COVID-19 and the Imperative of Prison Abolition

In mid-July, while the United States was experiencing an overwhelming surge of COVID-19 cases, the New York Times reported a shocking but largely unnoticed statistic: eighty-eight of the one hundred largest coronavirus outbreaks had occurred in correctional facilities.

Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that these facilities were wholly unprepared for a viral outbreak: many American prisons are overcrowded, making social distancing an impossibility. Many lack basic supplies like masks and soap, and testing, although variable across facilities, is, by-and-large, starkly inadequate. Tyler Harvey YSPH ‘20 put it simply: “In many ways, COVID-19 has confirmed what we already knew about health within correctional facilities”—it’s dismal.

Harvey is the Program Administrator at the SEICHE (pronounced “say-sh”) Center for Health and Justice. This newly-launched collaboration between the Yale School of Medicine and Yale Law School, founded and directed by Dr. Emily Wang, is focused on “improving the health of individuals and communities impacted by mass incarceration” through clinical care, research, education, and advocacy work. The Center’s most recent project aims to understand the connections  between correctional facilities and the communities that surround them. To do that, they have gathered a group of experts to map COVID-19 incidence alongside correctional facility capacity –– a measure that quantifies the intensity of incarceration in a given geographic area. Using data from the pandemic, Harvey hopes that people will be able to reexamine the relationships between their communities and local correctional facilities and appreciate how interdependent they are.

Mass incarceration in America—where incarceration rates per capita are the highest in the world—poses severe short- and long-term health risks to both people in prison and the American public. In response, states like New Jersey have begun the process of decarceration, the early release of incarcerated individuals. The ultimate goal is to safeguard the health and bodily autonomy of those who are incarcerated, as well as those in the surrounding communities. However, in the long-run, according to Harvery, the only sustainable solution will be to disassemble the prison-industrial complex.

As the coronavirus pandemic shifts towards rural areas where the majority of the nation’s prisons are located, we face a moral imperative to take action and protect the health of all Americans, especially those who are unable to protect themselves.