U.S jails and prisons are being completely ravaged by COVID-19. Crowded quarters, a lack of PPE, inadequate medical care, an aging population, and unsanitary conditions have contributed to an infection rate 5.5 times higher than the already ballooned average in the U.S.
As of this writing, over 252,000 people in jails and prisons have been infected and at least 1,450 incarcerated people and officers have died from the novel coronavirus. Evidence suggests these figures are underreported, however. (Wisconsin, for example, isn’t releasing any information to the public.)
In response, incarcerated people have shown strong solidarity, coming together to demand baseline safety measures and advocating for their release, only to be met with brutal repression and punishment. According to a new report by Perilous: A Chronicle of Prisoner Unrest on November 13, incarcerated people in the U.S. collectively organized at least 106 COVID-19 related rebellions from March 17 to June 15. Cook County Jail in Chicago, a site with the largest outbreak of any location in the state of Illinois, rebelled on six separate occasions including one uprising and several hunger strikes.
The analysis found that people rose up inside federal and state prisons, jails, juvenile carceral centers, and Immigration Detention Centers in 39 states. Immigrant Detention Centers rebelled most frequently, with 45 separate events. Thirty-tworebellions took place in private prisons (25 of which had contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement), a disproportionate response as less than 9 percent of prisons in the United States are privately operated. Louisiana, with a rich history of work stoppages, rebellions and an indefatigable support infrastructure, was the state with the highest frequency of COVID-19-related prison rebellions. California and Washingtonwere the second and third most rebellious respectively.
Common demands have included that guards wear masks and that departments provide individuals with protective items like soap, masks, and hand sanitizer.
Duncan Tarr, a researcher at Perilous, tells Truthout, “Since corrections departments and ICE contractors are unwilling to prevent the spread of the virus, prisoners and detainees have been taking action themselves to draw attention to the dangerous situation they find themselves in and to resist the system of incarceration that is killing them.”
Despite urgent calls for action from public health scientists in The Lancet, the ACLU and countless other organizations, Democratic and Republican politicians alike, from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, have largely refused to reduce prison populations by any meaningful margin. Instead of mass releases, as the U.S. enters its third wave, many departments’ chosen preventative measures continue to be “lockdowns,” or confining people in their cells for 21 to 23 hours a day. It’s estimated that 300,000 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons are in lockdown or solitary confinement conditions.