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. The dangers of COVID behind bars became abundantly clear when Cook County Jail in Chicago became the country’s epicenter for COVID-19.
New York State has been criticized for lagging behind in testing their incarcerated people. California has tested a large majority of their people in prison, and even Florida, which has more than double the number of people in prison than New York, has tested nearly half of their prison population. Meanwhile, New York has tested about 23% of its 37,559 inmates.
Governor Cuomo has had the opportunity to release people from prisons and jails in order to slow the spread of the virus, but little has been done. Vulnerable populations such as elderly people are especially at risk of contracting the virus, and instead of releasing them, Cuomo’s plan was to build a prison nursing home. Many prisoners have now been transferred to Adirondack prison as a way to keep them safe, but at least one person incarcerated at the prison has already contracted the virus. Even further, many of these elderly incarcerated people are now ever farther away from their loved ones than they were before.
It has been very difficult to calculate and document the exact number of people in NYC jails 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.
As of July 24, 288 people in custody of the NYC Department of Correction — or 7.3% of the population — were confirmed to be positive for COVID-19, and due to inadequate testing and reporting, that number is more than likely an undercount. Meanwhile, NYC’s infection rate falls at 2.71%.
NY jails + prisons were drastically unprepared to keep their prisoners safe. Some facilities are so crowded that incarcerated individuals sleep in beds only a few feet apart, and it has been reported that correctional officers and other staff move between units used to detain COVID-19 positive individuals and the rest of the jail, potentially spreading the virus throughout the facility.
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 COVID-19 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.