When a prisoner dies of coronavirus, is the virus really to blame?
It's the prison, not the pandemic
Federal prisons began a national lockdown Wednesday. Intended to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, the lockdown will last a minimum of two weeks, confining prisoners to cells with dimensions around 6-by-8 feet for most of the day.
Perhaps it will help. More likely, I worry, the lockdown will be too little, too late. Inmates will remain packed in close quarters, eating and bathing communally, disproportionately likely to have comorbidities which exacerbate the risk posed by COVID-19, and too often stuck with insufficient medical care or hygiene supplies. More likely, our correctional system's handling of this pandemic will cast a tragic spotlight on our nation's desperate need for prison reform.
The first reported federal prisoner to die of COVID-19 is a case in point. Patrick Jones, age 49, was serving a 30-year sentence for a nonviolent drug offense at a minimum-security prison in Oklahoma. Jones was convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute after police found several bags of crack cocaine in his apartment. His sentence was lengthened because the apartment happened to be near a junior college, and though there was no evidence Jones was targeting its young adult students (let alone actual children) for drug sales, prosecutors used that detail to add to his prison time.
In philosophy, law, and other disciplines, we often think through different types of causality. It is useful to do so here with a basic distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. The proximate cause is immediately at fault — for example, if my house burns down, the proximate cause of its destruction is that it was on fire. But the ultimate cause may be that I knocked over a candle which set my couch ablaze, or, higher up a scale of ascending ultimate causes, that my couch was made of artificial materials which spread fire too quickly for firefighters to respond.
The proximate cause of Jones' untimely death was the novel coronavirus. He contracted the infection and hospital treatment could not save his life.
Similar deaths may yet be avoided in our carceral system with swift action beyond this two-week lockdown. In local jails, the best remedy would be releasing the hundreds of thousands of people held in pre-trial detention on low-level charges because they cannot afford bail. Large-scale releases are also vital for immigration detention centers, which have become notorious for their overcrowding. In state and federal penitentiaries, early release or home confinement of elderly and nonviolent offenders — like Jones — would also be wise. (Attorney General William Barr announced a limited inquiry into this option last week.)
For inmates who are not released, free access to soap and other cleaning products is vital in every facility. Particularly if paid prison work programs are shut down for social distancing, prisoners cannot be tasked with buying their own soap while this virus is on the loose. That's common decency, but also common sense, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf writes, because "[t]reating soap as a luxury that prisoners must choose in lieu of a snack or shaving cream or a book or a phone call with family members creates obvious perverse incentives that affect not only the inmates, but all of the people with whom they interact, and even taxpayers, since we all pay for the doctors who treat the spread of prison illnesses."
Such emergency measures of mercy and duty can help address the proximate reason Jones died. But they do nothing for the ultimate cause, which is our country's hideous institution of mass incarceration.
The United States has the highest known incarceration rate (and the largest prison population in absolute numbers) on the planet. We imprison people for longer times over lesser offenses than most nations on Earth. Our country's incarceration problem is so monstrous in scale and inhumanity that it is difficult to fully contemplate, let alone address.
And there is no single, simple fix here: Mass clemency, like that dispensed by former President Obama and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), is a good retroactive fix but makes no structural changes. Ending the drug war would help, but drug offenses only account for about one fifth of prison populations. Private prisons house less than a tenth of U.S. inmates, so nixing them is no panacea. Prison labor can be ethically confusing, too: When Whole Foods was pressured into ending sales of prison-produced goat cheese, was that an unqualified win? The prisoners were barely paid — but they loved working outside, with animals, on a beautiful farm.
Patrick Jones died and hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people are proximally at risk of illness or death in the U.S. because we are suffering a pandemic. But ultimately, they're at risk because our carceral system is a travesty that needs reform after reform after reform.
American mass incarceration is itself a comorbidity, predating COVID-19's spread and sure to outlast it.