Indiana Daily Student

OPINION: Don't use prisons for COVID-19 supplies. Release prisoners instead.

<p>Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks Sept. 22, 2017, at the Wylam Center of Flagship East in West Lafayette, Indiana. </p>

Gov. Eric Holcomb speaks Sept. 22, 2017, at the Wylam Center of Flagship East in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Gov. Eric Holcomb said at a press conference last month that Indiana was "no mistake about it, at war" with the coronavirus. That sentiment has only seemed to grow as the Indiana Department of Corrections joins businesses in producing medical supplies. IDOC inmates churn out hundreds of gowns, masks and other supplies each day to ease shortages during the pandemic, according to WTHR.

Exploiting prison labor in the middle of a pandemic is immoral and risks the lives of inmates while providing them with little compensation and no formal sentence reductions. Indiana’s correctional facilities are matchboxes next to an open flame. Prisoners are already at significant risk for infection just living in prison, not to mention working with other inmates to manufacture supplies. 

Instead of asking inmates to produce supplies, Indiana should begin releasing nonviolent offenders, prisoners with underlying medical conditions and pre-trial detainees to prevent widespread COVID-19 infections.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned in a tweet Sunday that efforts to “flatten the curve” must be focused on emerging hotspots such as Indianapolis. Indiana’s prisons are in full production of gowns and produce about 200 a day. In addition to gowns, inmates at Miami Correctional Facility in Bunker Hill, Indiana, had made at least 650 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer as of Saturday.

The emergency production of these supplies should not fall on prison inmates. Indiana pays prisoners as little as 12 cents per hour, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report. Especially during a pandemic and recession, it's unjust to pay prisoners so far below the minimum wage.

IDOC said in an email Friday that there are about 80 inmates at Miami Correctional Facility producing COVID-19 medical supplies. These inmates receive compensation, the agency said.

The responsibility should instead fall on the business community.

Hundreds of businesses nationwide are working together to increase manufacturing of ventilators and other critical supplies. Manufacturing company 3M, which makes about 400 million masks a year in the U.S., plans to increase its production by 30%. Additionally, Honeywell, another manufacturing company, has pledged to double its production of N95 masks.

Other countries with coronavirus outbreaks have taken significant steps to reduce their incarcerated populations. Iran last month released 70,000 prisoners with underlying medical conditions who posed no security risk to society.

The coronavirus will spread rapidly through jails and prisons if nonviolent offenders are not released to reduce overcrowding. In New York City, for example, more 130 inmates and 100 staff at jails and prisons across the city had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday.

More than three-quarters of Indiana's jails are overcrowded or at capacity, according to a 2018 Indiana Criminal Justice Institute study. Hendricks County Sheriff Brett Clark told WTHR in November that the county jail was holding 303 inmates, above its capacity of 252.

Prisoners are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. At a National Institute of Health workshop on the health effects of incarceration, the panelists reported that poor ventilation, overcrowding and stress exacerbate chronic health conditions among inmates.

Many prisons forbid the use of hand sanitizer and are not staffed to the same degree as hospitals to provide continuous health care in the event of an outbreak. 

After defendants are sentenced to serve time in prison, the government is immediately responsible for their well-being. The American Bar Association’s Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners call for the constant protection of the physical well-being of inmates and accommodations for prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

The ACLU last month called on governors to grant commutations to anyone identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as particularly vulnerable whose sentence ends in the next two years and to anyone awaiting trial.

"The Indiana Department of Correction has and will continue to test staff and offenders according to CDC guidelines," IDOC said in an email Friday. The agency said it will separate offenders who show symptoms "as needed."

Local officials must act if the state does not. A Herald-Times report this week found that Monroe County has already reduced its county jail population 34%. This was accomplished by police officers making fewer arrests and judges signing off on releases of nonviolent offenders.

Nonviolent offenders were not sentenced to die, but allowing them to stay — and even work — in overcrowded jails could become a death sentence.

The continued incarceration of the sick, elderly and those who pose no threat to society during this pandemic is cruel and exploitative. By not releasing nonviolent offenders, Indiana runs the risk of rampant COVID-19 infections among inmates, staff and in communities surrounding correctional facilities.

Ian Nowlin (he/him) is a sophomore studying law and public policy. He has minors in Spanish and Arabic.

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