Prison systems and COVID-19: What’s the connection?

Michael Lynch introduces Melanie Newport, who has been working on her book tentatively titled “This Is My Jail,” discusses the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on prisons along with the treatment of incarcerated peoples. Photo provided by author

Cook County Jail in Chicago, one of the largest prisons in the country, became widely known and reported on during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the high number of positive COVID-19 cases among inmates. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported that Cook County Jail was the nation’s largest known source of COVID-19 infection. This sparked protest and social unrest over the failures of the jail to protect and prioritize the health and safety of their inmates.  

The outbreak began towards the end of March 2020 when two inmates tested positive. This eventually led to over 350 inmates and staff members becoming infected over just two weeks. During the outbreak, a picture went viral that showed a jail window in which an inmate held up a sign reading “HELP.WE.MATTER.”  

According to data collected by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism news organization focused on criminal justice, one in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for COVID-19. These statistics show that prisoners are often forgotten and that proper health and safety measures are frequently not taken to prevent the spread of the virus. 

The University of Connecticut Humanities’ latest installment of the Fellow’s Talk series, which provides the opportunity to highlight a fellow’s project and research goals, featured Melanie Newport, an assistant professor of history at the UConn Hartford campus. 

In Newport’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled “This Is My Jail,” under contract with the University of Pennsylvania Press Politics and Culture in Modern American series, she explores the COVID-19 crisis within Cook County Jail from a historical lens by taking a deeper look at the history of prison life and the struggles inmates face. Her research for the book is primarily focused on how incarcerated people resisted and contested the transformation of American jails.  

“They constructed a place for themselves within a postwar liberal state that was oriented toward their exclusion,” Newport said. “Prisoners shaped a new expectation in the 1950s that jails were obligated to expand prisoner’s rights.”  

Melanie Newport, the featured guest of the UConn Humanities’ Fellow’s Talk series, discusses the COVID-19 crisis of Cook County Jail and the lack of concern many prison systems have for inmates. Photo provided by author

Prisoner’s rights have been a highly contested topic throughout the years, and the  COVID-19 pandemic has once again shed light on the lack of concern that many prison systems have for their inmates. Since the 1960s, mass incarceration has been a growing concern and can be attributed to factors such as tough-on-crime policies, controversial police practices and racist laws that disproportionately imprison people of color at higher rates than white people.  

Once someone has been imprisoned, it can significantly impact the future career and life opportunities that they will have access to once they are released. 

“People are having a really hard time getting work and keeping work after they’re let out of jail,” Newport said.  

Newport talked about how many prisoners who do tell their bosses about their criminal record do not end up getting hired. If they do not initially disclose their criminal history, and it is eventually found out, then they will most likely be fired. This is just one of many injustices that incarcerated individuals face once they are released. Others include health-related issues, trouble finding housing and many more.  

The  COVID-19 pandemic has once again revealed the injustices within the United States prison system. Unfortunately, many prisoners have contracted COVID-19 and steps will have to be taken to ensure that the health and well-being of incarcerated individuals are prioritized.   

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