Locked-In & Over-Looked: The Importance of Advocacy for Incarcerated Individuals Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

By. Marquisa Wince

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

“I wasn’t sentenced to death or a possible death sentence—none of us were. Now, you’re telling me with this virus loose in this prison, I could possibly be facing a death sentence?” This quote by a Forrest City inmate is from April 2020, yet the concern for incarcerated individuals reigns even more true today. One year later, people in prisons across the Nation continue to face a death sentence that was unfairly and unconstitutionally imposed on them. Many articles, studies, and publications have traced the evolution of COVID-19 and its impact on the lives of those incarcerated. More specifically, there’s been an increase in discourse around Eighth Amendment violations created by the failure of prisons to implement COVID-19 procedures in accordance with the recommendations of medical professionals.

As the access to vaccines continues to increase, there seems to be a wave of relief among individuals living outside of prison. With each new Phase in the process, a sense of normalcy and freedom that was once taken for granted re-enters society. However, this relief is absent among one of the most vulnerable populations.

The rights of incarcerated people in this country are too frequently overlooked and pushed to the side but, it should be understood that once a person becomes incarcerated they are not stripped of their civil and human rights. Among these rights is the right to healthcare, which was established in the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision Estelle v. Gamble. The Court held that “deliberate indifference to prisoners’ serious illnesses is cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.” Decisions following this ruling built upon this and further established that adequate and timely healthcare and services must “reasonably commensurate with modern medical science and of a quality acceptable within prudent professional standards.”

Despite the CDC’s classification of prisons as high risk environments and the WHO’s recommendations, prisons across the Nation have failed to adequately provide procedures and policies that are in line with professional standards. Access to sanitation products, social distancing policies, and other CDC recommendations are harder to implement in prisons. This is due in part to the overcrowding of prisons and lack of adequate healthcare services, which can be linked to the trends of mass incarceration and privatization of the prison system over the past few decades.

Legal remedies for incarcerated people during this unprecedented time are limited, yet there have consistent efforts to ensure the rights of these individuals. Cases have been brought on behalf of pretrial detainees seeking temporary release or to re-open detention hearings, while others have been brought for release pending appeal. There has also been litigation brought seeking compassionate release under 18 U.S.C.A. § 3582(c)(1)(A). Results have varied depending on the specific circumstances surrounding the cases; however, it is important for the safety and well-being of incarcerated individuals that these cases continue to be brought before the courts.

In terms of legislation, the CARES ACT authorized the Bureau of Prisons to place prisoners in home confinement during the Act’s emergency period. Under this Act, there have been 23,753 people placed in home confinement.

Ultimately, the work advocates has been limited by the structure and limitations present within the American Prison System. Despite this fact, the work must continue. States must take heed to the recommendations and ensure access to the vaccine for everyone within their facilities. The fight for the rights of those on the inside of our criminal justice system continues and must be amplified as we move towards re-opening.

Posted in: Legal Comentary

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