Oliver shared stats from the New York Times that there have been 68,000 infected inmates and prison deaths linked to COVID-19 is up to 73% while five of the largest clusters of the virus are in correctional facilities.
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This is especially alarming because 2.2 million individuals are being held in them across the country and inmates face higher health risks. People inside jails are more likely to be immunocompromised and they may have diabetes, hypertension or other chronic health issues. This makes them an immensely vulnerable population.
“Inmates feel that it’s just a matter of time before they get sick which is terrible because we don’t punish people by giving them diseases,” said Oliver.
Before unpacking the impact of this to society as a whole, Oliver reminds that jails are typically where people are detained while awaiting trial or held for minor sentences while prisons typically hold people who have been convicted and have sentences for more than a year.
Oliver points out that there is no way to cope with a crisis like a global pandemic in prison because there is no way to keep six feet apart in a tiny cell which he describes as “a closet with two beds and a toilet.”
The steps that authorities have been taking have been “ridiculously small” including having prisoners sleep “head to foot”. On top of that, there is one crucial thing missing from a lot of prisons: soap.
Washing hands regularly has been the top priority when it comes to preventing the spread of coronavirus. In many prisons, soap is being rationed or not available at all. It may be available for purchase at the commissary, but even then, inmates make pennies for their labor. Some facilities post importance of washing hands, but still charge inmates for soap. That said, there is little to no soap for inmates to wash their hands. In one clip, Oliver features inmates showing a tray of bits and pieces of soap. In that same facility, 80% of inmates have contracted coronavirus.
In addition, there is lack of PPE in many facilities and a lack of testing. And those who do show symptoms are placed in solitary confinement which is the only form of quarantine in many prisons.
“When you take all of this together…it’s honestly no surprise that tensions can hit a breaking point,” said Oliver before showing a clip of inmates of Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas taking over the prison as a result of lack of coronavirus precautions.
“What else are they supposed to do? What other bargaining chip do prisoners have at their disposal right now?” he asks, stating that this is a recurring theme in the country. “If it takes the destruction of property for a system to pay attention to human lives, then we are in a dark f*cking place.”
Local governments have easily avoided this problem. In Santa Barbara, a prison made it difficult for the county to meet standards for reopening so local officials proposed not counting prisoners. In Arkansas, the Director of the Department of Health tried to put an optimistic spin on prison outbreaks saying they are a “closed system” and that they don’t represent the situation in Arkansas in general.
Oliver quickly debunks that. “Even if prisons and jails were closed systems — which they are very much not — it’s weird to call outbreaks a deadly virus fortunate because they are confined to one place.”
He elaborates saying that not everyone in a prison is actually in prison. There are an estimated 445,000 non-inmate staff personnel working in prisons across the country and workers have reported at least 9,180 cases in these facilities. In addition, inmates can spread the virus when they transferred to another prison or are treated at local hospitals.
In addition, 200,000 people are booked across the country and another 200,000 walk out every week. This can make it spread easily throughout the community. One study found, as of mid-April 15.7% of all documented coronavirus cases in Illinois were linked to the Cook County Jail.
Oliver said, “The fewer people in these facilities, the easier it is for them to social distance, the fewer the staff and the lower demand for PPE.” Of course, many will dispute this. He cuts to a clip of Texas State Senator Paul Bettencourt who basically said he doesn’t want the safety of people being jeopardized with “burglars and thieves” on the loose. Oliver suggests releasing those who are little risk to public safety and those who can’t post bail.
“On balance, the risks of carefully letting people out are vastly outweighed by the risks of leaving everyone inside,” he said, adding that inmates, particularly the immunocompromised and the elderly, who have served their sentences should be released, put on furlough or even on house arrest.
“We should be depopulating prisons and jails as quickly as we can right now,” he declared. “In our current system — you’re never just being sentenced to time. You’re being sentenced to a lifetime of social stigma, futile job interviews and roadblocks to necessities like housing. All of that is immoral enough. There is frankly no reason whatsoever we should also be sentencing people to die from a virus cause that’s not justice, it’s neglect.”
He continued to say that incarcerated people are not separate from our population and are still members of our society. “If this horrific year has taught us one thing is that we are all on this death cruise ship together,” he concluded.
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