Once when the novel COVID-19 virus hit the country, directly impacted people, activists, health care professionals, and epidemiologists all knew that it would drastically harm populations in prisons and jails. It is virtually impossible to social distance while behind bars, and incarcerated people have very little access to PPE and adequate health care services.
According to NYS DOCCS, as of July 19th, 2021 there have been at least 6,724 reported cases of COVID-19 in New York State Prisons and at least 35 deaths.
As ofApril 21, 2021, about 21% of people incarcerated in state prisons have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 42.6% of the general population in New York state. About one in 10 incarcerated people have been fully vaccinated.
At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the virus hashit the nursery. During March and April 2021, the COVID infection numbers spiked, in mid April 2021 there were at least 32 cases throughout the facility, including at least one mother and two babies. According to DOCCS, both the babies were asymptomatic.
There has been a severe lack of communication between DOC staff and incarcerated people regarding the virus and vaccines. Many women have said that they are worried to show symptoms of the virus because they will be punished, put into isolation, with very little support and treatment.
Access to vaccines has been very slow in NY prisons. Governor Cuomo implemented heavy restrictions on access for incarcerated people, and only expanded availability after ajudge ruled in late March 2021 that all people in local jails and state prisons had to have access. Incarcerated people gained access to the vaccine more than three months after people living in other types of congregate settings became eligible.
This recent New York Times article discusses how the real number of COVID cases and deaths in prisons and jails may be higher than reported. This is partly due to the fact that “some deaths were not counted as part of prison virus tallies because hospitalized incarcerated people were officially released from custody before they died.”
It has been very difficult to calculate and document the exact number of people jails and prisons who have contracted the virus. According to the Legal Aid Society, “Correctional Health Services (CHS), a division of NYC Health and Hospitals, has refused to publish critical information about the COVID-19 situation in NYC jails, including the cumulative total number of people who have contracted coronavirus in DOC custody and the total number of people in DOC custody tested for the virus.” However, with the information available, we know that the rate of infection among people who work for DOC and who are incarcerated in NYC remains significantly higher than NYC, NYS, and overall US populations.
In short, COVID-19 + Prison = Death. Being forced to live in a confined, crowded area with no proper health care system is a recipe for disaster. We must protect our brothers and sisters inside who are one of the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic. Check out the Justice 4 Women Task Force to learn about how we are responding to and amplifying the needs of incarcerated women.
Incarcerated Women in the United States:
There are approximately 231,000 incarcerated women in the US according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and the rate of incarceration of women is at a historic and global high, with 133 women in correctional facilities per every 100,000 female citizens.
Between 1980 and 2017, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 750%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017 (Sentencing Project).
About 80% of incarcerated women are mothers. (Vera)
Nearly two-thirds of women in jail are women of color—44% are black, 15% are Hispanic, and 5% are of other racial/ethnic backgrounds—compared to 36% of women who identified as white. (Vera)
86% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual assault, 77% have experienced partner violence, and 60% have experienced caregiver violence (Vera).
53% of incarcerated women have some type of medical problem (Vera).
32% have a serious mental illness (Vera).
82% have a drug or alcohol addiction or dependency (Vera).
Women in prisons are overwhelmingly poor, with most living well below the poverty line (Kajstura, 2017).
Girls committed to juvenile correctional settings often receive harsher punishments than males for the same or lesser offenses (The Sentencing Project, 2018).
Girls in juvenile settings report astonishing rates of physical and sexual victimization prior to arrest (Abram, Teplin, Charles, Longworth, McClelland & Dulcan, 2004) and incidents involving sexual victimization and coercion during commitment are at unacceptable rates (Beck, Cantor, Hartge & Smith, 2013).
From the American Psychological Association: The push to incarcerate more women ignores the social and psychological forces that often underlie female offending, including higher-than-average rates of lifetime exposure to cumulative trauma, as well as physical and sexual victimization; untreated mental illness; the use of substances to manage distress; and behavioral choices that arise in conjunction with gross economic disparities (Bloom and Covington, 2008).
Incarcerated Women in New York / Rikers:
Due to local and statewide system reforms, NYC’s rate of female jail incarceration is much lower than the national average (in NY there are 23 incarcerated women per 100,000 female residents, compared to the national average of 133 women in correctional facilities per every 100,000 female citizens.) Yet jail still plays a large, and often destructive, role in the lives of many New York women.
The Rose M. Singer Center has a capacity to hold up to 2,000 women. According to a 2017 report by the Vera Institute Nearly 6,000 women and girls are sent to Rikers Island every year. The vast majority are detained because they cannot afford their bail.
Despite the fact that the majority of women are only on Rikers for less than a week, just a few days behind bars is likely to jeopardize any preexisting connections a woman has to housing, mental health care, and employment, reducing her chances of returning to a healthy life in the community.
The women who enter Rikers, statistically, have long trauma histories, most have been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, many have mental health issues and multiple social service needs, which are difficult to adequately and thoroughly address in correctional settings.