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U.S. Prisons Originally Designed to Prevent Spread of Disease Become Breeding Ground During Pandemic

There were no regulations or standards commissions to oversee their construction or operation. Confinement might be in a basement-cum-dungeon, a stone building with barred windows or, if a detainee was lucky, an extra room at the local inn or maybe a private home rented to the local government for the purpose. None of these were actually designed or meant to be used for lengthy detentions, even though some stays did drag out for months.

A major problem associated with these primitive, unregulated lock-ups was a lack of health care and consequential disease outbreaks. A prime example occurred in 1577. Typhus, a severe and highly infectious disease mainly transmitted by body lice, was so rampant in lock-ups it was referred to simply as “gaol fever.” A group of prisoners pending trial were brought to the Oxford courthouse for proceedings. Less than two days afterward, over 300 people who had been exposed to those prisoners had contracted and died from Typhus. There also were instances of released prisoners returning home and spreading diseases they had contracted in a lock-up to residents of their communities.

After the American Revolution, a newly independent U.S. began to take a serious look at its jails and prisons. Many ideas for their overhaul came from a 1777 book on the subject by John Howard. Ideas like totally separating young offenders from older, more experienced and hardened criminals with absolute separation between male and female prisoners began gaining serious traction and implementation. Mere debtors and vagrants were housed away from hard cases as well.

Pushed by Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania incorporated many of Howard’s ideas into the transformation of its Walnut Street Jail into a forerunner of model state prisons by 1794. This design was emulated across the nation.

Going several steps further, Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) opened in 1829. ESP’s cells housed single prisoners and measured 7.5 by 12 feet, dwarfing the majority of today’s 6-by-9 foot, two-person cells. ESP’s cells had flush toilets, an amenity the White House lacked until 1833. Finally, ESP had central heating, something many of today’s prisons do not have.

Even while the U.S. prison and jail population has grown to over 2.2 million prisoners, conditions have regressed to the point where 40 states have been ordered to reduce their prison populations. Amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, America’s overcrowded prisons are little more than huge Petri dishes for this highly contagious disease. 


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