The coronavirus infiltrated every aspect of American society where people gather in constricted spaces. And that includes county jails and state prisons.
Because of this human density, state officials must find a safe and just way to reduce the number of incarcerated New Yorkers. Concerns are mounting about a potential second wave of COVID-19 in state prisons topped up by the start of flu season.
Legislators in the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on prisons and jails, including inmates released early due to the pandemic and how agencies plan to keep infection numbers low.
The numbers give state lawmakers reason to worry. More than 11,000 New Yorkers are jailed and 37,000 people are being held in state prisons, according to nysenate.gov. The state reported 773 confirmed cases of inmates infected with COVID-19.
But corrections employees share the same enclosed spaces in prisons and jails with the inmates they supervise. More than 1,300 corrections employees have contracted the virus or yielded positive tests, according to the state Department of Community and Correctional Services.
Social distancing as we practice it outside prisons is almost impossible. Inmates frequently remain only 2 or 3 feet apart when crowded in prison hallways, common areas or bathrooms, former inmates testified at Tuesday’s hearing.
Social distancing is impossible in prison yards, corridors and cell blocks. Space is tightly concentrated, increasing the likelihood of a rampant outbreak and more deaths.
At a time when America is marking the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths caused by COVID-19, state officials need to conceive a just and secure plan to ensure that prison inmates and corrections employees do not add to this once-unimaginable death toll.