Recorded numbers of active COVID-19 cases in Wyoming prisons are rising.
The most recent round of testing found 222 active cases. That means around one in every 10 people in the state’s prison system is currently infected with the virus.
But more important than the statistics are the people those numbers represent.
As COVID-19 continues to hit correctional facilities nationwide, incarcerated people and their families across the country and here in Wyoming have been on amplified alert for months and months.
At the onset of the pandemic, health officials referred to the United States’ overcrowded prison systems as “petri dishes” and warned that they could be a “significant” source for spreading the virus. They were right. Even with vaccines available, the main advice given by health officials – wash your hands and keep at least 6 feet apart – is difficult to do in an already crowded correctional facility staffed with people coming in from the outside.
Those living within the system know this to be true.
Wyoming’s response to COVID-19 in its jails and prisons earned the state a failing grade from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative, according to a 2020 report.
While some states have released non-violent offenders from jails and prisons in hopes of decreasing the populations in the facilities. Gov. Mark Gordon’s office has not. Despite having ample time and information to take the steps necessary to heed the warnings of public health experts, Wyoming has refused to adequately address the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses in our state’s jails and prisons.
Mass incarceration was a major public health crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19. But this pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point.
The U.S. is the largest incarcerator in the world, with just 4 percent of the world’s population and 21 percent of its incarcerated population. About 40 percent of all incarcerated people suffer from at least one chronic health condition, such as asthma or diabetes. This means the U.S. faces a unique challenge in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and is likely facing a much higher death count than models based on data from other countries predict.
For more than a year, the ACLU of Wyoming has been urging state officials to heed public health experts’ advice and develop an evidence-based, proactive plan for the prevention and management of COVID-19 in Wyoming’s jails, detention centers, prisons, ICE facilities and detainee transportation.
What we got instead was a plan that was overly broad: Anyone entering a Department of Corrections facility would be screened. Visitation and volunteer programs were temporarily suspended and attorney and legal visitations were restricted.
Meanwhile, we keep hearing from people currently living in prison, jail or a pre-release center, or from family members who reached out on behalf of their loved ones.
They are scared for their lives. They are concerned that more isn’t being done to protect them from outbreaks. They are worried that they are being forgotten about. They feel emotionally abused by how they are being treated. And they feel powerless in their situations.
We’re doing what we can to best advocate for our friends and neighbors. But it’s time for Wyoming to do more.
Gov. Gordon should utilize his clemency powers to decrease incarcerated populations and create a culture in which transparency, safety and the health of all people are paramount concerns.
Wyomingites are depending on action from government leaders. But will they rise to the occasion?
A version of this column also appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune.