If We Want to Stop Covid-19, We Can’t Forget the IncarceratedRoundup
Jessica L. Adler is an assistant professor of history and health policy & management at Florida International University and author of Burdens of War: Creating the United States Veterans Health System.
In 1990, a group of HIV-positive people incarcerated in New York sued state officials, including then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. Some said they were denied access to physicians, necessary prescription medications and adequate food. One, whose condition left him weakened and with no control over his bowels and bladder, reported that he was “frequently left to lie in his own urine and feces.”
Covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, differs in many ways from HIV/AIDS, but the 1990 lawsuit underscores important realities about the disproportionate impact of disease outbreaks on incarcerated people, who lack control over their living conditions and have limited access to often substandard medical care. The suit should remind officials that while people in prisons may be some of the least visible among the millions facing the global pandemic, they are, quite literally, at the mercy of the government. And they and their advocates are entitled to use the legal system to ensure the protection of their rights and their lives.
The 1990 New York lawsuit was hardly an anomaly. It came after a decade when President Ronald Reagan answered the HIV/AIDS crisis mainly with silence, endangering hundreds of thousands of lives while leaving state and local governments to fend for themselves.
Mario Cuomo was more proactive than many fellow governors during the early days of the epidemic, moving to help and protect HIV-positive New Yorkers. But his actions had little impact on incarcerated people with the illness who, like their counterparts across the country, endured life-threatening hardships.
Between 1980 and 1990, when the general prison population doubled from about 300,000 to more than 600,000, and misconceptions were prevalent about how HIV/AIDS was transmitted, many state corrections systems segregated people with AIDS from the general prison population, restricted them from participating in educational and work programs and failed to protect them from abuse.
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