As the COVID-19 pandemic has raged across the world, issues deep within the U.S. criminal legal system have come to the fore and stayed there. The senseless murders of Black people, including Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, have elucidated the heartbreaking levels of racial oppression and violence in the United States. Today’s injustice is the culmination of decades-long policy efforts intended to disadvantage certain groups of people in the country. While the aforementioned tragedies of police brutality are serious and warrant continued activism, the general public should also be aware of other related, intentionally subtle varieties of injustice.
Perhaps the most insidious delivery of injustice comes from the U.S. prison system. A primary feature of this system is the imposition of solitary confinement on people who disrupt the peace that prison guards allegedly expect. This includes incarcerated individuals who complain about illness, assault or physical abuse, or whose visitors unintentionally break ambiguous, unstated visitation rules, and are “punished” with solitary confinement.
The enforcers of the criminal legal system have employed racism and maltreatment to oppress individuals in jails, prisons and detention centers for decades. Incarceration suppresses peoples’ right to speak out by limiting their communication with the outside world; it even goes so far as to silence their voices through solitary confinement. The incarcerated also have a COVID-19 incidence rate 5.5 times higher than that of the general population. Due to already-limited access to proper healthcare, the high prevalence of other diseases in detention facilities and their inability to properly practice social distancing, incarcerated individuals are nearly 1.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than are properly isolated, hospitalized and treated patients. Even worse, experts report that COVID-19 cases in prisons are often much higher than disclosed. In many cases, a positive COVID test for someone in prison lands them in indefinite solitary confinement and bereaves their families of any notification or contact with them.
The elimination of solitary confinement as a means of punishment, even against the most violent offenders who have committed the most heinous offense, has long been debated. Politicians on both sides of the spectrum argue that it may violate the Eighth Amendment, which forbids “cruel and unusual punishments” Solitary confinement involves individuals being locked in cages smaller than horse stables for 23 hours a day. They are given food through a slot in the door and have one hour a day to exercise in a different cage. Incarcerated individuals are often in solitary confinement for years without any end in sight. A research study conducted on rhesus macaques placed in similar situations suggests that extreme isolation “obliterated the animals socially” and caused them to appear completely hopeless. Solitary confinement is so damaging to human beings that even politicians who are notorious for tough stances on crime question its existence. No one, especially first-time, nonviolent offenders, should receive solitary confinement as punishment for testing positive for COVID-19.
The unjust criminal legal system stifles American freedoms and voices. For decades, people in prison have fallen victim to other disease outbreaks, unreported sexual assaults, physical and verbal abuse, unsafe living conditions, poor medical treatment, poor treatment of family members and friends who wish to visit them, and other unimaginable difficulties.
It is time for us to include the incarcerated in our marches, protests, petitions and cries for justice. It is time for us to accord them the basic human decency that they have always deserved. It is time that their children and families do not feel alone in this fight for justice and equality. With the U.S.’s incarceration rate of 760 per 100,000 people being the highest in the world — even the Soviet Union, at the height of the Gulag system, imprisoned its citizens at only marginally higher rates — it is beyond time for us, as free individuals, to rise up and make a difference. A person in prison is someone’s mother, father, child or friend, but more than that, they are a human being who deserves to be treated as such.
I am very proud of you, my fellow Americans, for making great use of your freedoms and your voices in the fight to end police brutality. I believe in our power as united justice-seekers. I encourage you to continue expanding this movement and remember to fight for those whose freedoms and voices the prison system has so unjustly stolen.
Shivani Kumar (23B) is from Tallahassee, Florida.