Wizdom Powell, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health, part of the University of Connecticut at Farmington. In this article, she discusses the impact of COVID-19 on those who are incarcerated or have recently been detained.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 900 people who are housed in state and federal prisons in the United States. The Marshall Project states that more than 100,000 people in carceral environments have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
However, epidemiologists (people investigating disease outbreaks) warn that gaps and inconsistencies in data collection contribute to a gross underestimation of the impact of COVID-19 on people involved in the judiciary, particularly those staying in our country’s prisons are.
In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is predicting a more significant increase in COVID-19 deaths among incarcerated populations than previously calculated by federal officials.
The predicted and preventable loss of life from COVID-19 in carceral environments is also exacerbated by other deaths of despair among citizens involved in the judiciary, often with complex trauma, substance abuse diagnoses, suicide stories, and other behavioral related Health problems enter into them.
Such challenges are significantly compounded by daily dehumanizing experiences with law enforcement staff and inmates, and by the seemingly everyday use of solitary confinement to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
We rely on carceral environments to provide a range of behavioral health services that were extremely inadequate even without the additional requirements of COVID-19.
Stay up to date with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.
Bones in our cellars
Carceral settings are dark and foreboding spaces that resemble the cellar described in Ursula K. Le Guin’s haunting philosophical essay The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.
They result from the bargains that society makes in return for a largely illusory sense of happiness and public safety. To put it bluntly, people have drawn analogies between Le Guin’s essay and the failure of the judicial system before. My first introduction to the essay was during my time as an Aspen Health Innovator Fellow in 2016.
The essay begins with a lively festival scene from the summer festival of Omelas. In the course of the story, we learn something about the citizens of Omelas and their preoccupation with carnal pleasures. The city looks idyllic. Yet we soon discover that Omelas has an open secret that is in the basement of one of his public buildings — an abandoned and abused child.
Most citizens of Omelas seem to accept the abuse of this child as a precondition for their utopian existence. However, some go away for unknown reasons.
Each time I revisit this prose, I learn a bit more from the realities of those who joyfully participate in the festival, the child in the cellar filled with excrement, whose circumstances are known to the residents of the city, and those who have decided to leave.
Our neglect of the populations affected by the judiciary during the COVID-19 pandemic reminds me that, like Omelas, we are a nation that is worryingly used to looking away from the abominable misery faced by the mostly Black, Indigenous, and Colored (BIPoC) living in our Are included in animal cellars.
We are apparently burying them alive in the mistaken belief that we are maintaining law and order — even in the midst of a pandemic in which some are raging against a parallel sense of restricted individual liberties.
As COVID-19 drives the compassionate release and other decarceration efforts, it is unclear how many BIPoC will benefit from it and whether those released will receive adequate transitional support, particularly for behavioral health and trauma.
Even more alarming is the data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, which cites an increase of 71% of the prison population they track in the US.
Returning citizens who manage to achieve early release are rejoining the most affected medically and socio-economic by COVID-19. They are also returning to a world characterized by lost time due to imprisonment, new and different rules of physical and social engagement, extreme political engagement Polarization and increasing racial unrest has been fundamentally changed.
These factors alone should remind us that a perfect storm of increasing health inequalities is brewing between the populations affected by the judiciary and the communities to which they return. However, it is the lack of coordinated behavioral and trauma recovery support for citizens involved in justice, who have been admitted to carceral environments and are returning to our communities, that should keep us awake at night.