jails, or detention centers, which promote contagious disease. Regardless of their offense, this means that many people now in prison are sentenced to death by coronavirus.

The U.S. prison population – the largest in the world – is made up disproportionately of people of color. So many prisoners are victims of systematic racism – the result of growing up in communities without decent schools, housing, and health care, but with racist police practices – they are guilty of nothing more than not being born white. And now they have not just a prison term, but a viral death threat that puts them in a danger more grave than that of the population outside. With no chance to “shelter in place,” they are subject to the whims of the state that locked them up.

This even includes young people in juvenile detention centers, the vast majority of whom are there on nonviolent charges. Authorities in at least Louisiana, Texas, Minnesota, New York, and Connecticut have reported coronavirus cases in juvenile facilities. As Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”