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What’s It Like Inside? Early Snapshots from Prisons During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As we are putting together the April issue of PLN, the situation with the novel coronavirus is changing by the hour, if not the minute. In the United States, the number of cases has climbed from 213 on March 8 to 173.041 on March 31 — and that’s sure to be an undercount since testing is barely off the ground. U.S. deaths as of March 31 had risen to 3,433, according to The New York Times.

It’s impossible to know how severe the coronavirus outbreak will be, but if ever there was a country primed for an epidemic, the U.S. is it. We have a serious shortage of hospital beds and ventilators. With no universal healthcare and a good chunk of the population without paid sick leave or money to pay for treatment, it’s safe to say things will get a lot worse — even with elected officials finally starting to act, some two months after the first case was confirmed in the U.S.

Schools, bars, restaurants, movie theaters and many workplaces are finally being shut down across the country. On March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced extraordinary measures directing all 40 million California state residents to stay at home, the first mandatory restrictions announced in the United States. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo followed suit the following day, signing an executive order “mandating that 100% of the workforce must stay home, excluding essential services.” As of March 23, about one-quarter of all Americans were effectively living under quarantine. Even President Donald Trump, who first called coronavirus a “hoax” before declaring it a national emergency March 13, now says it may be months before it’s under control though the economy should be open by May.

Initially there were few reported cases at prisons or jails but then in mid-March reports emerged of two dozen guards and staff being infected in California, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Then on March 26, the Associated Press reported that 75 prisoners and guards at Rikers Island had tested positive.

“This virus thing is concerning and we await its arrival inside the fences,” predicts a Florida prisoner. “I just believe it’s inevitable, and when it happens it will spread like wildfire.” (We are not naming prisoners in this story. Some comments have been lightly edited for length, clarity and anonymity.)

The American carceral system holds over 2 million people in prisons, jails and detention centers. “They do not live under quarantine,” Dr. Amanda Klonsky, a scholar of education and mass incarceration who works with the Petey Greene Program, wrote in The New York Times on March 16. “Jails experience a daily influx of correctional staff, vendors, health care workers, educators and visitors — all of whom carry viral conditions at the prison back to their homes and communities and return the next day packing the germs from back home.”

Health experts have described prisons as potential “incubators” for coronavirus because it spreads most quickly in closed environments. And “social distancing” of 6 feet – what is being uniformly called for in the outside world — is almost impossible for prisoners. Furthermore, prison medical care, much of it provided by profit-maximizing private firms, is notoriously poor and prison staff coming into facilities could bring in coronavirus with them.

On March 13, the Bureau of Prisons, which oversees 122 prisons, posted an “action plan” at bop.gov, including modified operations; screening of staff and prisoners; a 30-day suspension of social visits and visits by volunteers. Legal visits would also be suspended with a “case-by-case accommodation” on the local level. An update on March 19 said prisoner transfers might need to occur to “better manage” bed space and to prevent overcrowding “beyond available resources.”

We have heard from state and federal prisoners and family members who are clearly concerned. The recommendation to practice “social distancing” is a hurdle.

 “Guys sleep 3 feet away on either side of me,” said a prisoner in Florida. “There is no social distancing in here, and all routines are normal.”

Dining halls do not promote social distancing. “They have quit using the hot and cold bars in the dining hall, a prisoner in Texas said. “We’re all packed in together, so I don’t know what that’s supposed to accomplish.”

“They haven’t said anything about quarantining prisoners if they show symptoms of COVID-19,” he added. “We’re not looking forward to it though. Inmates die here one or two a month already. I can’t imagine how things are going to be when people start getting ill. There are a lot of elderly prisoners and prisoners with other health problems.”

Another challenge: cleaning products to prevent the spread of the virus, a prisoner said. “They have a crew of prisoners who go to each housing area and common area with a sprayer loaded with bleach water. They spray down tables, telephones, and common areas.  They ceased doing this on Thursday the 12th of March. They are not spraying down anything with bleach anymore.”

A prisoner in Florida said prisoners had received a memo that said there would be enhanced cleaning and wiping of surfaces. “However, no extra chemicals have been issued and staff is not doing anything to carry that directive out,” the person said. “If we don’t do it of its our own accord, it’s not happening. In other words, things appear normal.”

The lack of communication with the outside is on many minds. Prisoners worry about their loved ones and contact with visitors and instructors.

“The BOP has decided that visitors, volunteers, and non-essentials contractors are not to be permitted in the institutions for the next 30 days,” a prisoner said. “I am housed so far from my family, that I get visits about once every two or three years. So visits aren’t a big concern for me. But I regularly got to see my religious volunteer, and I’m enrolled in a college class which is taught by an outside instructor. I don’t know when we’ll get to see the volunteer.”

Added a prisoner in the Southeast: “They have ceased all volunteers from entering this place. Only staff enters, and rather than screening, they self-screen. I was told by a guard there’s a sign that lists symptoms with instructions to not enter if they exhibit any of them. I believe it’s inevitable that we go to lockdown and since we live only 3 feet apart, a wildfire of virus will pass through here. (Thanks to God and exercise, I’m healthy) They say kitchen is prepping to do nothing but bag meals. Stay tuned.”

A volunteer teacher at a prison in Vermont said the volunteer program has been shut down because of the threat of coronavirus. She believes elderly prisoners should be released as soon as possible, especially those over the age of 60. “Many have pre-existing health conditions, such as HIV, Hep B & C, severe asthma and other respiratory disease, and cancers or heart disease,” she said. “People inside are malnourished, they are often cold at night up in Vermont; there is not consistent access to sinks and soap. I am not sure what the solution is if the state would like to keep them in custody. Could they put them on house arrest? I don’t have all the answers, but there is a serious crisis at hand and people in prison deserve dignity.” 

One prisoner witnessed a prison-guard trainee who was “visibly sick” – runny nose, watery eyes, coughing and hacking. He was touring with other trainees. Prisoners yelled for his removal but were told to shut up. When the group headed to the infirmary, a nurse took his temperature. “She made him put on a mask and ordered him to be removed from the unit and told him to get to the hospital for corona testing.” The next day, a staff member was escorted off the unit after hacking, coughing and having a high temperature. “There is no telling how many people that the trainee and that staffer were around when they were sneezing and coughing,” this person added.

Said a prisoner in New England: “They have shut this place down and we are eating separate from other units, yet we can still go to rec and the library together. Let’s see how long that lasts. No visitation for at least 30 days, including lawyer visits, and no medical trips. They are still allowing people to be released to halfway houses, though.”

“People are going to work here but they want us to be 6 feet apart, yet we are sitting on top of each other at chow,” a prisoner in the Southeast noted. “They really need to just shut things down. And how can they have the dentist going? People breathing on each other. I am a little scared, I really am. ”

He added: “What has me worried though is hearing from my friends and family what life is like outside. They were already struggling for various reasons, and I felt like I should be out there helping them.  But I hear things about how grocery stores are empty and people are scared.  There are thousands of BOP prisoners who are low or minimum custody, and we could be out benefiting our communities.  Instead, we’re sitting in here like ducks, waiting for the red tide to come in.”

Advocates around the country have been pressing political leaders and prison officials to release prisoners with health conditions, the elderly and those facing minor charges. Some releases have taken place but the process is proceeding at a snail’s pace. Even after the outbreak at Rikers Island, only 40 prisoners had been freed as of March 22.

PLN has reported extensively on medical issues in prisons and jails in the U.S. for 30 years. A constant has been detention facilities being incubators of disease and sickness. Given the historically callous disregard by prison and jail officials, government and elected officials to prior epidemics — HIV, HCV, Legionnaires disease, MRSA, diabetes, tuberculosis and many other illnesses — there’s no reason to think their performance will be any better this time. It is important to note that the people running detention facilities in the U.S. are not medical professionals and have a dismal track record of doing anything beyond caging people. The widespread privatization of prison and jail healthcare also make it much likelier that corporate bottom lines will come before the health and safety of prisoners and staff,