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Prisons Worldwide Face Coronavirus Crisis: Overcrowding, Lack of Sanitation & Labor at Slave Wages

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As Italy went on lockdown, nearly 30 prisons across the country broke into riots Sunday and Monday after visitation rights were suspended in response to the outbreak. In a prison in southern Italy, a riot left at least six incarcerated people dead and caused 50 people to escape. Prisoners have reportedly lit fires, charged guards and even escaped at multiple facilities. This comes as the United Nations confirmed that coronavirus had reached Iran’s prisons, as the number of cases there continues to soar. Iran has temporarily freed some 70,000 prisoners in response to the coronavirus. And concerns are growing about the health of the at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims jailed in prison camps in western China, where at least 13 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the region of Xinjiang. In the U.S., New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing backlash after announcing Monday that New York state would respond to the growing coronavirus outbreak here by producing its own hand sanitizer made by prisoners for less than a dollar an hour. Not only will prisoners be making the 75% alcohol hand sanitizer for an average of 65 cents an hour, it’s unclear if they will even be allowed to use it to protect themselves from infection. Items with alcohol are typically considered prisoner contraband. From Houston, we speak to Keri Blakinger, a reporter with The Marshall Project.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, on this Super Tuesday 2, where people are voting in six states across the country for who could be the next president of the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we turn now to look at how coronavirus is affecting the world’s prisons. As Italy went on lockdown, nearly 30 prisons across the country broke into riots Sunday and Monday after visitation rights were suspended in response to the outbreak. In a prison in southern Italy, a riot left at least six incarcerated people dead and caused 50 people to escape. Italy’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded, and advocates are sounding the alarm that people inside have not been tested for the virus.

Meanwhile, Italy’s death toll continues to rise, with more than 9,000 reported cases and 463 deaths. This comes as the United Nations confirmed that coronavirus had reached Iran’s prisons, as the number of cases there continues to soar. Iran has temporarily freed some 70,000 prisoners in response. On Monday, Iranian officials reported 595 new infections and 43 new deaths in just the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to at least 237.

AMY GOODMAN: And concerns are growing about the health of at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims jailed in prison camps in western China, where at least 13 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the region of Xinjiang. Despite a public health crisis that’s left at least 3,136 dead, China has refused to close its prison camps, where conditions are reportedly dire with rampant overcrowding, lack of sanitation. Writing for USA Today, one human rights advocate called the Uyghurs “sitting ducks for coronavirus,” demanding they immediately be restored to their homes.

Back here in the United States, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is facing backlash after announcing Monday New York state would respond to the growing coronavirus outbreak by producing its own hand sanitizer made by prisoners for less than a dollar an hour. Not only will prisoners be making the 75% alcohol hand sanitizer for an average of 65 cents an hour, it’s unclear if they’ll even be allowed to use it to protect themselves from infection because of the level of alcohol. Items with alcohol are typically considered prisoner contraband.

Well, for more on these issues, we go to Houston, Texas, where we’re joined by Marshall Project reporter Keri Blakinger. She is the publication’s first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her latest piece is headlined “When Purell Is Contraband, How Do You Contain Coronavirus?”

Well, why don’t you answer that question for us, Keri? Give us a lay of the land. What’s happening in the United States prisons? And then talk about other places, as well.

KERI BLAKINGER: Hi. Thanks for having me. In U.S. prisons, there is a lot of problems with understaffing, including both the guards and the medical staff. And even in the sort of best-case scenario, the medical care is not that great in prison. And then you add on top of that that just basic disease prevention measures are either against the rules or simply impossible. And that ranges from it’s usually contraband to have any sort of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, but also it’s not always possible to wash your hands regularly. Sometimes your water is out. Sometimes you’re just in a situation where you don’t have access to a sink for hours. Sometimes if you’re on transport, you’re literally chained to the person next to you. So it’s really hard to do any sort of social distancing or to just stay clean.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your article begins with an example of a prisoner who was punished for using hand sanitizer. Could you explain that?

KERI BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. There’s a woman who I’ve spoken to for a few stories. Her name is Lauren Johnson. She is now with the ACLU of Texas. But before she became an advocate, she did time. And when she was doing time in Texas, at one point she had gone to an annual gynecological checkup and came out and understandably wanted to wash her hands. And there was a thing of hand sanitizer on the wall. She used it and says that the guard started screaming at her and gave her a ticket, and she ended up losing phone privileges and rec privileges for 10 days. And that’s because, again, it’s an alcohol-based product, and you can’t use those in prison. You can’t possess them. The idea is that there’s a concern that prisoners would potentially drink it or put salt in it and separate out the alcohol. And as result of that, these products are typically banned.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond, Keri, to what’s happening in New York state, to Governor Cuomo announcing that it’s prisoners who are going to make what he called “New York Clean”? Now, people know around the country the shortage of Purell right now. Explain what that is and if the prisoners themselves would get to use it, and what it means for prisoners to be making an essential product like that, and what they’re being paid.

KERI BLAKINGER: So, in New York prisons, the average pay is around 62, 63 cents an hour. And I think it’s men at Great Meadow that are going be producing this. You know, there’s a lot of prison industries that are making things like license plates and stuff. But that means that we have a lot of predominantly black and brown people who are being paid less than a dollar an hour. And if you don’t go to work, you typically get a ticket. You get written up. You face the possibility of punishment. So, you know, I think that’s the sort of dynamic we need to be aware of when we’re thinking of how this plays out.

But also, in the case of something like Purell or the state equivalent of Purell, it’s got alcohol in it. And I see that when he announced this, Governor Cuomo said that it would be available in schools and prisons. And I’ve been asking the prison system since then if they were going to allow inmates to use it, because when I was there, when I did time in prison, you were not allowed to have alcohol-based hand sanitizer. And from looking at the rules that they still have online, it doesn’t look like alcohol-based hand sanitizer is allowed. And, you know, so far the prison system has been ignoring my questions and questions from other reporters about whether they’re going to change that and actually allow prisoners to utilize the product that they’re making for less than a dollar an hour.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Keri, inevitably there are going to be some incarcerated people who end up with the flu here and the coronavirus. What’s been the practice in the past when we’ve had, for instance, Legionnaires’ disease or other flu outbreaks in these prisons? How have they dealt with the inmates? Have they basically put them in solitary confinement or lockdown? How have prison authorities dealt with these issues in the past?

KERI BLAKINGER: Well, typically, when we’re talking about things like swine flu, Legionnaires’, mumps — mumps happens a lot in prisons — the response is to shut down visitation and to put everyone in isolation. There are probably better responses, even within the realm of prisons and their understaffing and lack of medical care. I mean, one possibility that I’ve never heard of being implemented but might be something to consider is that some prison systems charge inmates a copay for medical care, and I don’t know if waiving that would have any sort of impact. But typically, prisons start with isolation and cutting off visitation.

AMY GOODMAN: Keri, can you talk about how Iran responded to the coronavirus? They’re being hit incredibly hard right now. A lot of the leadership has coronavirus. But they released 70,000 prisoners. Now, there’s been a push in the United States to also, particularly among huge numbers of elderly and chronically ill people in prison. Can you talk about that movement and also what’s happened in Italy with the uprisings in so many of the prisons there now in the midst the coronavirus pandemic?

KERI BLAKINGER: Well, in terms of releasing people, I’m not sure what that would look like here. There’s different sort of ways that could work out. You could simply try to avoid pretrial detaining people and sort of reevaluate who is really a risk and who really needs to be brought into jail in the first place. But on the back end of the system, there’s also the possibility of releasing people. And this is something that is largely up to parole boards in a lot of states, so it wouldn’t necessarily take any sort of legislative action. In some states, it’s really just that the parole board could decide, “Hey, we’re going to release people more frequently right now.”

And, you know, prisoners are also a high-needs medical population. They have higher than average rates of things like asthma, heart disease, mental health issues, hepatitis, HIV. So this is a high-risk population. And the prison population as a whole is aging. So there’s a lot of people that might be good to consider for release.

In terms of what happened in Italy, when you were talking about riots, I mean, that’s something we could also — need to at least be aware of here. I’m not going to say like there’s going to be a prison riot or something, but I will say that we have a lot of facilities in a lot of different prison systems that are very understaffed. Obviously, we’ve seen what happens in Mississippi. There’s prisons in Texas that are at 40% staffing levels. The federal prisons have had ongoing staffing issues. And that’s not true everywhere. There are some jails, there are some prisons that are much better staffed. But there are a number where we have these understaffing issues, and if you have like 10% of the officers not show up, like you could have a substantial security problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Keri Blakinger, we want to thank you so much for being with us, staff writer for The Marshall Project. And congratulations on The Marshall Project winning the Izzy Award out of Ithaca College and the Park Center for Independent Media for all your great work, especially winning News Inside, launched by The Marshall Project, providing reporting on criminal justice issues for prisoners with articles written by current and former prisoners. Thanks so much for being with us. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Juan?

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