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Covid virus trapped behind bars
Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Vaccine distribution exposes our mindset surrounding convicts

Joe Biden recently announced that April 19th would officially open up vaccine eligibility to all American citizens over 18. The President likely gave many a sigh of relief, as certain parts of the country have waited long and hard for their chance at a shot. Eligibility prioritized the most vulnerable to COVID-19 like healthcare workers, essential workers, seniors, and—to the dismay of many—prisoners. 

Some people had a problem with these guidelines. On the outside, it looked like those who had committed crimes got to reap the rewards of society, a society that they played no part in. Of course, herein lies the problem—not in the prisoners who received treatment before non-prisoners, but in the American stigmatization and blind villainization of prison populations.

Vaccine eligibility rolled out based on the concern for certain populations' safety. Prisoners do not top the list of community concerns in most areas of the country, though they should. The New York Times reported on COVID-19 cases in prisons and found that, “one in three inmates in state prisons are known to have had the virus. In federal facilities, at least 39 percent of prisoners are known to have been infected.” Beyond infection rates, mortality rates also rose for incarcerated populations compared to the general public. 

The danger that prison populations face is swept under the rug. Even though 34 of every 100 prisoners will contract COVID-19, prisoners are simply framed as criminals, felons, and above all: no longer human. Backlash from prisoners receiving the vaccine first reveals that American sentiments surrounding prisoners need to change. It shows that “tough on crime” sentiments from the Reagan era continue to brand prisoners for life, and dehumanize them to the point at which no prisoner can ever escape their bondage, even long after their sentence is up. The stigma surrounding prisoners today roots itself in the anti-crime rhetoric America has used for decades. Today, the pandemic sheds light on how prisoners live as second class citizens, both behind bars and for the rest of their lives. 

The Inhumanity of Imprisonment

Personal and communal hygiene has, of course, underscored the entire pandemic. Cleanliness guidelines from medical professionals and the CDC essentially dominated the market, forcing people to buy out hand sanitizer like it was a designer product. In prison, inmates do not have such luxuries. Mass incarceration has imprisoned almost 2.3 million people across the US. Given the congestion of prison complexes, many prisoners deal with levels of overpopulation comparable to that of herding cattle. Communal meals, recreation, and overall living situations make many prisons destined for superspreader events. Inmates also deal with a severe lack of hygiene supplies. Hand sanitizer—sometimes hard for us to obtain but still definitely accessible—is considered contraband, bars of soap are few and far between, and some immigrant holding facilities experience hunger strikes “to obtain soap and toilet paper.”

The conditions in prisons certainly do not reflect those of the richest country in the world. The lack of attention to inmates' health exposes the contempt and disgust with which the prison system operates. Many people, both innocent and guilty, move around from one prison to another. In a pandemic, this means that people come in and out without screening. A person carrying the virus may be placed in a prison, infect everyone, and get transferred (or vice versa). Prison systems were never equipped for a pandemic response, but even that does not sum it up. Prison systems were never meant for humane practices in general.

And the pain of incarceration does not stop at the prison gate.

Thanks to political campaigns that ran on “tough on crime,” those who serve their time will leave the prison system heavily weighed down. Reporting a criminal offense will likely get any job application thrown out. Even mentioning the word criminal will foment fear and distaste in so-called law-abiding citizens. Jobs, housing, public benefits, voting rights—many of the essential aspects of building a life gets taken away from prisoners. The one assurance prisoners get is a high likelihood that they will return to prison in the future. 

From the conditions inmates live in behind bars to the obstacles they face when released, prisoners live second-rate lives in America—and many are reluctant to change that. The American mindset towards convicted criminals veers toward alienation and borderline hatred. However, these fears and worries surrounding convicts can not fall completely on the American populace. Media campaigns and political rhetoric since LBJ’s “War on Crime” has demonized criminals in America. The idea that convicts can still function as humane citizens in society disappeared behind the media portrayal of dangerous criminals who have lost their rights to freedom. Past presidents, such as Reagan, Nixon, Bush, and Clinton rode the wave of “tough on crime.” 

It remains that these political campaigns did not only run on putting people in prison, but putting black people in prison. George Bush honed latent American racism in his own campaign, associating black people with criminality. The fears instilled in Americans, mixed with long-standing racist beliefs culminated in the slanted mass incarceration problem today, where 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime. Through scapegoating the prisoners of America, politicians like Bush won years in office while simultaneously branding (mostly black) convicts for decades to come.

Many Americans still believe these ideas that convicts lose their rights when they commit a crime. However, many inmates today sit in prison for offenses like possession of marijuana, which has been legalized across the country (most recently in New Mexico). The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the issues faced by incarcerated populations, and it continues to show why convicts deserve more attention and respect—the same as any other human. 

COVID-19 and Breaking the Stigma

While prison populations suffered greatly from the virus’ spread throughout prisons, the awareness of these conditions offers a new avenue towards de-stigmatization. Black Lives Matter serves as a perfect example of how major events can lead to large-scale conversations that supersede societal boundaries. Where the BLM movement crossed racial boundaries and prompted white Americans to consider racial issues in America, COVID-19’s impact on prisoners can do the same. People at home stuck in quarantine can at least (theoretically) sympathize with the idea of imprisonment. While totally different situations, the idea of social isolation gives Americans a taste of the concept of solitary confinement and the experience of separation from loved ones. The pandemic allowed white America to see the racist foundations of many American institutions, and it can do the same for prisoners and the American justice system. 

Legislation in America slowly turns away from mass incarceration today; however, the worst effects of the War on Crime are clearly still harming Americans. The pandemic revealed cracks in the flawed institutions essential to America. From Fake News and disinformation to institutional racism, the virus has spread more than infection—it has spread conversation. Conversations about once-taboo topics.

Vaccinating the prison population may stop the spread of the virus, but it will not stop the adverse effects of shame and stigma surrounding convicts in America. Those issues and mindsets will take far more than a shot in the arm to defeat. However, the hope that resonates in America’s vaccine response carries through the social fabric of the country. Just as many people receive vaccines to fight the virus, conversations and education heal people of ignorance. The harsh reality of prison populations comes through in the vaccine rollout and, instead of being upset that convicts are going first in line, Americans might consider why they got that position in the first place. To fix the American justice system it will take active involvement and recognition of not only the issues facing convicts, but the recognition of convicts’ humanity.