Faculty Q&A: America’s prisons and social distancing

March 18, 2020
Contact: Fernanda Pires fpires@umich.edu
Aerial view of a prison in Jackson, Michigan. Image credit: iStock Photo

Aerial view of a prison in Jackson, Michigan. Image credit: iStock

FACULTY Q&A

Social distancing is the new national—and international—buzz phrase. But staying home is not an option for the 2.3 million people who are in prisons and jails across the country, including the 41,000 prisoners locked up in Michigan’s 31 correctional facilities.

To prevent the new virus from quickly spreading, the Michigan Department of Corrections has banned all in-person visitations at state prisons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons also announced that visitations at the nation’s 122 federal correctional facilities are on hold for at least 30 days.

Experts say these measures are not enough. Poor sanitary conditions and the elevated percentage of elderly and medically frail people behind bars increase the system’s vulnerability.

Nora Krinitsky, director for the University of Michigan Carceral State Project and Prison Creative Arts Project

Nora Krinitsky, director for the University of Michigan Carceral State Project and Prison Creative Arts Project

Nora Krinitsky, director for the University of Michigan Carceral State Project and Prison Creative Arts Project shared her thoughts on COVID-19, the vulnerability of Michigan’s correctional system and a potential outbreak behind bars.

How realistic can social distancing be in prisons? Can it be done?

Not really. Due to the built environment of prisons and issues of overcrowding, it is extremely difficult to practice recommended social distancing or isolate yourself if you are sick. Many Michigan prisons are severely overcrowded. Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti—the only women’s prison in the state—houses over 2,200 women but only has capacity for 1,100.

It has been said there are no known cases of coronavirus in Michigan prisons. How accurate is this information? Are incarcerated people being tested?

The Michigan Department of Corrections has informed us that there are no cases of coronavirus in Michigan correctional facilities. They have ended all in-person visitation to their facilities as a precautionary measure. I am not aware of the status of testing inside.

Do Michigan prisons have empty spaces if some inmates have to be quarantined because of the virus?

Again, not really. In many prisons, the only way to quarantine someone who is sick is in segregation, a step that is typically used as a punitive measure.

The American Friends Service Committee and Safe and Just Michigan have asked Gov. Whitmer to release elderly and vulnerable people from Michigan prisons. Is this request valid?

Absolutely. In many cases, prison populations look much like retirement homes. Prisoners who received long indeterminate sentences or life sentences in the 1960s or 1970s are now elderly. They are among the most vulnerable populations and deserve acute care they cannot access in prison.

According to Safe and Just Michigan, there are some 760 people in prison who are 70 years or older and about 800 who are considered medically frail. How could the MDOC protect them?

The best way to protect those people is to send them home from prison today. Due to the conditions of prisons, they can’t be safely cared for or protected inside.

To help prevent or contain the spread of COVID-19, the MDOC announced that steps are being taken to thoroughly clean and disinfect housing units, common areas and restrooms. Is the implementation of better cleaning protocols enough?

It is certainly an important step in the right direction and I was happy to see that measure taken. But as we know from the CDC, the most effective way to slow and stop the spread of the virus is social distancing, which can’t be achieved inside prisons.

How can we alleviate further isolation and mental health risks in prisons, considering school programming, outside programming and family visits were cancelled? What should and can be done?

At PCAP, we’re thinking creatively about ways to communicate with people in prison. We want to help combat the isolation that we are all feeling in this moment and support our loved ones inside. Mail will be delayed during quarantine, but we will still send letters. We are also moving forward with sending a slide show of the art from the 25th annual “Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners,” even though the show hasn’t been mounted yet. I hope that when people inside view the slideshow and all the incredible art other prisoners have made, it makes them feel less alone.