Barbed wire in front of blue sky.

The Struggle to Survive in the Pandemic Prison

By Jamal Spencer and Monik C. Jiménez

Prisons, jails, and other carceral facilities have been core sites of the COVID-19 pandemic, from initial outbreaks in Chinese prisons to some of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. The uniquely dangerous physical conditions within carceral facilities (i.e., overcrowding, poor ventilation, and lack of sanitation); a high prevalence of chronic diseases among incarcerated people; and high levels of physical movement through facilities, resulted in environmental conditions ripe for uncontrolled SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

As early as June 2020, the mortality rate from COVID-19 among incarcerated people was three times higher than the general population and the infection rate five times higher. Yet, despite these inequities, the human toll of COVID-19 among incarcerated people has remained behind the walls and in the shadows. Without intentionally centering the voices of those who have lived in the most extreme conditions of social and physical marginalization, we fail to understand the full toll of the pandemic and impair our ability to respond humanely to future crises. 

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Austin, Tx/USA - May 23, 2020: Family members of prisoners held in the state prison system demonstrate at the Governor's Mansion for their release on parole due to the danger of Covid-19 in prisons.

Federal Failures to Protect Incarcerated People During Public Health Crises

By Rachel Kincaid

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, and as we face the reality that future pandemics are coming (or have already begun), it’s a fitting time for the United States to take stock of how the carceral system has exacerbated the harms of COVID-19, and for policymakers to seriously consider what can and should be done differently going forward.

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Washington, D.C. skyline with highways and monuments.

COVID-19 as Disability Interest Convergence?

By Jasmine E. Harris

Some have suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a moment of what critical race theorist Derrick Bell called “interest convergence,” where majority interests align with those of a minority group to create a critical moment for social change.

It would be easy to think that interests indeed have converged between disabled and nondisabled people in the United States. From education to employment, modifications deemed “unreasonable” became not only plausible but streamlined with broad support.

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3d render, abstract fantasy cloudscape on a sunny day, white clouds fly under the red gates on the blue sky. Square portal construction.

A Different Future Was Possible: Reflections on the US Pandemic Response

By Justin Feldman

The inadequacies of the early U.S. pandemic response are well-rehearsed at this point — the failure to develop tests, distribute personal protective equipment, recommend masks for the general public, protect essential workers, and take swift action to stop the spread.

But to focus on these failures risks forgetting the collective framing and collective policy response that dominated the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And forgetting that makes it seem as though our current, enormous death toll was inevitable. This dangerously obscures what went wrong and limits our political imagination for the future of the COVID-19 pandemic and other emerging crises.

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Empty hospital bed.

Do No Harm: A Call for Decarceration in Hospitals

By Zainab Ahmed

In an era of mass suffering, some still suffer more than others. What’s worse, there is nothing natural about it. It is human made.

As an emergency medicine resident at a large academic hospital in Los Angeles, I see how incarcerated patients’ suffering is sanctioned by hospitals and medical professionals, despite their pledge to do no harm.

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A stethoscope tied around a pile of cash, with a pill bottle nearby. The pill bottle has cash and pills inside.

We Haven’t ‘Learned the Lessons of COVID’ Until We Remake the Political Economy of Health

By Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant

Over the course of the pandemic it has been popular to claim that we have “learned lessons from COVID,” as though this plague has spurred a revolution in how we treat illness, debility, and death under capitalism.

Management consulting firm McKinsey, for example, writes that COVID has taught us that “infectious diseases are a whole-of-society issue.” A Yale Medicine bulletin tells us that we successfully learned “everyone is not treated equally, especially in a pandemic.” These bromides reflect the Biden administration’s evaluation of its own efforts; a recent White House report professes to have “successfully put equity at the center of a public health response for the first time in the nation’s history.”

We have learned nothing from COVID. The ongoing death, debility, disability, and immiseration of the pandemic are testament only to a failed political economy that pretends at magnanimity.

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Drug test strips.

Synthetic Cannabinoids and the Lack of Substance Use Disorder Treatment in Carceral Settings

By Aaron Steinberg, Ada Lin, Alice Bukhman, LaToya Whiteside, and Elizabeth Matos

The inability of prisons and jails to address the drivers of and treat substance use disorders, especially during the pandemic, is leading to underexplored health ramifications for prisoners, and particularly for prisoners who identify as Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC), who already had comparatively poorer health outcomes.

This article focuses on one substance of growing popularity in carceral settings: synthetic cannabinoids (SC), which are frequently referred to as K2 or spice.

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scoreboard with home and guests written on it at sunset time.

A Mind Is A Terrible _____ To Waste

By Vincent “Tank” Sherrill

You fill in the blank! I’ve often referred to the mind as a womb, or a laboratory of life, not a “thing,” but rather a place where thoughts and ideas are conceived. However, since COVID-19 has been introduced on the scene, I’ve watched a cold game being played inside two Washington State prisons: the game between “The Progression of the Mind versus The Regression of the Mind.”

I didn’t have a front row seat in the Colosseum to this American tragedy; I was one of the 2.3 million sacrificial bodies. (Some of these bodies were released, back into a society not prepared to receive, due to their own post-COVID health needs.)

Supposedly, under the watchful eye of Lady Justice, prisoners are afforded certain inalienable rights and privileges, like religious and education services, for the redemptive qualities they both provide. However, due to this plague of epic proportion within these walls (some ancient, and some modern), which have made my domicile for 28 years, these basic services that provide the space for the Mind to grow, develop, and reconcile ceased.

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WASHINGTON MAY 21: Pro-choice activists rally to stop states’ abortion bans in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on May 21, 2019.

Restricting Reproductive Rights During the War on Drugs: Intersectional Regimes of Surveillance and Criminalization That Harm Us All

By Taleed El-Sabawi, Jennifer J. Carroll, and Bayla Ostrach

Health law and policy in the United States are, in many senses, driven by a desire to control. When that control is enacted to impose anti-scientific but deeply moralized social norms, suffering always follows. Consider, for example, the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which ended a constitutionally recognized right to abortion. This decision allows states to exert near-total control over pregnant people and their bodies — and many are already experiencing physical and emotional harm as a result.

This suffering at the hands of the state is compounded by existing drug law and policies, which also prioritize control over bodies above personal wellbeing and autonomy. Pregnant people who use drugs (including alcohol) are often subject to both of these coercive regimes, facing head-on the harmful synergism between drug criminalization and the criminalization of abortion.

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Bill of Health - Globe and vaccine, covid vaccine

Reclaiming Global Public Health

By Zain Rizvi

By December 2020, the world had astonishingly powerful tools against COVID-19. New mRNA vaccines, underpinned by decades of public investment, had been authorized by global regulators. Yet the promise of the vaccines was unevenly realized: deep fault lines emerged between those who were able to secure vaccines and those left behind, or what South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa called “vaccine apartheid.”

Dose shortages elevated the role of pharmaceutical executives. Fielding calls from heads of state, they decided what vaccine deliveries to prioritize, shaping which countries could protect lives and livelihoods. The answer to one of the most important public health questions of our time — who gets access to vaccines? — was mostly determined neither by political representatives nor scientists, but by corporate executives.

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