Just moments ago, a correctional officer in Maryland tested positive for the coronavirus. To date, Governor Hogan has done an effective job handling the pandemic affecting us in the DC area. I ask corrections officials, the Governor, as well as the Governors in Delaware, Virginia, and other states to use North Dakota’s model to protect prisoners and those being held prior to trial. Here is why prisons, civil commitment institutions, jails, and holding centers need to stop business as usual.
“Who Cares? Let All the Prisoners Die”
It always baffles me when those that cry for justice want to initiate cruel and unusual punishment on a population of two-and-a-half million people. Approximately half of all inmates are imprisoned for non-violent offenses and pose little to no danger to us or our families. As I noted elsewhere, even violent inmates, nearly 50%, can learn a trade and significantly reduce future violence, according to expert James Gilligan. In addition, as Brie Williams and Leann Bertsch note, nearly a half-million inmates are over 50 and have prior health conditions. Prisons and holding centers are the perfect place, a buffet, for COVID-19. It’s like a cruse ship that never gets to dock, but the crew members go home every night.
As a former intern statewide in prisons, I know that health and mental health services are severely understaffed and treat only mild health concerns. In fact, just getting and ambulance into a prison is a lengthy process.
Even if we all agreed that COVID-19 is great in prisons because it will kill off our problems, the real problem is that, like the corrections officer above, thousands of officers, therapists, nurses, and administrators, even police officers, go home every day from prisons. They bring the virus with them to home.
To add to this, corrections officers have a higher mortality rate after retirement than most professions. According to a Florida mortality study, corrections officers and police officers lived twelve years less than the general population. Though these mortality findings have been challenged, having people work in unsanitary conditions with close contact to others is a breeding ground for disaster. At this point we need to be extremely careful, not dismissive.
As we all are learning, COVID-19 is not discriminatory and, as such, it is very good at pointing out the weakness in flawed human institutional systems. This is not the time to be punitive, but it is the time to be compassionate and to think intelligently.
A Nation Built on Economic and Racial Disparity
A wealthy, “good person” might be able to afford superior healthcare but still die because he ate the steak from a minimum wage food service worker. That worker had to go in that day despite being sick. The mom that visits her incarcerated son may inadvertently infect her own mother. This disease is the harshest evaluator of the program we call the United States. What is united about it? It is ripping us apart not because it is bad. This thing we call COVID-19 is just a non-discriminate thing that is trying to do the same thing we all are, survive. Statistically it kills very few of those it infects. The horror is in its ability to show us just how bad our leadership and politics are.
No, it is our most humbling teacher. It shows us how our prison system has been underfunded and used as a punitive human kennel to hold people. Such destroys families and creates a cycle of crime.
It demonstrates that our nursing homes are more like our prisons, places to put people we’d like to forget. It mocks our healthcare system, a system that that leaves millions without healthcare because feeling well and being happy is a privilege in this country, not a right. People turn to drugs to stop their physical and emotional pain, so we spend one trillion for the “War on Drugs” to lock them up. Presently, they are the first sitting targets for COVID-19.
Now, we all get the privilege of being the most affected country in the world because of disparity and those slow to act.
No, China, Taiwan, and South Korea Did the Right Thing
The virus also proves that when difficult times happen, leaders need to stop acting like spoiled children, blaming one another, and come together and help one another. COVID-19 beckons us. It says, “Will you stop being human long enough to save humankind?” Whether Chinese, Russian, Somalian, or Native American, whether royalty or an inmate civilly committed, can we do the right thing without being political? North Dakota’s corrections response is a model we all should be using. They are trying to do the right thing. Some have responded better on the world stage.
China struggled in the beginning to stop the virus. U.S. media had a field day discussing how bad China is. However, China, with 1.2 billion people, squashed the virus in weeks, and they now face new infections from travelers. Some argue that China did not report those asymptomatic. That is true because how can you know someone is infected if they are asymptomatic, huh? Can we stop the propaganda, please?
South Korea has a good enough healthcare system because everyone can get tested, and Taiwan’s people, similar to China’s and South Korea’s, feel a civic responsibility to help one another. As Americans, we seem to have a civic responsibly to buy up toilet paper selfishly and go on spring break and say, “I don’t care” if I play a role in killing other people.
But then I think of our font-line workers: health care, social workers, corrections officers, police, EMTs and the kind person that takes one roll instead of five rolls of tissue. I think of the manager at my local Giant store in Pasadena, Maryland that was wiping down every single grocery cart. He is saving lives for lousy pay. Just how many people is he saving while risking his own?
Our inmates, corrections officers, police officers, and prison and jail staff face a crucial danger in our corrections systems. If we love our country and our people, we will stop seeing what makes us different and hated and start seeing what makes us human. Maybe that is what COVID-19 is trying to do, warn us that much worse is yet to come if we continue to be irresponsible.
Maybe this virus can leave a better future instead of an awful past. At this point, it may be up to our governors.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.