“Prisons Are Microcosms of the Broader Society”: An Interview with Heather Ann ThompsonHistorians in the News
tags: racism, criminal justice, prisons, Mass Incarceration
Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with Heather Ann Thompson, a historian of prison rebellions and urban social unrest in the United States, about the COVID-19 outbreak, the horrendous conditions inside American prisons, and how the times we’re living through are “eerily reminiscent” of the period that prompted the spectacular law-and-order backlash of the 1970s.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected the national conversation about mass incarceration?
The COVID-19 outbreak is essentially a reaping of what we’ve sown with mass incarceration, from a public health perspective. In other words, while it’s important that there is so much attention on the issue right now, we should have been paying attention all along.
Myriad public health crises have been developing in prisons for a very long time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, there was a very serious outbreak of tuberculosis in New York City, which could be traced back to New York’s prison and jail system. In more recent years, we have seen outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, MRSA, and HIV in prisons around the country.
It’s also not new for prisoners themselves to call attention to the issue of infectious disease. For example, prisoners in Texas used their own radio stations to bring attention to the serious problem of MRSA. And then, of course, lo and behold, MRSA started showing up in Texas prisons and spreading to the nation’s hospitals, too.
We’ve known about the negative relationship between public health and prisons for some time. Prisons don’t just pose a health risk to those locked inside of them, but also to the general public. This is because most people do, in fact, come home from prison, and they often bring with them highly infectious diseases — whether we’re talking about HIV or tuberculosis or COVID-19.
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