Chest to Chest: Inmates Are “Sitting Ducks” Waiting for COVID-19

/ Blog Post

From eating to sleeping, every moment of Yesenia Evans’ experience in Santa Fe County Adult Detention Facility was in close proximity to others. Born with a rare autoimmune disease, Yesenia is especially vulnerable to COVID-19. In a jail, where viruses spread quickly, Yesenia’s probation violation could have quickly became a death sentence.

Correctional facilities, like Marion Correctional Institution, Rikers Island Jail and Cook County Jail, have become epicenters of COVID-19. The main reason? Severe overcrowding.

According to the Sentencing Project, the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with an estimated 2.2 million people incarcerated. While incarceration rates soar, institutions have become dirtier and more crowded—leaving incarcerated people unable to practice social distancing or basic hygiene, like frequent hand-washing.

“The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) holds almost 23,000 adults in facilities with a design capacity of 17,815, thus exceeding their capacity by more than 30%,” said 2018 Fellow Emma Shakeshaft.

In response, our Fellows are urging jails and prisons to release at-risk inmates from detention.

Photo of Lalita Moskowitz
Photo of Lalita Moskowitz

Thanks to the work of 2018 Fellow Lalita Moskowitz and her host organization, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, Yesenia is safely back home with her partner and three young children. Currently, Lalita’s work involves combatting the public “tough on crime” narrative, so more inmates can return home. Through this work, Lalita and her host organization joined other criminal justice advocacy groups to file an emergency petition to ask the New Mexico Supreme Court to immediately reduce the number of people in New Mexico prisons.

The truth is, the majority of incarcerated people in New Mexico are behind bars for probation/parole violations or other non-serious offenses, often related to mental illness or substance abuse for which they need treatment, not confinement.

Lalita Moskowitz /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Photo of Joseph Longley

Around the country, the situation has become dire for jails and prisons. For instance, 30 inmates and 11 staff members have tested positive for the virus in Washington, D.C., facilities. 2018 Fellow Joseph Longley and his host organization, the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, have advanced Fifth Amendment claims against ICE facilities, jails, and prisons. Collectively, they have filed 18 lawsuits and helped to get more than 60 people released.

Without serious intervention to depopulate prisons and jails, many people who are incarcerated will needlessly suffer and die.

Joseph Longley /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Photo of Emma Shakeshaft
Photo of Emma Shakeshaft

In Wisconsin, the situation isn’t much better. Eighteen Wisconsin Department of Corrections staff members and fifteen people in the DOC’s custody have tested positive for COVID-19. The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied an emergency petition filed by 2018 Fellow Emma Shakeshaft, in conjunction with her host organization, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Now, Emma and her team are evaluating other legal strategies to ensure that prisoners’ rights are protected.

Until correctional facilities practice social distancing measures, inmates and staff will continue to be at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. It’s up to advocates, like Lalita, Joseph, and Emma, to ensure the rights of those incarcerated are not forgotten amid this pandemic.

2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow Lalita Moskowitz and 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow Joseph Longley are supported by anonymous sponsors. 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow Emma Shakeshaft is cosponsored by the Wm. Collins Kohler Foundation and Quarles & Brady LLP.

We are proud to support Fellows advocating for better conditions in correctional facilities amid COVID-19. Learn more about this work, by visiting Lalita, Joseph, and Emma’s profiles.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow