The Worst Places in America

person sitting in wheelchair in empty nursing home hallwayNumerous social commentators have noted how the pandemic has hit the least powerful and prosperous parts of the population the hardest.  Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have been disproportionally high among the poor, people of color, recent immigrants, Native Americans, and the elderly.

The pandemic has also underscored the worst places to work and live, with the pejorative “worst” referring to the way certain places weigh heavily on the body, mind, and spirit.  These places are not only individualized but also organized into types and categories.  I nominate three types of places as the worst in the United States:  prisons, nursing homes, and food processing plants.

Media accounts have reported at length on how COVID-19 has ravaged prison populations, but prisons were undesirable places long before the virus arrived.  The nation has in general abandoned any commitment to rehabilitate inmates, and prisons have deteriorated into demeaning, dangerous warehouses.  Diseases and medical problems are four to ten times as common as they are in the general population, and the Prison Policy Initiative and Wisconsin Department of Corrections estimate that 42% of the state’s inmates suffer from one or more mental illnesses.   According to the prominent sociologist Jonathan Simon, most of the nation considers prison inmates to be “toxic waste” of a human variety and thinks of the people who run the prisons as engaged in “waste management.”

Nursing homes have been the places in which 40% of COVID-19 fatalities have occurred, and some of the most excruciating pandemic scenes have involved distraught friends and relatives saying goodbye to confused and dying residents through tightly-sealed windows. Roughly 75% of nursing homes are for-profit enterprises, usually corporately owned and managed.  Residents in these for-profit nursing homes have over the years endured insufficient staffing and flawed infection control practices born of incessant cost-control and profit-seeking.  As if the concomitant deprivation and loss of dignity were not enough, residents also face the possibility of physical and financial abuse, both of which have been widely documented.

Food processing plants include but are not limited to often-discussed meatpackers, and individual Wisconsin meatpackers in Green Bay and Kenosha have had literally hundreds of their workers test positive for the virus.  More generally, food processing plants are sites of lousy, manual factory work.  The crowding, unsanitary conditions, and degrading supervision in many plants have contributed to the spread of infections as well as to an exploitative and frustrating work experience.  Dignity can be found in all work, we like to say, but the workers in food processing plants are perennially hard-pressed to take anything from their labor other than minimum-wage paychecks.

Prisons, nursing homes, and food processing plants are the “worst” not only because they are unhealthy and harmful places but also because they are fundamentally inhumane and anti-humanistic.  Indeed, these places induce and accentuate severe alienation among those who live and work in them.

This alienation is multi-faceted.  With good reason, inmates, residents, and workers are estranged from the social practices that dominate prisons, nursing homes, and food processing plants, respectively.  They are also alienated from the societally marginalized people who make up most of those who live and work alongside them.  And, most tragically, the inmates, residents, and workers are alienated from themselves.

After, all, people in prisons, nursing homes, and food processing plants do not really want to be in them.  The convicted move into their cells because the criminal justice processing system has assigned them to prison.  The elderly reside in nursing homes because home-care is unavailable, Medicaid might pay the tab, and there is nowhere else to go. Recent immigrants and impoverished people of color, trying to get by from month to month, take jobs in meatpacking plants because they are the best jobs they can find.

Most of those who live and work in prisons, nursing homes, and food processing plants also realize they have little likelihood of developing personally or of finding greater meaning and purpose in their lives.  Their residences and workplaces do not proffer a wider, richer range of possibilities.  Prisons, nursing homes, and food processing plants, in other words, are existential death traps.  What does it say about a society that systematically produces, sustains, and expands “places” like these?

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