COVID-19 And Federal Prisons — The Crisis Behind Bars

For the majority of Americans, COVID-19 and social distancing has become an unfortunate part of everyday life. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population, social distancing is impossible. No matter the length of their sentence, prisoners across the nation aren’t able to stay at least 6 feet away from anyone. 

As COVID-19 continues its rampage across the U.S., prison advocacy groups and inmates alike are calling for corresponding reform. To keep the virus from spreading throughout entire correctional facilities, prisoners should be issued face masks and given increased access to hand sanitizer and hygiene products. Quarantine is essential for any prisoner or guard who’s showing symptoms. Unfortunately, none of this is as easy as it sounds.

Federal Prisons: By the Numbers

The ramifications of COVID-19 among prisoners are especially pronounced in the U.S., which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. They are housed in city and county jails as well as state and federal prisons, depending on the severity of the crime and where it was committed. Inmates confined to federal prisons are typically those who have violated federal laws. 

Crimes committed across state borders or against governmental officials or entities are usually considered federal crimes. There are about 150,000 federal prisoners in the U.S. prison system, housed in 109 different facilities. And each facility is its own independent entity, making it difficult to standardize inmate policies related to COVID-19. 

Budgetary considerations compound the problem even further, yet the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) ensures that every inmate receives healthcare deemed “medically necessary.” Generally speaking, federal prisons have larger budgets than state prisons, in addition to better facilities. For example, health care among federal prisoners is typically more comprehensive and of higher quality than care provided to state-level prisoners. However, inmates at all levels of the U.S. prison system are still being left behind in the wake of coronavirus. 

According to the Associated Press, COVID-19 is running rampant through the federal inmate population. More than 70% of tested inmates had a positive result, and the actual number may be even higher. Hundreds of staff members have also tested positive for COVID-19. So, what can be done to stop the spread within prisons, before it overwhelms both the healthcare and prison systems? 

Inmate Healthcare Reform Over the Years

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was one of the earliest champions of COVID-19 protection within the prison system. In early March, the social justice organization questioned how the federal prison system could best protect inmates, guards, and other workers from the looming threat of coronavirus. Compared to the general population, “prisoners have fewer options for protecting themselves and others. They don’t have the option to stay away from other people when they are sick.”

Prison healthcare reform has long been a matter of political contention, and inmates often don’t receive the care they need. Some states, however, have implemented new healthcare methods in prisons in recent years. In Texas, for example, a massive electronic medical record (EMR) system has changed inmate healthcare for the better while also reducing the burden on taxpayers. Three federal prisons in Texas are utilizing the EMR system, which allows correctional facilities to more easily treat inmates in house and better facilitate critical care situations. 

Of course, internal prison healthcare requires staff, and these professionals are just as vulnerable to COVID-19 as guards and inmates. Working at a correctional facility can be stressful on the best of days. When a pandemic hits, the potential workplace dangers within a prison may ultimately spiral out of control, spawning questions of ethics: How much protection do inmates deserve? Where do human rights fit in?

Reintegration and the Right to Healthcare

The sad truth is that questioning the human rights of prisoners is nothing new. Modern prison healthcare reform platforms call for better “coordination between prison and community health systems,” among other changes. This type of coordination is paramount during times of global pandemic, and crucial for those prisoners who are ready to reintegrate into society, such as parolees.

It’s difficult enough for formerly incarcerated individuals to reintegrate into society. There’s plenty of social stigma to deal with, alongside financial difficulties and working to repair damaged personal relationships. Doing so after surviving COVID-19 is another story altogether. And while there are plenty of reentry resources for ex-offenders in the realm of food, housing, and jobs, obtaining low-cost healthcare is a more difficult endeavor. Yet it’s a crucial aspect of public health, especially among inmates who may be living with a pre-existing health condition.

COVID-19 and Co-Occurring Disorders

The unfortunate reality is that many convicted criminals head to prison with a pre-existing health condition, from high blood pressure to diabetes. And that’s a major problem: poor overall health among the general population can make a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars even deadlier. Preventative healthcare can go a long way in reducing the risk of disease among prisoners.

Among the federal inmate population, one of the most common pre-existing conditions is substance abuse. In fact, researchers claim that a full 50% of U.S. prisoners suffer from substance abuse or dependence, and most don’t receive the help they need. Prisoners may even be able to access illegal drugs and alcohol, continuing the cycle of addiction even while serving time.

In most cases, stopping drug addiction involves much more than simply discontinuing the behavior. Mental health counseling is often part of the process, as are treatment groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. What’s more, quitting certain substances is dangerous without medical intervention, a fact that prison healthcare staff should be well aware of. Opioid and alcohol withdrawal is particularly problematic. Prisoners who are addicted to one or both substances should be continuously supervised during the withdrawal process, which can last several days. During that time, the prisoner’s immune system is extremely vulnerable to outside threats, including COVID-19. 

Final Thoughts

Over the years, the U.S. prison system has seen its fair share of criticism, and the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t helping matters. Prison health systems remain in desperate need of an overhaul, as prisoners continue to contract COVID-19 at an alarming rate. Yet it’s also important for health coverage to follow inmates once they have completed their sentence and are working to reintegrate into society.

Image Source: Unsplash

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