Are U.S. inmates being forgotten in the fight against the pandemic? What is happening in the prisons of one of the most affected States?
California is facing a new strain of the Coronavirus, but also State Prisons overcrowding and a lack of efficient measures against COVID-19 and fundamental rights for inmates during this pandemic. The overcrowding of prisons and jails – a consequence of years of mass incarceration – inevitably is not favoring the fight against the pandemic. However, the measures taken are not adequate to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in indoor and overpopulated environments such as prisons and jails, where inmates are in close contact for most of the time.
The new strain, designated as CAL.20C is believed to be partly responsible for the dramatic increase in cases over the last two months, even though that it has not been identified as deathlier than the other forms of COVID-19. It may have been contributing to the acceleration of the recent surge of cases across Southern California. According to the independent survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times, the confirmed cases are around 3,274,391, with 3,078,250 vaccines already administered. Southern California is maintaining its sad record, being the region with most cases in the whole State. The most affected counties are Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Clara, Kern, Alameda, and Sacramento.
COVID cases in California State Prisons
According to the Los Angeles Times and to the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the currently active cases in California State Prisons are 2,263, with a total of 47,299 cumulative cases and 192 deaths.
Many of the detainees’ relatives complained about the lack of masks at the beginning of the pandemic. Moreover, in many prisons – the most crowded – in case of virus positivity inmates are no longer moved and placed in isolation but are asked to remain in their cells, thus risking infecting their cellmates. However, CDCR is trying its best, by testing the inmates and the Correctional Officers regularly. Also, in order to improve the social distancing measures within the population and to prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside state prisons, CDCR suspended in-person visits and replaced them with online video calls through Cisco WebEx videoconferencing software.
Inmates in the United States do not have full constitutional rights but are protected by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment; generally considered being any punishment that is injurious or that violates a person’s basic human dignity. This protection also involves the requirement of the minimum standard of living for all the inmates. Furthermore, inmates have the legal right to be held in “humane” facilities – which is nearly impossible when prisons are overpopulated. Moreover, detainees must be fed adequately, must have access to personal facilities and medical care.
Another right, which is one of the most important, and it is not taken into consideration by inmates nor by the correctional officers is the right to be heard regarding prison conditions, and they also have the right to have those complaints considered by the courts.
Is there a deficiency in fundamental rights in California State Prisons?
Inevitably, an overcrowded environment does not foster humane conditions in the facilities and during a pandemic, it might be difficult to provide medical care to every inmate. If medical care is not provided and conditions inside the facilities are inhumane, then yes, we have a deficiency in fundamental rights.
However, we must bear in mind that one year ago an outbreak of a pandemic was not even expected and after one year we barely know how to act to take into consideration every single human being. That does not mean that we must forget those people who are incarcerated because they have chosen a wrong path in life – as a consequence of the social background they were raised in. Every human being is important.