Confinement during COVID: the devastating effects of the pandemic on women’s incarceration in the U.S.

Melissa Ann Horn died from the coronavirus on 14 April 2020. She is one of the over 210,000 people making up the United States’ COVID-19 death count. Like many, she suffered from pre-existing health complications. Unlike many others who have tragically died from the virus, though, Melissa did not die a free citizen: she was in prison.

Incarcerated women are a high risk and much neglected population during the pandemic. Though activists have worked hard to make known the nefarious gender dynamics of the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women, very few people have included incarcerated women in this analysis. Women in prison are rendered invisible by society at the best of times; during the pandemic, they have suffered the effects of the coronavirus with no recourse to help and few voices on the outside to amplify their struggles.

There are over 200,000 incarcerated women in the United States.[1] These women are disproportionately women of colour, disproportionately poor, and have predominantly been convicted of non-violent offenses.[2] Moreover, many of these women have struggled with substance abuse issues, mental illness, and histories of sexual and physical violence.[3] Recent surges in discourse on mass incarceration in the U.S. have tended to focus on men—who are incarcerated at greater rates than women—thus neglecting the specific issues that women in prison face. The discourse on the pandemic is no different.

No matter who we are and no matter what we have done, we all deserve to live in conditions that do not put us at risk of death. International human rights law outlines every person’s right to live in dignity,[4] whether or not their freedom is curtailed, and each country is responsible for upholding that obligation with respect to its citizens. It is clear that in the U.S., however, women in prison are living in catastrophic conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 and adding to the U.S.’s shameful death toll.

During the pandemic, women in prison continue to live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with little protection against the virus’s spread and with little support for their deteriorating mental health. In the largest women’s prison in the world, situated in California, women are attempting to keep their surroundings virus-free by cleaning surfaces with unused sanitary pads.[5] The guards responsible for keeping these women safe do not wear masks.[6] In Indiana, women have been kept in quarantine in their cells for most of the day, even though the cells do not contain toilets, running water, or air ventilation systems.[7] One positive case in such conditions can spread rapidly among the prison population. Where prisons are taking COVID precautions, these compound many women’s mental health complications. For example, prisons across the U.S. have shut down visitation systems and legal visits, further isolating women who are cut off from society.[8]

The effects of the pandemic on women in prison are all the more important for the racial dynamic involved. The United States locks up women of colour, especially Black women, at rates which are disproportionate to their white counterparts. In 2019, Black women made up 26% of the female prison population when Black people of all genders made up 13.4% of the U.S. population.[9] Many scholars describe incarceration as a continuation of slavery.[10] Police brutality against African Americans, the prison industrial complex, Jim Crow, and the enslavement of Black people in the U.S. are all linked. When the state neglects to create safe prison conditions during the pandemic it continues to perpetuate the control of Black bodies by controlling women’s very access to healthy conditions and healthcare.

Incarceration is killing women. So what can be done? The pandemic sheds light on an issue that has long existed: overcrowding in prisons and poor conditions of confinement. To start with, all states in the U.S. must seek to decongest their prisons and jails. Far too many women are incarcerated for minor offenses, such as shoplifting, that attracted overly severe sentences. These women need not remain incarcerated. With fewer women in prison, the state can seek to create human living conditions in the inhuman structure of the prison by ensuring sanitary living conditions, safe social distances, and access to protective equipment for prisoners.

Finally, and most importantly, the state must invest in communities to prevent the conditions that lead to incarceration in the first place. Women are locked up because they are poor, because they were denied opportunity in their lives, and because of racist policing and criminal justice practices. When the state invests in women’s communities to address those factors, fewer women will come into contact with the carceral state. The recent call to “defund the police” extends to defunding the carceral system, too.

With the pandemic showing no signs of abating in the US, we can expect more women like Melissa Ann Horn to die. These women need our advocacy, too. We must fight for the living conditions and the lives of women on the inside as we seek to shape governments’ responses to Covid.

Nathalie Greenfield


[1] ACLU, Women In Prison (last visited 19 October 2020) available at https://www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/women-prison.

[2] Prison Policy Initiative, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie (2019) available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html.

[3] ACLU, Women In Prison (last visited 19 October 2020) available at https://www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/women-prison.

[4] U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx.

[5] PBS News Hour, Inside the Largest COVID Unit at the World’s Largest Women’s Prison (2020) available at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/inside-the-covid-unit-at-the-worlds-largest-womens-prison.

[6] Ibid.

[7] PBS, Indiana Women’s Prison Locked Down Following New Covid Cases (2020) available at https://www.wfyi.org/news/articles/indiana-womens-prison-locked-down-following-new-covid-19-cases.

[8] AP, Covid Outbreak Reported at South Dakota Women’s Prison (2020) available at https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-south-dakota-pierre-prisons-1a2e68cfd642f923c79ec5d9c680f464.

[9] Prison Policy Initiative, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie (2019) available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html; US Census data, available at: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219.

[10] Lakshita Handa, Racism, Police Violence, and Mass Incarceration (2020) available at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/humanrights/2020/08/12/racism-police-violence-and-mass-incarceration-the-legacies-of-slavery-and-segregation-in-the-united-states/.

The Impact of Covid19 on Single Mothers

Alessandra Sciarra

Alessandra recently graduated from LSE with a master’s degree in International Social and Public Policy. She is interested in gender dynamics, economic inequality and informality and advocates for the rights of women and minority groups.

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By now, there should be no doubt that when a crisis strikes different groups are hit differently. As the COVID-19 emergency has shown us so far, a pandemic ends up magnifying existing – and often conveniently ignored – inequalities.

The situation faced by single mothers exemplifies the effects of the pandemic on women. In the UK alone, there are about two million single parents, 90% of which are women. Around 70% of all single parents in the country are currently in work and, out of them, three out of ten live in poverty. School closures and self-isolation have meant that single mothers have all of a sudden found themselves alone with children at home. Self-isolation makes it extremely difficult to count on the help of family members and many women have reported the stress of being locked inside all the time looking after children on their own, while, in some cases, also caring for the elderly in the family. At the same time, single mothers tend to work in more precarious, low paid jobs, which do not offer the option of remote working. Thus, this situation forces them to decide whether going to work, exposing themselves to the risk of infection and having no one to look after their children, or staying home, eventually losing their job

The mental stress that comes from this situation is extremely high and is worsened by the implications of children staying at home. These include an increase in food costs as single mothers now have to deal with the additional and unexpected economic burden of substituting school lunches with home-made meals. For a single mother of two that means providing ten extra meals per week. From a social policy standpoint, the situation in which single mothers currently are allows us to draw a few lessons. Firstly, the austerity measures implemented throughout Europe in the past years, which have led to cuts in budgets for welfare programmes targeted to categories deemed as “undeserving”, clearly have a responsibility in the poor coverage and low support that many women are now receiving. Secondly, the caretaking systems that many countries have in place at the moment are just not good enough. The lack of available and affordable care services places too much of a burden on women, who are not able to break out from the cycle of less secure and lower paid part-time job positions. Many single parents do indeed prefer to work more flexible but lower paid and lower quality jobs, as it allows them to perform the level of care-taking they actually need. 

The vulnerability of this of women during the pandemic calls for emergency measures to be implemented as quickly as possible. Access to financial support schemes should be easy and quick and extra money should be put into the system to allow everyone’s needs to be met. A gender-neutral policy-making is not going to be effective as it is not going to cover the needs of those groups who are systematically disadvantaged. While it is pivotal to act intelligently during the crisis, it seems clear that these issues are rooted in deeper gender-based disparities and more has to be done during normal times in order to strengthen women’s position in society. 

COVID-19 is a disaster for women worldwide, threatening to turn the clock on gender equality. But it could also offer a window of opportunity for change and evidence-driven policy advocacy. In order to shape improved and gender-sensitive future policies, it is now important to record how differently this pandemic is affecting women and men. As vulnerable single women are currently paying much of the cost of poor and narrow-sighted policy making, this situation offers us a chance to rebuild a system that was insufficient in the first place. 

 

What a Virologist Thinks You Should Know About CoVid-19: GenPol in Conversation with Nerea Irigoyen

As part of our ongoing Covid-19 series, this week GenPol were lucky enough to interview  Dr Nerea Irigoyen, a virologist from the University of Cambridge.  In 2010, Nerea was appointed as a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow (Wellcome Trust), working under the supervision of Prof Ian Brierley, recording mechanisms in retrovirus and coronavirus. Since September 2018, she has been working as a Research Group Leader focusing on Zika Virus translation and its relationship with pathogenicity and disease.

We sat down to gauge her thoughts about the Covid-19 pandemic, and what she thinks you should know about it.

1) What’s life in your lab/department like these days? How are you holding up?

On Friday 20th March, all the labs in our Department were shut down. The University of Cambridge activated the red alert on Wednesday and gave us 48 hours to finish all the essential experiments. Since then, the whole lab has been working remotely!

2) What are you and your colleagues working on exactly?

In the lab we are working on the Zika virus. The Zika virus made the headlines in 2016 when it was linked to the sudden spike in babies born with significantly smaller heads, (what is also known as microcephaly) in Latin America. The virus, transmitted by mosquitoes and isolated in Africa in 1947, was never considered remarkable because previous cases had been asymptomatic. Therefore, our main interest in the lab is to know what sets the new American Zika virus apart from the African Zika virus and to know whether there are differences in how they replicate, produce their viral proteins and ultimately how they can cause disease.


3) At GenPol we have been looking at the gendered and intersectional implications of the pandemic. What are your thoughts on this?

The last two pandemics (Zika virus in 2016 and the current SARS-CoV-2) have had a huge effect on women. During the outbreak in Latin America, the Zika virus caused profound social impacts, particularly on women and girls. Despite recommendations from health authorities in endemic countries to postpone pregnancies for up to two years, it was made difficult for young women to avoid pregnancy due to a lack of clear reproductive health information by the Brazilian public health system. It was also difficult to access long-term contraceptives. In addition, abortion is criminalized in many Latin American countries and can be punishable with a 20-30 year prison sentence.

Women in Brazil also sought abortion through clandestine means, often involving dangerous methods such as caustic acid. In 2015, half a million women in Brazil underwent abortions, and tragically unsafe abortion was the fourth leading cause of maternal mortality. Furthermore, the lives of mothers with children diagnosed with Congenital Zika Syndrome have been profoundly impacted, with many women unable to maintain a job, whilst having to pay for medication and travel costs to access consultations in urban areas.

Associations that help victims of domestic violence have raised the alarm after Europe has become the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, warning that the stress caused by social isolation is exacerbating tensions and increasing the risk of domestic and sexual violence against women and children. In addition, fears for job security and financial difficulties are also increasing the likelihood of conflicts in homes with no previous history of domestic abuse. In this sense, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has indicated that refuges will remain open, and the police will provide support to all individuals who are being physically or emotionally abused. In addition, it is important to be aware that millions of children are spending more time online and that they may be even more vulnerable to online predators.

4) Why is SARS-CoV-2 so virulent? What makes it different from other viruses you have been studying?

This novel coronavirus, the SARS-CoV-2 is not so virulent compared to the ‘cousin’ virus SARS-CoV but more easily transmissible. The SARS-CoV outbreak in 2003 in China had a fatality rate of 10% but did not have the capacity to spread as easily as this.

SARS-CoV-2 has managed to spread across the globe in just a few weeks (it is important to notice that the first pneumonia cases in China were reported by late December) but although the fatality rate will be 1-2%, the great number of cases is hugely increasing the number of deaths.

The real dangers of this virus are that it is completely new for humans and not very well adapted yet. This is why it is so pathogenic. In addition, we do not have any immune memory to combat it yet. Also, viruses that are transmitted through respiratory droplets, produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, are easily transmitted compared to other viruses such as mosquito-borne like Zika virus.

6) What is the likelihood of more different strains developing?

Unlike flu viruses, coronaviruses can proofread their genomes as they copy them, correcting mistakes along the way. This feature reduces their mutation rate and is probably the one bit of good news about coronaviruses. This makes coronaviruses less of a moving target for our immune system and our immunity will likely last for longer.

7) Is another recurrence (or second wave) of a a pandemic likely in your opinion?

Quite likely. In the near future there are two possible scenarios for the recurrence of this epidemic unless a vaccine is available. The first one will be during the release of the lockdown and this is why is extremely necessary to test all the population in order to prevent asymptomatic carriers to infect new people. The second scenario will take place next autumn, as good weather might lower the virus transmission in the Northern hemisphere but there is a high chance that it will come back later in the year. In the worst case scenario, SARS-CoV-2 will arrive at the same time as flu virus and this will cause health systems to collapse extremely quick. This is why we should start to prepare now for a potential second wave.

Currently there are a lot of research groups working on developing a vaccine against this novel coronavirus. We need to take into account that vaccines do normally take years until they can be developed. In this case, as we have done a lot of previous work with related coronavirus such as SARS and MERS, we will probably reduce this time but even though we will not probably have a safe and effective vaccine for the next 12-18 months.

8) What are the personal dangers faced by scientists who work with the virus? How do you protect yourselves?

Laboratory workers handling this virus should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) which includes disposable gloves, laboratory coat/gown, respirator (e.g. N-95), and eye protection. Furthermore, any procedure with the potential to generate fine-particulate aerosols (e.g. vortexing or sonication of specimens in an open tube) should be performed in a Class II Biological Safety Cabinet. After specimens are processed, work surfaces and equipment should be decontaminated and all disposable waste should be autoclaved.

9) Are there many women scientists in your lab? How are they coping with the extra load of work and work/life balance in these difficult times?

There are a big number of female scientists in the Division of Virology especially at a graduate and postdoctoral level, for most of us this is going to be the first time working from home, and for an uncertain amount of time. The idea of continuing with our full-time jobs while simultaneously homeschooling children, attending to elderly or sick relatives is extremely challenging. I think we need to acknowledge this new situation and that it will take time to adapt, probably more than expected. Probably everything will start to improve once as we settle into our new routines (i.e. designate a workspace or defined working hours). For the time being, we need to keep as positive as possible, this will help at getting the work done and at maintaining our mental wellbeing.

10.) What can we in our daily life do to help protect the most vulnerable?

The best strategy to help the most vulnerable during the current epidemic is to stay at home and practice social distancing. So far, this is the only way to avoid the spread of the virus and to flatten the epidemic curve.

Another way of helping vulnerable people is volunteering. That includes helping with shopping, delivering medicines from pharmacies, driving patients to appointments, bringing them home from hospital, and making regular phone calls to check on people isolating at home. Remember always to carry out this work in a sensible and vigilant way, always maintaining the physical distancing rules.

 

Coronavirus and Social Justice: GenPol teams up with Fondazione Feltrinelli

As part of our CoVid19 series, our own Lilia Giugni was commissioned to write an op-ed for The Feltrinelli Foundation (Fondazione Feltrinelli).

Lilia’s article compares the social justice implications of the pandemic and related public health measures in the UK and her native Italy. It argues that the virus is brutally revealing the dramatic patterns of inequalities that underpin our ways of life, with the most vulnerable ones paying -as always- the heaviest price.

Italian speakers can read the article here

GenPol in the time of Coronavirus

This week the World Health Organisation has declared the current outbreak of the new Coronavirus a Pandemic, meaning that the virus is spreading across different countries, affecting large numbers of people at a global level.

In spite of the WHO’s declaration and the numbers which are clearly pointing towards a global phenomenon, something which many are already recognizing as a historical event. We’re observing governments still approaching the problem with different levels of concern and seriousness, and adopting radically different sets of measures to address the outbreak (also depending on the current severity of the epidemic on their national territory at a certain moment).

GenPol is a transnational project, conceived to promote gender equality and influence policies and stakeholders, across Europe and beyond, to include gender and social justice concerns in their behaviour.

At this time, it is imperative that we all act as a community, work at all levels to protect not only ourselves and our loved ones, but especially those who are most vulnerable in our societies. 

Women (and womxn) stand to be some of the most affected by the coronavirus outbreak, as well as by the unprecedented safety measures many governments are adopting.  This includes women with unstable jobs (or no job at all), homeless women, victims and survivors of domestic violence, and all those who might not have a safe home where to self-quarantine. It includes single mothers, single older women, those who are more vulnerable to isolation and discrimination (women of colour, with a migrant background, or belonging to sexual and gender minorities), detained women, health workers and women operating in a (still) overwhelming gendered care sector. Mental health will also be a central topic in the weeks and months to come, as society comes to terms with the outbreak.

From today, and in spite of the limitations on our usual activities, GenPol is planning to continue working and focusing on analysing, researching, producing content and raising awareness on all these topics. We’ll also try to collect and highlight all available relevant resources across as many European countries as we can, which can be used by women experiencing difficult or distressing situations in these troubled times.

Take care of yourself and people close to you, keep connected and continue to fight the good fight.

 

The GenPol Team

 

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