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Anonymous prison inmate: We need help. Help for the overcrowding. Help for sanitary purposes. We need to release some of these people.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: That’s a message from a prison inmate in Alabama.
CNN obtained this video, which was taken inside one of Alabama’s state prisons, and it shows just how dangerous and potentially life-threatening conditions are in the facilities.
Across the country, prisons and jails have become hotbeds for coronavirus. And prisoners are fearing for their lives.
Today we go inside America’s prison system and witness how those who are living and working there are battling the disease.
We also talk to criminal reform experts about why convicted criminals are just as important to protect as those outside the prison walls.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus, Fact vs. Fiction.”
Elijah McDowell: The safety measures that they are taking are very low. Some correctional staff members don’t even wear protective face masks at all times or gloves and are still coming into contact with inmates.
Dr. Gupta: That’s Elijah McDowell, who is incarcerated at Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution, a level 2 security prison in Connecticut. This is how he describes the conditions there:
McDowell: I’m in a dormitory. We’re around each other 24/7. I’m housed in a six-man cubicle. Right now, as we’re speaking, there’s probably a good 80 inmates walking around the dorm. It’s very hard for us to practice social distancing.
Dr. Gupta: Elijah is in prison for a parole violation and a weapons violation, and he is scheduled to be released by July 1.
McDowell: The majority of the people where I’m housed right now have weeks to months left incarcerated. You’re a low-risk offender if you’re in this correctional institution to begin with. So, then to still be stuck here is obviously super dangerous for anybody in this predicament right now.
Dr. Gupta: The Connecticut Department of Correction says that as of Monday, 18 inmates in this facility have tested positive for Covid-19. Since April 8, the state has been transferring all infected inmates to an isolation unit in a separate facility, which is in line with their policy.
Additionally, they say they are protecting staff and inmates by canceling social visits and releasing as many prisoners as they can.
But Elijah is still worried that the virus is spreading.
McDowell: I mean, there was an incident yesterday where we had an inmate who has chronic asthma, who was coughing, wasn’t feeling well, went to medical, came back to the dorm with a fever above 100 degrees. And you can already imagine how we all will react to something like that, including staff members couldn’t believe that they were rehousing (an) inmate like that with the population after showing symptoms of possibly being infected with the Covid-19.
Dr. Gupta: We asked the Connecticut Department of Correction about Elijah’s claims, and they said they were not aware of the incident.
Black Americans, like Elijah, who is also Hispanic, are incarcerated at several times the rate of white Americans, and now we’re seeing that black Americans are also disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
CNN Political Commentator Van Jones: You know, there’s a longstanding sad joke in the black community that says, you know, when white America gets a cold, black America gets the flu. Well, what happens when white America gets a pandemic? Well, you know, we get the plague.
Dr. Gupta: That’s CNN commentator and criminal justice reform advocate Van Jones.
Jones: So, when you know for sure that you’ve got a population of people in your prisons, African Americans, who have a lot more of the health risk factors to turn this epidemic lethal, you have even more reason to move quickly.
Dr. Gupta: Last week, (federal) Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal told CNN he is preparing now for a worst-case scenario in which 20% of the federal prison population becomes infected.
Medical professionals say that prisons and jails can be especially dangerous incubators for infectious diseases.
I spoke to Dr. Zachary Rosner, chief of medicine with the New York City Correctional Health Services.
Dr. Zachary Rosner: There are aspects of this virus and the way it interacts with environments that make correctional settings extremely difficult places to both contain spread and also respond to the spread once it’s in these settings.
You have people living in very close quarters. You have services that have to be delivered by many different people. You have people going in and out in order to bring food or to bring other services. So, these environments are uniquely vulnerable to a virus like the coronavirus.
Dr. Gupta: Dr. Rosner works at Rikers Island, a correctional facility located on an island in New York City’s East River, notorious for its violence and poor conditions.
The city’s Department of Correction says that as of April 12, New York City has about 4,000 inmates in custody, and 319 of them Covid-19. Two have died.
Additionally, 573 of about 11,000 staff members have also tested positive for the virus.
I asked Dr. Rosner what doctors at Rikers were doing to fight the spread of Covid-19?
Dr. Rosner: What has to happen on behalf of people who are in custody is slightly different than it is in the community. So, whereas somebody who’s having mild or moderate symptoms of coronavirus in the community will be advised to go home, rest, drink water, take Tylenol if they have a fever, that autonomy is lost in these settings. And that’s where the environment requires that correctional authorities and health care teams work very closely together to make sure that people who are sick are separated from people who are not sick, and that the people who are sick are transferred to the hospital, if they need a hospital level of care. And that’s essentially the core work that has to happen in any health system that’s in a jail or prison nationally right now.
Dr. Gupta: It seems that prisons are sort of like incubators for an infection like this. It’s very contagious. You yourself have compared it to the Princess Diamond cruise ship. Is that a good analogy? As you know, a significant percentage of people became infected on that ship.
Dr. Rosner: Unfortunately, I think it’s a good analogy. The dynamics in the jail, the number of people that a single person will likely infect, is much higher than in the community. For that reason, there’s really just one single public health intervention which can be effective in jails or prisons across the board, and that’s to release as many vulnerable people as possible, allow those people to do social distancing safely at home, and allow the health systems in these settings to focus on identifying the sickest people and mitigating the spread of the virus.
Dr. Gupta: The numbers are changing every day, but as of April 6, New York City officials have released over 1,500 people.
But prisoner advocate groups, like Reform Alliance, are pushing for more to help the over 2 million people incarcerated in America today. Van Jones is the organization’s CEO.
Jones: Yeah look, I think a lot of people listening to this might think, “Well, why do I care about somebody in prison? I can’t even figure out how to educate my kids. I can’t even figure out how to buy, like, produce or toilet paper.” And I’m gonna tell you: You’re gonna care. Because the potential super accelerator of this virus are the jails and prisons across the country. First of all, we’re in danger of the jails and prisons becoming morgues from coast to coast. And you have guards and staff coming in and out, bringing the virus in, bringing the virus back out. So, you cannot defeat this plague outside of the prisons if you don’t defeat it inside the prisons. But the other thing nobody’s thought about is: They will then overflood the hospitals and you then make it hard for everybody to get health care. The smart thing to do is before the virus takes off in a jail or prison to depopulate it safely and quickly. Think what you would do if it were your kid, who had maybe, you know, got caught with marijuana and was sitting in a jail someplace, and you found out that the plague was ripping through there. You would say, “Get my child out of there. Do something. Save my child’s life.”
Dr. Gupta: Reform Alliance is pushing politicians to adopt a new plan called SAFER which aims to protect people living and working inside America’s jails and prisons.
We asked Van and Jessica Jackson, an attorney and the chief advocacy officer for Reform Alliance, to explain their SAFER plan.
Jessica Jackson: The S stands for suspending visits, probation visits, suspending courts. The A stands for alternatives to incarceration. The F stands for free hygiene items like soap and hand sanitizer. The E stands for extra precautions for the guards and staff who are coming in and out of the facilities. And the R stands for releases, compassionate releases and other releases that are not a risk to public safety.
Jones: You know, get people out, as many people as you possibly can, safely and well. There’s a lot of people who could come home and be on home confinement. They can go back later on if they need to, but get them out of there.
Dr. Gupta: Van and Jessica say that local, state and federal officials need to start implementing the SAFER plan in prisons and jails before it’s too late.
Jones: Today, right now, in the age of the virus, any arrest can be a death sentence. Nobody in the United States has ever been sentenced to die in a prison or a jail by a virus. So, let’s not forget there’s a bunch of people who can be sent home to home confinement right now, and there would be no threat to public safety, but you’d have a great benefit to public health.
Dr. Gupta: Across the country, some authorities are already taking action to release inmates.
News report (CNN): US Attorney General William Barr is ordering prison officials to maximize early release programs for a wide swath of vulnerable inmates.
News report (KCRW): LA County has released about 1,700 inmates with fewer than 30 days left to serve.
News report (KPIX): The Alameda County sheriff’s department says they started the early release process on Tuesday. Most of them are nonviolent, low-level offenders.
Dr. Gupta: Advocates have been trying to do what they can to help. Some prisoners are suing local governments for release, while some organizations like Reform Alliance are donating medical supplies to prisons.
But they need all the help they can get.
Jones: What we want people to do is to say, “Hey, listen, your governor can do something about this. Your local sheriff can do something about this. The Department of Justice can do something about this.” They’ve got to hear from us, though. This is a moment for us to realize, “Hey, we need each other!” And so, I believe that we are being called upon to find a different storehouse of empathy and love and care. It’s not just fear. Yes, fear for, you know, our own families, but also compassion and empathy for other people’s families.
Dr. Gupta: Until something is done to address the mounting health crisis in America’s jails and prisons, the medical professionals working there remain on the front lines, caring for their patients.
I asked Dr. Rosner at Rikers if he’s taking any special precautions when he goes home at the end of the day to try and keep his own family safe:
Dr. Rosner: Yes, absolutely. It’s a … sorry, a difficult question, actually, because my wife is also a health care worker and works on labor and delivery in the Bronx. We have actually sent our kids out of town, out to their grandparents. And, you know, we are prepared right now to make personal sacrifices to try to help our colleagues and our patients get through this difficult time.
Dr. Gupta: Just because someone is incarcerated does not mean that person’s health and life are expendable. As Van Jones said earlier, we cannot allow our fear of this pandemic to undermine our empathy for one another.
Don’t forget, we’re all in this together.
If you have questions, please record them as a voice memo and email them to [email protected] We might include them in our next podcast.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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