Comment: For those in prison, the covid pandemic isn’t over

Because of the sheer numbers housed in prisons, social distancing to avoid infection is impossible.

By Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, prisoners across the United States have been deprived of even the most basic protections against covid-19.

Prisoners cannot social distance and we are constantly forced into close contact with people we know are sick. When we are placed in isolation — because we are sick or “for our protection” — we are locked in a cell for 23 hours a day with limited access to phones, showers, clean clothes, books and personal hygiene supplies.

I used to think we were treated like this because the guards hated us. But I’ve come to realize, while that may be true on a micro level, the reality of the larger picture is more complicated. The issues prisoners are experiencing isn’t a result of guards’ feelings, but of the structural failures of the system. Simply put, there are too many people in prison. Making up only 5 percent of the world’s population, America has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population; more than 2 million human beings.

Mass incarceration has long been a problem. The recent pandemic simply revealed just how damaged and overtaxed the system is, making the cracks impossible for us to ignore, even if those on the outside are still trying to. At this point, despite active outbreaks in most of the Washington state Department of Correction facilities, there are still new prisoners pouring into the system every day. There just isn’t space to house them away from quarantined units.

How did we get to a place where society accepts unsafe and inhumane living conditions for those who are incarcerated?

For decades, politically motivated actors told the public we needed to lock up more and more people; that the public’s safety depended upon it. This fear-mongering worked to convince society that prisoners are nothing more than trash to hide away from the rest of society. That we are less deserving than our fellow citizens on the outside of basic safeties.

In 1996, political scientists William Bennet, John Dilulia, and John Walters warned of “thickening ranks of juvenile ‘super-predators’ [who] do not fear the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment, or the pangs of conscience.” Discriminatory narratives like this spread through the country, encouraging the public to turn their heads as countless Black and Brown children were dragged from their communities and absorbed into the carceral system, often for the rest of their lives.

Unmasking this devastating myth and the damage it did to impoverished communities of color took decades, and can still be seen in the way we view incarceration today. It’s this type of messaging that has led to what we’re experiencing today: U.S. prisons are so crowded, it’s physically impossible to protect people who are incarcerated from an infectious disease.

It’s hard to place the blame entirely on state Department of Corrections for the harm prisoners have suffered throughout the pandemic. There are things they could have done to better protect us but they have been given an impossible task. As a society, we’ve asked corrections departments to incarcerate over 2 million human beings; spending money on prisons faster than on schools.

Because of overcrowding and shrinking budgets, prisoners and our loved ones have been forced to endure extreme levels of stress, pressure, unsafe conditions and tortuous environments. The pandemic has given us a chance to see the harms created through fear mongering and the resulting legislation passed by political actors looking to hang on to power.

As we push for equality in America, we cannot overlook our incarcerated population. We are not trash to be thrown away. We are your fellow citizens: people who may one day be your neighbors, coworkers, or even your bosses.

Many of the people who landed in prison because they have caused harm were victims of harm themselves. If we want to break that cycle, we must invest in health care, education and affordable housing; things that allow people to become functioning members of society. We cannot continue to rely on incarceration as a primary response to harmful behavior.

Let’s not continue pouring billions into our prison system. Let’s look toward reducing our reliance on unsafe prisons and instead begin to invest in and rebuild the individuals that enter them.

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. He co-founded Look2Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working towards publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Huff Post, Insider and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @chriswblackwell.

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