Photo of F.C.I. Sandstone from the Bureau of Prisons

Warden J. Fikes gave rejection notices in April to senior prisoners who had filed for compassionate release on the grounds that the prison could not possibly keep them safe from the COVID-19 virus. The prison, F.C.I. Sandstone, is considered a “low risk” institution and costs taxpayers millions to house mostly middle aged prisoners who are unlikely to re-offend.

The overcrowded prison houses 162 inmates per unit in just 30 feet by 90 feet of space, where inmates must share sinks and showers and are forced to double bunk in 6-by-9-foot cubes. The living conditions are abysmal, with open cubes and inmates not required to wear masks while in their cube. That means the entire population is vulnerable to getting the disease quickly. Hand sanitizer and masks are not available for purchase to inmates, and sickness and disease are rampant in the units. Nurses will just tell inmates to “sleep it off.”

As the looming threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic increases, inmate families are feeling increased anxiety as well, especially for those with preexisting conditions or those not in the best health due to drug or alcohol abuse. Sandstone doesn’t seem to have an adequate plan for tackling the coronavirus threat. If the prison was infected, inmates would not be able to social distance. It would be an explosive infection of the transmission of the disease, risking the lives of vulnerable populations inside.

What is most disturbing, though, is that the decision not to send seniors home in this environment seems to be based on a “human dollar sign” and not a concern for the safety of the community. F.C.I. Sandstone receives taxpayer money per inmate and with an estimated 1,400 inmates currently housed here, the facility receives millions in funds. Losing inmates means losing money.

But humans are not dollar signs, and filling beds by a prison enterprise is not more important than human life.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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David Azreal

David Azreal is the pen name for a writer whose pieces are submitted through the American Prison Writing Archive, a partner of the Prison Journalism Project. David is incarcerated in Minnesota.