COVID-19, pandemic, Cummins prison, national prisons, incarcerated people, American prisons, Arkansas, prison bureaucracy, Eighth Amendment, indifference, prison reform


It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons. That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm. May we hope that our country’s facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, issued the above-quoted clarion call to protect the lives of incarcerated people on May 14, 2020. At that point, the COVID-19 pandemic had brought American society to a standstill for a little more than two months, and it had begun to wreak havoc on American prisons nationwide. Despite Justice Sotomayor’s hopes that the nation’s prisons might avoid becoming cautionary tales, the realities of and legal doctrines governing the American system of mass incarceration all-but insured that American prisons would become a site of mass casualty to the COVID-19 pandemic. This Article explains why.