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Monkeypox safety tape barrier in front of defocused background.
Photo by MicroStockHub on iStock

In late July, the World Health Organization declared the spread of monkeypox a global health emergency. That same week, prison health officials in the U.S. began sounding the alarm after a case was detected in an Illinois prison. Then, on Aug. 4, the Biden administration also declared the monkeypox outbreak a national health emergency

When we learned of this news in my Colorado prison, we had three immediate thoughts. The first was, “Here we go again!” Second, “When will the monkeypox reach the cell next to mine?” And third, “What do I need to do now to ensure that I and others around me remain safe and healthy?”

Many of us within the Department of Corrections know and fully understand the ongoing threats to our health. Being incarcerated, we are constantly fighting to maintain our health with the many communicable diseases and viruses looming around us at all times. Some examples of these are influenza, tuberculosis, shingles, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, COVID-19 — and now, potentially monkeypox. 

Monkeypox is spread through close physical contact. That can be sexual contact; contact with infectious lesions, or clothing or bedding that came in contact with an infected cut or rash; or through droplets from coughing and sneezing. 

Close contact is a fact of life in prison, which makes prisoners especially vulnerable to contracting the disease, experts have warned. 

Experts do not anticipate monkeypox to be as devastating as COVID-19, which killed nearly 3,000 prisoners, according to the COVID Prison Project

But that does not mean we should become complacent. Already, California and New York have declared states of emergency because of the monkeypox outbreak. As of this writing, the U.S. has seen over 16,926 confirmed cases of monkeypox, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Colorado, where we reside, there have been 189 recorded cases.  

“​​[We] must act now to address how American mass incarceration will accelerate this health emergency, because many of the grim realities of our system of incarceration will cause a rapid spread of this virus, just as occurred with COVID-19,” wrote Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York City’s Correctional Health Service, in a recent op-ed for The Hill

In late July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidelines for dealing with monkeypox in prisons and jails. The federal health agency recommended frequent hand washing, proper cleaning and disinfecting of surface areas and isolation for those who are infected. 

The question at this point is whether we are prepared to weather another major storm.

We believe that the corrections department should begin taking precautions now. After a grim few years in American prisons, we need to do a better job at creating a healthier environment for all of us, staff and residents alike.

(Additional reporting by PJP)

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.

William P. Maestas is a writer incarcerated in Colorado.