The Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Deadly Risks for Both Prison Inmates and Staff

Interview with Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

As more people in jails and prisons – both inmates and staff – test positive for the coronavirus, prisoners’ rights groups and family members are demanding that inmates be released, especially those with medical or mental health conditions, those over 55 and under 21, individuals in pre-trial detention who can’t make bail, those in immigration detention, and people incarcerated for technical violations such as missing a parole reporting date. About 2 million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands cycle through the system each year. There are 38,000 prisoners in immigration custody alone, where conditions are often overcrowded and unhygienic.

Although releases have been few, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of arrestees being imprisoned since the pandemic began, with many being released on a promise to appear, whenever court proceedings resume.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Amy Fettig, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, about the current dangerous conditions in U.S. prisons, the grave risk prisoners and staff face, and what should be done to minimize that risk.

AMY FETTIG: Now in response to Covid-19, we’ve seen some jails take some action — but frankly, at the margins. The concern still is that it’s too little and it’s too slow. We want to get people out of prisons and jails who can safely be removed before they get sick. And it’s also important to remember that even in the best of times, jails and prisons tend to be extremely overcrowded. They are unhygienic, filthy, the conditions are very, very poor. And quite frankly, the medical systems in these institutions, even without Covid-19, are highly inadequate. So people who live and work in these institutions are sitting ducks, literally, for the virus.

And we have seen some response, mostly at the jail level, the local level. We’ve seen places as diverse as Jefferson County, Kentucky and Travis County, Texas and New York City take some actions to remove people who are there on misdemeanors or who are particularly vulnerable, like the aged or with chronic diseases. But, for example, in New York City, a lot was made of the fact that Rikers – which holds thousands of people on any given day – was going to release individuals who didn’t need to be in the jail, and the result was 40 people were released. That is far too little and it may be too late. There already is infection in that jail, both for staff and prisoners. So the concern is great, some of the responses have been thoughtful, but it’s simply not enough.

MELINDA TUHUS: Do you know where the pushback came from to not release more?

AMY FETTIG: It’s hard to know how those decisions were made. It seemed to be at the highest level that they were going to actually start releasing people because Rikers, like I said, it holds thousands of people. Many are there because they’re too poor to pay bail. Many are there on misdemeanors; almost all are pre-trial. So, you could make some very thoughtful decisions about who is actually a threat to public safety and who is just too poor to pay their way out, at a minimum. And then look to the people who have chronic medical issues — and quite frankly, in jails and prisons we have lots of people with chronic medical issues, whether it’s diabetes or heart problems, or thousands and thousands who have very serious mental illness and are often there simply because they can’t get care in the community. They don’t need to be held in prisons and jails until they get sick and potentially die simply because they’re vulnerable and not enough was done by our political leaders to prevent this.

MELINDA TUHUS: Amy Fettig, it seems like prison and jail staff would have a common interest in reducing the incarcerated populations of their facilities. Have their unions taken a position on this issue anywhere?

AMY FETTIG: Well, the bottom line is that prison and jail conditions are also working conditions. So increasingly we are seeing staff speak out and say, “Hey, we don’t have soap. We don’t have hand sanitizer. We don’t have masks and gloves or any protective gear and we’re not being given information by our administrations on what we can do to protect ourselves and protect prisoners. I think there’s more of a “We’re in this together” feeling.

We haven’t seen unions speak out and say we have to start releasing people, but I think that’s probably going to start happening because folks need to protect themselves any way they can and it is certainly true that right now, the infections coming in to prisons and jails are coming in through staff.

One thing that prisons and jails did immediately was stop visitation – for good or ill. Some of that needed to happen. But it certainly isn’t sufficient to stop Covid-19 from breaching prison walls because people are coming in and out every day simply because they work there, so we need to take other measures. Stopping visitation of family members is not going to do it. We need to release people into the community so people can protect themselves because the system is too broken to protect them, either the detainees or the staff.

MELINDA TUHUS: I’ve heard that a lot of prisons and jails are considering moving people to solitary who test positive for the coronavirus, but prisoner advocates say that’s a bad idea. Why?

AMY FETTIG: There’s a lot of risk being trapped there in the first place. There’s also risk that people are afraid of being put in solitary confinement because they know it’s torture, so why would people report symptoms if they know they’re going to be placed in punishment? So, that in itself could really counteract any efforts to isolate or control the disease because people aren’t going to volunteer that they don’t feel well if they think they’re going to be tortured.

MELINDA TUHUS: You said there is no comprehensive data on the numbers who have been released. Why not?

AMY FETTIG: One of the biggest problems is they like to operate in secrecy. They often are not communicating with public health officials; they’re not communicating with the public or letting us know what they’re doing. They’re also not communicating with their staff or the people in their custody know what’s happening. So there’s a great deal of fear out there, and justifiable fear, that people are unprotected.

So one of the things that needs to happen in addition to releasing people and taking pro-active preventive measures in these institutions is for these institutions to tell the public exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and to be held accountable in the same way that any other government institution is held accountable by the public and our political leaders.

For more information on the National Prison Project, visit


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