Prisoners everywhere should be released

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There has been great controversy over the recent choice of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to have Rikers Island prison inmates dig mass graves in exchange for personal protective equipment and six dollars in hourly wages, less than half the state’s minimum wage. 

Furthermore, New York State governor Anthony Cuomo announced earlier this month that Rikers prison labor would be spent producing hand sanitizer in the midst of statewide price-gouging and shortages of the supply.

Policy decisions like these highlight an important ethical dilemma: What do we do about prisoners, one of the many marginalized groups for which we have no existing social infrastructure to protect from national disasters such as COVID-19? Evidently, government officials are content to endanger these lives in unsafe working conditions, using their labor towards state objectives in exchange for what are essentially slave wages.

Prisons are usually notoriously unsafe and lack many necessities such as medical treatment, mental health counseling, important legal resources, and sometimes even food and water. But prisoners suffer under all of these conditions during business as usual. In times of crisis, their needs can be left entirely unattended, to the point of significant human suffering and death.

The situation in federal and state prisons right now is such that there is no possible way to quarantine all sick prisoners. Close quarters within prisons eliminate any possibility of social distancing, and the existing catastrophic lack of medical supplies means at least tens of thousands of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners will become sick and many will die. Prisons have a population which is older and less healthy than those on the outside, and we can expect the mortality rate of COVID-19 to be far higher. Prisons simply do not have the resources to care for their inmates during this dangerous time period.

Many American prisoners can simply be released today without posing danger to society. Hundreds of thousands of inmates are incarcerated on non-violent and drug-related offenses. Many are simply drug addicts arrested on possession charges, people who desperately need treatment which does not exist in American prisons and who should never have been arrested to begin with. If there was ever a time for the United States to tackle prison reform head-on, it would be during a pandemic when releasing prisoners could immediately save their lives.

Perhaps in the same way this crisis allows us to reflect upon the ideology behind our most important social institutions, it can also allow us to reflect upon our prison and judicial systems. As we can tell by New York state officials’ decision to exploit prison labor during this pandemic, they are focused on maximizing incarceration and ultimately unconcerned with the health and wellness of prisoners, much less their rehabilitation back into society.

The United States prison system is broken and must be replaced with one which prioritizes reform, rehabilitation and harm reduction treatment for some of the country’s most vulnerable people. Until then, we must release all non-violent offenders and accommodate for the rest given the deadly threat COVID-19 poses to the basic human rights and dignities of all prisoners.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

Thumbnail file photo courtesy of John Minchillo / AP Photo.

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Harrison Raskin is a staff writer  for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harrison.raskin@uconn.edu.

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