As an incarcerated person, I’m writing from a position of relative privilege. I’m a federal prisoner, whereas the vast majority of prisoners in the United States are in state prisons and county jails, where conditions have deteriorated much more rapidly. Nor are most U.S. prisoners in the situation of some incarcerated folks in other parts of the world, who have been left completely abandoned and exposed.
I’m a relatively young, generally healthy white man, with all the systemic advantages that go along with these qualities. And, as of this writing (April 13, 2020) this particular facility has no cases of coronavirus — staff or prisoners.
The following account is based on my experience at the federal detention center in Seattle.
On prisoner health “care”
The coronavirus exposes prisoners’ lack of any kind of true healthcare while incarcerated. Prisons are constitutionally required to provide for the welfare of inmates, but they do the absolute minimum until prompted by lawsuits. Medical services in prisons and jails are often outsourced to private, for-profit companies, who know their captive patients have little recourse. There are dozens of court cases litigating this lethal indifference.
Because prisons and jails systematically underfund medical services, there is never adequate staff to meet prisoners’ legitimate needs. In my institution, a chart in the medical ward shows more than 50% of healthcare staff positions are vacant, including the clinical director position. Consequently, all healthcare is triaged. Only life-threatening situations have even the hope of being addressed in a timely manner, and non-medical prison guards can and often do overrule medical treatment they deem “unnecessary.”
In the case of coronavirus, early symptoms such as high fever, persistent cough, and gastrointestinal distress routinely have a two-to-three week waiting period before prisoners are even seen by medical personnel. Thus, early in the pandemic, potentially contagious individuals simply went untreated.
Once the virus was publicly acknowledged, most prisons and jails began doing temperature checks — here they perform them weekly. But since those with the coronavirus can go up to three days without showing symptoms, these checks will do nothing until it’s already too late. And if a prisoner does have a fever, they’re thrown in solitary confinement and “quarantined,” often with minimal if any healthcare unless their symptoms turn deadly.
On respecting a person’s humanity
The coronavirus pandemic highlights the prison-industrial complex’s dismissal of prisoners’ lives. For instance, in this facility, all prisoners are now required to wear masks. But despite recommendations from the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and this state’s department of public health, prison guards and staff are not required to wear masks, and only about half do. The only vector for infection here — as there are currently no cases — are employees who travel to and from their communities daily. Yet even in a crisis, the prison makes a show of protecting itself from prisoners, rather than protecting prisoners from infection.
Most prisoners nationwide are now on some form of lockdown: no visits by family, friends, lawyers or volunteers; limited or no work at prisoners’ in-house jobs; and a 22 to 24 hour per day confinement to cells or housing units. This, indeed, may be prudent in a place where no social distancing is possible. Yet no effort is made by prison officials to maintain our humanity.
Mail is going in and out, but stamps cost money — and many prisoners are now unable to work to earn even their average 17 cents per hour. If there were an “economic relief package” for prisoners, as there was for folks on the outside who’ve lost their jobs, it would begin with free stamps to these physically and emotionally isolated human beings.
Most prisons have education and recreation departments. Here, those departments have essentially shut down. No effort is being made, for instance, to distribute recreational or educational materials to people trapped in their cells. Classes for GED and ESL programs are cancelled, as are drug and alcohol addiction groups. This could be an opportunity for prisoners to study and learn — but education is missing in action. Recreation, which oversees exercise equipment, could be distributing exercises to do in one’s cell, meditation to reduce stress and anxiety, stretching or yoga techniques — instead, staff just went home.
The chaplain, ostensibly still at work, makes no contact with prisoners unless they seek him out. Prison ministries, overwhelmingly focused on authoritarian, penitential, individualistic modes of worship (for all faith traditions, but in particular the dominionist, millennarion flavor of Christianity often led by chaplains themselves), have little to say in a crisis like this. The people are isolated and frightened, but pastoral care is nonexistent.
On making clear the source of violence
Few experiences are more dehumanizing than being told, with contagion everywhere, that you are to be confined with hundreds of other people for your health. It also sharpens our perception as to who holds the real power, and wields the true violence, over our lives.
Prison officials often countenance gangs and racial groups because they say it helps them maintain order. Your racial identity or affiliation is central to your experience of prison, and to the very physical makeup of your environment: tables, chairs, TVs, phones and computers are often positioned by prisons so that they can be controlled by one group or another — with threats of violence for straying outside the lines. Guards and administrators thus encourage prisoners to take on some of the policing of each other. (This divide and conquer strategy has for decades been the prisons’ bulwark against social justice organizing on the inside.) On a day-to-day basis, it can feel as if the most potential for violence is from other prisoners rather than from guards.
An epidemic lockdown upends this experience. In facilities with cells, your only real connection for weeks on end is to your cellmate. All power — when you’re permitted to shower, to eat, to receive medical attention, to place a phone call — is held by the guards, administrators, and medical staff. This serves to remind us that other prisoners — no matter how misguided or even brutal — are not the enemies or the true oppressors. It is the prison-industrial complex that holds our freedom and our safety in escrow.
On releasing prisoners during a pandemic
Some people — the elderly, those with pre-existing medical conditions, prisoners near their release date, and pretrial detainees — are being considered for or have been released to halfway houses, home confinement or parole. This is, indeed, great! But it begs the question, if prisons are so dangerous in the midst of coronavirus, are they safe in normal times?
Prisons hold inmates for decades, even when they are suffering from a terminal illness. Yet now that elders and the infirm are at risk of contracting COVID-19, we belatedly realize maybe it’s not such a great idea to execute them through incarceration.
The coronavirus is a health emergency, in and out of prisons. But how is it materially different than Hepatitis C or HIV — both epidemics in many prisons? By some estimates, 1 in 11 prisoners are sexually assaulted, and we know rates are even higher for women, trans folds, visibly/out LGBQ+ prisoners, and “politically undesirable” inmates like sex offenders or alleged “snitches.” Yet this has spurred no prison bureaucracy to declare a health emergency: toothless laws prohibiting sexual contact in prison are far cries from early-releasing those most at risk of being raped. In light of the necessary re-evaluation of incarceration in a time of pandemic, might this callous disregard for prisoners’ health and safety to be re-evaluated too?
In the midst of a pandemic, prisons do need to be emptied. But the warehousing of caged human beings is a practice that has never been just or humane, and that will still be true when the coronavirus finally recedes.
Will we learn the lessons of this public health crisis, or will we leave prisoners to rot and die in quarantine when the next wave hits? Will mass incarceration be recognized for the health emergency that it actually is?
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.