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COVID-19 Conversations: Jonathan Kubakundimana on What the Pandemic Means for U.S. Prisons

The Riley Institute’s Center for Critical Issues “brings the world to Furman University” by hosting a diverse roster of speakers on campus each year. While our events are on hold due to COVID-19, The Riley Institute’s Advance Team students are (virtually) bringing notable past speakers into their own homes for thoughtful conversations about the coronavirus’s impact on many facets of life.

Respecting Equal Justice Initiative’s interview policy, this COVID-19 Conversation appears as a written reflection rather than a video.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have had the opportunity to practice a variety of social distancing measures that grant them the level of safety they desire, but that hasn’t been the case for those serving time in prison. As several U.S. correctional facilities have become COVID-19 hotspots, one Furman University alumnus is witnessing the impact of the coronavirus on the prison population firsthand.

Jonathan Kubakundimana recently sat down virtually with three members of the Riley Institute’s Advance Team, a select group of students interested in public policy, to talk about his work as program manager at the Equal Justice Initiative and the pandemic’s toll on the U.S. prison system.

Kubakundimana, who graduated from Furman in 2016, was once himself a member of the Advance Team. He returned to Furman in 2019 to talk with Anthony Ray Hinton about the need to correct injustices in our criminal justice system. Hinton, author of The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, was exonerated after spending 30 years in prison.

Students Elizabeth Hogue ’20, Asha Marie ’22, and Price St. Clair ’22 each had the opportunity to ask questions that touched on the current experiences of incarcerated people as well as the pandemic’s possible impact on long-term prison reform efforts.

At the start of the video call, Kubakundimana shared that overcrowding poses the greatest threat for community spread in prisons. In Alabama, where the Equal Justice Initiative is based, some prisons are operating at twice their capacity.

“The COVID-19 crisis has made what was a bad situation in our prisons in Alabama even worse,” Kubakundimana said. “Prisons in Alabama are built to hold about 14,000 to 15,000 people, but in reality, they’re holding anywhere between 28,000 to 30,000 people.”

Social distancing in prisons has been made harder by the fact that persons incarcerated in low-security facilities oftentimes live and sleep in large, open rooms as opposed to cells.

“Because it is important to reduce the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19, prisons across the country have imposed moratoriums on visits from outsiders, including those by legal counsel. As a result, access to information about the virus and prisoners’ rights is more limited,” Kubakundimana said.

As another tactic to reduce viral spread, various states have chosen to release some people who are incarcerated prior to the official end of their sentences. An uncertain future awaits some formerly incarcerated people reentering society. “For folks who’ve been in prison for long periods of time, they might not have family members or friends that they are coming back to, and that creates its own challenges when it comes to ensuring they have a successful transition back into society,” Kubakundimana said.

While the situation continues to evolve, especially as racial violence against Black people — who are dying at disproportionately higher rates from the virus — has prompted nationwide protests where many demonstrators are being arrested and jailed, the students took away a greater understanding of the unique circumstances that prison populations are experiencing at this time.

“I think it is most important to note that COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing issues within the prison system such as overcrowding and limited health care,” student Elizabeth Hogue said, reflecting on the conversation. “Therefore, a highly vulnerable population is more vulnerable than ever, and action should be taken to ensure that prisoners’ rights, especially in regards to their health, are protected during this crisis.”

Hogue’s classmate Price St. Clair said he felt that the need for anti-racism work will continue well after the end of the pandemic.

“I have heard COVID-19 referred to as ‘the great equalizer.’ Sadly, that is not the case; Black and brown communities and incarcerated people are often at a much greater risk of infection and death,” St. Clair said.

“Jonathan and his colleagues at the Equal Justice Initiative are hard at work breaking down the false narratives that sustain such inequities and providing resources for local communities to reckon with past and present racism. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, and once it is over, each of us is challenged to join them in that uncomfortable but urgently necessary work — at Furman, in the wider Greenville community, and beyond.”

For information on the number of coronavirus cases confirmed in the South Carolina Department of Corrections system, click here. To read the department’s action plan to address the pandemic, click here.

View all COVID-19 Conversations episodes

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this conversation are those of the individuals appearing in the video and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Riley Institute or Furman University.