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Prisoners Around the World are Facing a Death Sentence due to COVID-19

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

On May 13th, the UNODC, WHO, UNAIDS and OHCHR released a joint statement on the spread of COVID-19 in prison populations, acknowledging the increased risk factors for the spread of the virus due to the close quarters that prisoners share. They provided recommended guidelines for countries in order to slow the spread, including reducing overcrowding, providing long term access to health services, and ensuring that those in custody have adequate working and living conditions.

While this was an official statement, human rights groups have been working tirelessly since the beginning of the outbreak to secure human rights for prisoners around the world amidst the pandemic. These guidelines may sound like common sense to some, but nations around the world (yes, including the United States) have shown little regard for one of their most vulnerable populations.

On May 1st, prisoners in the La Llanos penitentiary in Venezuela organized a protest over the conditions they were being forced to live under due to the lockdown. According to Reuters, just like in the rest of Venezuela’s overcrowded and underfunded prisons, inmates rely heavily on food that they get from relatives, which became inaccessible when the government suspended visitation rights as a part of quarantine in mid-March. Amidst nation-wide food shortages, guards took to stealing what little food the prisoners were provided, allegedly forcing prisoners to turn to eating stray animals in order to survive.

The protest turned into a massacre when authorities opened fire into the crowd, slaughtering 47 inmates and injuring 75. While the Venezuelan government has announced that it will be pressing charges in the case, there has been no word on whether the material conditions in the prison will actually improve. In Colombia, the Villavicencio prison is the center of the nation’s outbreak, with nearly 900 reported cases, accounting for about 7% of the country’s total. The prison houses around 1,835 inmates, which is more than double the intended capacity, making isolation near impossible. While the Colombian government announced in April that it would be putting 4,000 prisoners under house arrest in order to lower infection risks, less than 500 have been moved.

In the U.S., a group called The Mashall Project has been collecting data on COVID-19 infections in penitentiaries with state by state breakdowns. As of the week of May 13th, there were at least 25,239 cases of coronavirus reported among prisoners, with 373 deaths. As with all COVID-19 related statistics, the real numbers are likely even higher. One of the virus hot-spots is Chicago’s own Cook County jail, which has become the nation’s largest-known source of coronavirus infections, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Cook County itself is a major virus hub, with approximately 1 in 77 people infected.

Even when additional precautions are taken, the effects are often minimal, leading to some seeking more drastic action. A number of disputes are being filed claiming that prison conditions and the lack of protection measures against the coronavirus are violating the constitutional right of prisoners barring cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU has filed a class-action suit against Lompoc Federal Prison in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles, arguing that the Bureau of Prisons showed a “deliberate indifference” to the pandemic and their failure to reduce the prison population in order to combat overcrowding was ‘inhumane.’

There are, however, some problems even with the release of prisoners. Attorney General William Barr’s plan to release ‘low-risk’ prisoners from federal custody relies on an algorithm that has shown to be susceptible to racial bias. The plan also does not override the Justice Department’s policy that bars all non-citizens convicted of immigration-related offenses from serving out their time at home. Let me make that clear: If you are in a federal penitentiary for immigration-related offenses, even if you committed an entirely nonviolent offense, you are ineligible for release, no matter your risk-assessment level for contracting the virus. That being said, ICE has released several hundred detainees in response to the virus, but there are still large swathes of people being held in what is essentially an illness time bomb.

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, despite incarceration not being a useful deterrent for crime, and that while prison growth may have played some role in dropping crime rates, a massive study done by the National Research Council concluded that “the magnitude of the crime reduction remains highly uncertain and the evidence suggests it was unlikely to have been large.”

By keeping nonviolent offenders in a high-risk environment, law enforcement officials have to contend with the reality of sentencing those people to a possible, if not probable, death. Whether or not one personally believes in the use of the death penalty, we as a country have long reserved it for only the most heinous of crimes, not petty theft or marijuana possession. We as a society are best measured by how we treat the most vulnerable among us, and right now, we are failing- not just in the U.S., but internationally as well. When the worst is over, the global response to this pandemic will be measured not in how well we compensate survivors, but in how we treated the condemned.