In fighting the outbreak of COVID-19, Rep. Ayanna Pressley is calling for legislation to ensure that the nation’s prisoners are not left out of any federal relief programs.
On Thursday, Pressley told Boston Public Radio that given the cramped conditions of prisons and the relative lack of healthcare provided to the incarcerated, prisons and jails inherently create a perfect storm for a disease to spread.
“It is really a petri dish, an ecosystem that would support the growth of a pandemic because of overcrowding and because of often a lack of access to regular showers [and] soap,” Pressley said. “And the fact that there is not access to alcohol based hand sanitizers. Those are banned in prisons.”
Pressley said that the federal government should enact several policies to alleviate COVID-19’s impact on the prison population. For one, the congresswoman said there should be compassionate release for elderly prisoners with underlying conditions who pose no threat to protect them from the virus.
Pressley also said that in light of prisons suspending visitation privileges they should provide prisoners with free phone calls to remain connected to their family throughout the pandemic.
Though prison populations are kept away from the general population, Pressley said there is also a risk that a prisoner infected with COVID-19 can re-enter society and bring the disease with them.
“This is a threat to incarcerated men and women, COVID-19, as well as the staff who work in these corrections facilities and 95 percent of those who are incarcerated will return to our communities,” Pressley said. “So, it’s incumbent upon us to ask the hard questions, which I’ve been pushing the Bureau of Prisons on stricter guidance and protocols to contain and mitigate.”
For Pressley the issue is personal. Both her father and her husband were once incarcerated, and she said that the nation needs to move past a mindset where prisoners are cast as pariahs.
Rather, Pressley said, the U.S. should move towards decarceration and understand that many crimes are a byproduct of structural conditions.
“You know when people vilify and stereotype who’s behind the wall I have to remind them ‘talk to a sheriff.’ Most of the people there are there because we are criminalizing substance abuse. Most people are there because we are criminalizing poverty and homelessness,” Pressley said. “You know, they need connections to a program. They need a treatment bed. They don’t need to be in our prisons.”