The Situationist

Locked Up with an Epidemic

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 15, 2009

San Quentin

Last week, Situationist Contributor Adam Benforado had another excellent op-ed — this one, titled “Prisoners, too, have rights during epidemics,” was published in the Providence Journal.  Here it is.

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JUST AS we were all beginning to relax and think about Purell-free summer plans, H1N1 is back in the news. In New York, the media attention has mostly been on the virus’s transmission at schools, with the flu having closed 30 of them. However, in the past couple of weeks, another local population has come under threat: There are now 47 confirmed cases of flu at Rikers Island, the city prison.

The city’s corrections officers’ union criticized the government’s response and called for temporarily relocating certain prisoners to other facilities. This suggestion was dismissed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contrasted the prison context to that in schools:

“It is in some senses easier to control because, obviously, the prisoners can’t leave. On the other hand, it is also a confined area where we really don’t have the choice of moving people out and asking them to stay home. The situation in the schools, if you think about it, is exactly the reverse.”

The mayor’s comments raise the important question of what rights prisoners have during a serious health emergency.

If an epidemic is grave enough, a government has the ability to quarantine any implicated population. Indeed, we can imagine a situation where the state might seal off a school (with everyone still inside) after a deadly outbreak. However, absent this very high alert, the response is, generally, to close certain public spaces and order individuals to isolate themselves. Thus, in a more limited health emergency, individuals may lose their freedom of movement, but they are not forced by the state to be in contact with potential carriers of a disease.

As Mayor Bloomberg’s comments suggest, while some efforts may be made to isolate the sick within the prison during an outbreak, inmates do not enjoy a level of protection similar to that of the rest of society. Bloomberg treats this as simply a logistical necessity, but, in fact, it reflects a societal choice: a decision that part of punishment may include being exposed to potentially lethal diseases.

Confronting this reality should trouble us. In the modern United States, we have rejected corporal punishment: We do not brand people, whip them, or cut off their limbs. Why then do we choose to expose the incarcerated to something like a deadly flu virus? And, similarly, how can we justify prison policies that result in thousands of inmates contracting preventable diseases like hepatitis and HIV?

It is true that, when it comes to disease, the state is not directly delivering the suffering as it is when it holds the branding iron or snaps the whip, but society is no less implicated in the ultimate outcome. We have the ability to seriously reduce health risks within prison populations — including those associated with swine flu. Better monitoring and a zero-tolerance policy for discovered abuse could significantly cut down on prison rape and, consequently, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Improved treatment plans and oversight could reduce the incidence of diseases associated with illegal drug use. The quick transfer of inmates might help protect thousands of prisoners when new strains of influenza emerge. Mayor Bloomberg is wrong that “we really don’t have a choice.”

We may ultimately decide, as a society, that the costs of protection are too high to bear or that convicts deserve whatever dangers they find in prison, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that our hands are tied. It is time to put to rest the notion that when an inmate dies of an illness that he or she contracted while incarcerated, we had nothing to do with it.

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” “Why Torture? Because It Feels Good (at least to “Us”),” “Why We Punish,” and “The Situation of Death Row.”

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