Some of you may have seen reports from St. Louis showing incarcerated men burning their cells to bring attention to their living conditions and health concerns. As the country tries to get coronavirus under control and distribute the vaccine into the arms of millions of Americans, the incarcerated are often left out of these conversations and concerns.
First things first, there is a difference between jail and prison. However, how we treat individuals in each of these places should not differ. In addition, how we treat our incarcerated population during a global pandemic should not differ from how we treat school children, the elderly in nursing homes, service providers, first responders or anyone in society.
Several people imprisoned in jails and prisons across the country have written letters to loved ones describing the horrid conditions in which they live during the pandemic. The constant fear of contracting COVID-19, guards passing the virus to inmates, the absolute fear of going to the infirmary with COVID symptoms and possibly never returning, the lack of social distancing and so much more.
Many people languishing in jails and fearing for their lives during this pandemic have not even been sentenced. Many are in jail due to poverty. That is, they did not have bail money and must sit in jail until their court date. Innocent people are jailed due to accusations and poverty, and sadly, some are not surviving their time in jail once COVID takes over the jail population.
For those who are serving prison sentences in large prisons in communities across the country, the letters from inmates to their relatives have been chilling. They not only describe the typical inhumane conditions pertaining to food, adequate heat, and overall treatment by corrections officers. However, during COVID their concerns and fears have reached a boiling point. Some describe guards jokingly scaring them about COVID-19 or making sure social distance protocols cannot be followed. With visitation restrictions due to budget cuts and now a deadly virus, many inmates feel isolated and alone.
We must continue to ask ourselves what type of society would treat human beings in such a way? We must continue to put pressure on our elected officials to be transparent about the treatment of all groups during COVID-19, not just grandparents in nursing homes, children in schools, or doctors and nurses in hospitals. Some of the most vulnerable groups are those who have been labeled as disposable. That is not the case and we must be the voice for those behind bars during this time.
Please pay attention to the stories coming out of jails and prisons across the nation and pressure your governor and state legislators to be transparent about the numbers of COVID cases and the treatment of those behind bars.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream”, and the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC and also What’s In It For Us podcast.