Coronavirus in Prison: The Cruel Reality
As Numbers Rise, Some Prison Systems Admit Defeat, Others Try to Ignore Death Toll
While tracking the number of infections and deaths is an important indicator of coronavirus’ impact, this fails to view the toll on individuals. Numbers can’t explain the impact this pandemic has had on the personal psyche of prisoners, their families, or their communities. What makes this even worse is prison officials’ lackluster response.
It would be comforting to think that prison administrators and city governments would care more about the human cost of this crisis than the economic or political cost, but this has largely proven to be a false hope.
Lives continue to be lost as prison officials downplay coronavirus’ impact inside their institutions. They treat guards humanely while dealing with prisoners as untrustworthy animals. All the while, political pundits and tough-on-crime groups call foul when governors, judges, and prison systems release even limited numbers of inmates.
The only way to protect human beings from coronavirus is to socially distance, wear masks, wash hands, and proactively keep distance from others. In prison systems these possibilities are, for all practical purposes, impossible. Prisoners are at the mercy of their jailers, and jailers, predictably, are failing miserably to protect them.
The State of Coronavirus
As of July 22, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 3.8 million cases of coronavirus and 140,630 deaths in the United States. California had the highest number of cases, with 329,162.
According to the CDC, the following 10 U.S. jurisdictions had the highest cumulative total number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases:
• California, Florida, Texas, New York City, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts
The CDC reports the following U.S. jurisdictions had the 10 highest cumulative death totals based on COVID-19:
• New York City, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Connecticut and Florida
New York City had the highest death total attributed to COVID-19: 23,336 deaths (18,720 confirmed and 4,616 probable).
Globally, there had been more than 13 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The United States leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths. Brazil, India, Russia, Peru, Chile, Mexico, and South Africa followed the U.S. in the number of confirmed cases.
COVID News Reporting: Guided by Politics?
Media coverage of coronavirus has been highly problematic. Science should never take a back seat to political rhetoric, but this is precisely what is occurring in newsrooms across the country. A recent survey of Fox News and CNN coverage shows drastically differing news reporting focuses.
While CNN’s top stories revolve around coronavirus and the Trump administration’s poor handling of the crisis, Fox News focuses on the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd, preferring to highlight racial violence and rioting, interspersed with attacks on Democratic Party officials.
Media coverage impacts the way prison officials make decisions on dealing with the pandemic. If they are receiving their news from liberal-leaning news organizations they would view the epidemic as a crisis in full force. If they’re watching right-leaning news, they may believe that the worst is behind us. This can result in a direct impact on how prison systems respond to the crisis.
A recent Pew Research Center Election News Pathways Project poll puts this in sharp focus. According to the poll, 66 percent of MSNBC viewers and 52 percent of CNN viewers believed coronavirus came from nature. In comparison, only 37 percent of Fox News viewers believed this, while most believed it was created by the Chinese government, possibly as a weapon.
The same poll reported that 80 percent of Fox News viewers believed the media exaggerates the coronavirus threat, while only 54 percent of CNN viewers and 35 percent of MSNBC viewers viewed the threat as exaggerated.
When considering how to address the threat of coronavirus, the poll asked study participants if they thought it would take less than a year to develop a vaccine. The results were unsurprising considering the rise of the politicized news media: 78 percent of MSBNC viewers agreed, while only 51 percent of Fox News viewers did. Experts said it will take closer to 18 months to develop a vaccine.
Shortly after this poll was released, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, became the target of a political smear campaign because he made public statements about the dangers of coronavirus and advised Americans to socially distance and wear masks. The New YorkTimes reported that President Trump’s press office “tried to undermine the reputation of the nation’s top infectious disease expert with an anonymously attributed list of what it said were his misjudgments in the early days of the coronavirus.” Amongst these claims were Fauci stating, “there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis.” The opposition report failed to include Dr. Fauci’s next statement, “the risk is still low, but this could change,” or his warning that coronavirus could become “a major outbreak.”
While just an observation of recent coverage from news networks, it highlights the stark contrast of how different groups approach coronavirus. This also addresses the prickly issue of which agency to trust and the essential activity of considering the self-interests of those who both report the news and make decisions based on it.
Differing Community Responses
Besides news reporting, the same is seen with how communities are responding to the pandemic.
On July 13, California Governor Gavin Newsom expanded business restrictions to stop community spread. Effective that day, all counties were ordered to close indoor operations of dine-in restaurants, wineries and tasting rooms, movie theaters, family entertainment centers, zoos, museums, and card rooms. Brew pubs and breweries were banned from any operations unless they also offered sit-down, outdoor dine-in meals.
This starkly contrasts with the approach Florida has taken. Amid the coronavirus explosion, the state was further opening for business. On July 11, Disney World in Orlando officially reopened, with Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom first. Following the installation of 4,000 hand-sanitizer stations and issuing thermal temperature units, the park claimed it was safe to attend. This opening came before the July 12 announcement that Florida experienced over 15,000 new infections, setting a daily record for any state.
It should be highlighted that as the coronavirus pandemic increased in intensity, Florida was one of the states that elected to remain open through spring break, a move widely seen as a business decision. This is yet another example of a local government placing a higher value on its jurisdiction’s economy over the safety of the citizenry.
Even amongst a steadily climbing death toll, some cities continue to fight against protective measures, instead viewing the pandemic as an issue of personal freedom or an unsubstantiated impediment to the economy.
“As you go about your day today, KNOW there is NO LAW that Orders you to Wear a Mask,” Nevada City, California Mayor Reinette Senum wrote on social media in response to Newsom’s recent order that all state residents must wear masks when in public. “Our Governor does NOT have that unilateral power to make such orders.”
As the opposition grows to business closures and other coronavirus protection plans, various organizations have mounted legal challenges to stay-at-home orders and directives to wear masks in public. At the same time, the European Union, Canada and dozens of other countries have banned U.S. visitors from entry.
Coronavirus Epidemic in Prisons, by the Numbers
While most prison systems have implemented new policies to protect prisoners, the number of coronavirus infections and deaths has continued to rise. “The inability to quarantine or practice social distancing, together with overcrowding, imperils the lives of many people incarcerated in jails and prisons,” explained the Equal Justice Initiative. “Nationwide, the known infection rate for COVID-19 in jails and prisons is about 2½ times higher than in the general population.”
Other research suggests the rate of infection for those in prison is higher due to the evolving coronavirus situation.
“By June 6, 2020, there had been 42,107 cases of COVID-19 and 510 deaths amongst 1,295,285 prisoners with a case rate of 3,251 per 100,000 prisoners,” explained a July 8 report from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The authors include researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Los Angeles. “The COVID-19 case rate for prisoners was 5.5 times higher than the U.S. population case rate of 587 per 100,000,” the report continues. “COVID-19 case rates have been substantially higher and escalating much more rapidly in prisons than in the U.S. population.” (For more on the JAMA study, see page 38.)
As of mid-July, seven of the 10 most significant outbreaks in the United States have occurred in jails and prisons. In one harrowing example, almost 70 percent of prisoners at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, California, had tested positive for the virus. In Ohio, the Marion Correctional Institution recently reported 2,439 cases, while the Pickaway Correctional Institution reported 1,791 inmate positives.
The Michigan Department of Corrections has also had widescale devastation. Almost 60 percent of prisoners at the Lakeland Correctional Facility tested positive for coronavirus (758 positive cases and 14 deaths).
Private prisons haven’t fared any better, and often worse. The CoreCivic-operated Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennessee reported 1,384 out of 2,444 inmates tested positive for coronavirus. [CoreCivic is the rebranded name for Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA.]
Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP)
On April 22, 2020, the BOP reported that 566 prisoners and 342 staff members had tested positive for coronavirus, with 24 prisoner fatalities. By May 16, 2020, the BOP reported 2,285 federal prisoners and 283 staff members had tested positive for coronavirus, with 56 federal prisoner fatalities. And on July 14, 2020, the BOP reported 3,366 prisoners and 257 staff had tested positive for coronavirus, with 95 prisoner deaths and one staff death.
These are not cumulative totals. As of July 14, the BOP reported an additional 5,181 inmates, and 629 staff members had recovered from the virus. Also potentially missing from these numbers are inmates sent to either outside hospitals or private prisons.
“Not all tests are conducted by and/or reported to BOP,” explains the Bureau. “The inmate totals listed do not include inmates participating in the Federal Location Monitoring program, inmates supervised under the [United States Probation Office], or being held in privately managed prisons.”
As of July 14, these 10 federal prisons had the highest number of inmate positives (in descending order of infection total): FCI Seagoville (TX), FCI Butner Low (NC), FCI Beaumont (TX), FCI Elkton (OH), FMC Carswell (TX), FCI Jesup (GA), FCI Fairton (NJ), FCI Coleman Medium (FL), FCI Miami (FL), and FCI Victorville Medium 1 (CA).
The numbers of infections are likely drastically higher due to insignificant testing and the prevalence of pending test results. For example, while FCI Victorville Medium 1 (CA) has reported 56 inmate positives, an additional 273 tests remain pending. Likewise, while FMC Carswell (TX) had reported 142 inmate positives, an additional 489 tests remained pending. The most alarming example was FCI Victorville Medium 2 (CA), where 37 inmates had tested positive, but 503 tests remained pending. An additional eight federal prisons and four halfway houses had more tests pending than completed.
Deaths had been reported in 20 federal prisons and five halfway houses, and infections at 94 federal facilities and 46 halfway houses. The top five federal prisons in terms of total COVID-19 deaths were:
• FCI Butner Low (NC): 16
• FMC Fort Worth (TX): 12
• FCI Terminal Island (CA): 10
• FCI Butner Medium 1 (NC): 9
• FCI Elkton (OH): 9
Overview of State Prison Systems
The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that focuses on criminal justice matters, has tracked the state of coronavirus in American prisons. It reports that as of July 7, at least 57,019 prisoners had tested positive for the virus, with 34,245 prisoners recovering.
The Marshall Project’s data set ranks each prison system by the number of coronavirus contractions and resulting deaths.
Eleven prison systems had reported over 1,000 prisoner positives: Texas (9,592), federal BOP (7,639), California (5,372), Ohio (5,055), Michigan (4,020), Tennessee (3,184), Arkansas (2,981), New Jersey (2,869), Florida (2,514), Virginia (1,516) and Connecticut (1,346).
Another nine prison systems reported between 500 and 1,000 prisoner coronavirus positives: Georgia (944), Kansas (910), North Carolina (887), Indiana (726), Louisiana (641), Colorado (631), Maryland (620), New York (541), and Kentucky (528).
Fourteen prison systems reported between 100 and 499 positives: Arizona (481), New Mexico (461), Massachusetts (391), South Carolina (346), Minnesota (341), Illinois (337), Pennsylvania (285), Wisconsin (283), Delaware (261), Washington (255), Missouri (193), Oregon (183), West Virginia (133), and Idaho (131).
Fifteen prison systems reported less than 100 positives: Alabama (97), Iowa (96), Mississippi (80), Vermont (47), Utah (30), Rhode Island (18), Nevada (16), Oklahoma (9), Nebraska (8), North Dakota (7), South Dakota (4), Maine (4), Montana (3), Alaska (2), and New Hampshire (1).
Wyoming and Hawaii were the last to report their prison systems had inmates who tested positive for the virus.
The Marshall Project also reported that at least 651 prisoners had died from COVID-19. The following is a list of states and entities that had experienced 10 or more prisoner deaths:
• Federal BOP: 98
• Texas: 88
• Ohio: 86
• Michigan: 68
• New Jersey: 46
• California: 29
• Florida: 26
• Georgia: 23
• Indiana: 20
• New York: 16
• Louisiana: 16
• Arkansas: 14
• Illinois: 13
• Arizona: 13
• Virginia: 11
• Pennsylvania: 10
• Alabama: 10
An additional 17 state prison systems had reported COVID-19 deaths:
• Maryland: 8
• Massachusetts: 8
• Connecticut: 7
• Delaware: 7
• North Carolina: 5
• South Carolina: 5
• Kansas: 4
• Tennessee: 4
• Colorado: 3
• New Mexico: 3
• Kentucky: 2
• Minnesota: 2
• Washington: 2
• Iowa: 1
• Mississippi: 1
• Missouri: 1
• Oregon: 1
The remaining 17 state prison systems have reported no prisoner COVID-19 deaths.
Discrepancies in Coronavirus Data by Prison Officials
One aspect that must be highlighted concerns the underlying data sets. As with many other areas of American corrections, journalists, prisoners, and the public are at the whims of prison officials to report coronavirus data accurately. Sadly, this is not always the case.
Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn (NY) provides a particularly nefarious example of the BOP failing to report or test for COVID-19, along with harrowing accounts of retaliation for inmates seeking help. In conjunction with a class action lawsuit filed against the facility, Dr. Homer Venters, the former medical director for New York City jails, sought entry to evaluate its response to coronavirus.
In response to the request, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York argued that it would be unduly burdensome for a single medical expert to tour the facility. It proposed guidelines for the visit, including that Venters and prisoners’ counsel not be permitted to “talk to any inmates during the inspection.” Alternatively, the government argued that if the court permitted the medical expert or plaintiffs’ counsel to speak to any inmates, the BOP should be permitted to listen in on all communications. Finally, they suggested that any proposed facility examination be limited to the Special Housing Unit (SHU), where inmates are exclusively held in isolation.
Judge Rachel Kovner issued a ruling that permitted Venters to enter the facility, speak with inmates, and gain access to more than just the SHU. But upon arriving at the facility on April 23, he was met by U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue himself, not a line-and-file assistant U.S. attorney. Donoghue advised Venters and counsel they could not speak with any inmates. Following an emergency call to Magistrate Judge Roanne Mann, that was overturned.
The visit was alarming. According to The Intercept, MDC Brooklyn “is destroying medical records as part of a deliberate effort to obscure the number of incarcerated people infected with the coronavirus and to avoid providing them adequate care.”
The practice highlighted by The Intercept article and the subsequently filed expert medical report was striking. Dr. Venters reviewed electronic sick-call requests filed by inmates. Between March 13 and April 13, 147 requests were filed describing coronavirus symptoms. Thirty-seven of those requests stated that it was not the first time care had been sought. Over this period, only 10 inmates were tested for coronavirus.
The facility has reported 252 completed tests, 35 pending tests, and 12 inmate positives. In mid-July, BOP data indicated that five inmates and two staff were then positive, and 40 staff and eight inmates had recovered.
Due to the facility’s lockdown, it is typical for prisoners not to regularly gain access to the computers in the day room to file medical requests. As such, they fill out paper sick-call forms and hand them to the guards. Upon receipt by medical staff and the scheduling of any appointment, prison staff shred the medical requests, making it impossible to track or account for these inmate requests. This practice came to light in a recent sworn deposition by MDC Brooklyn Health Services Administrator Stacy Vasquez.
“This practice, described by Ms. Vasquez, appears to be the intentional destruction of medical records,” wrote Venters in his report. “During a viral pandemic, such as the COVID-19 outbreak, this is a very alarming practice.”
What makes this worse is the retaliation experienced by women at MDC Brooklyn. The Intercept reports that on April 17, multiple female prisoners called the Federal Defenders of New York to complain about coronavirus practices following a lieutenant, who had supervised the housing unit, testing positive for the virus. In retaliation, an assistant warden held a town hall meeting where she advised the women they would not be permitted to get off their bunks for four days as punishment. One of the women, Derrilyn Needham, asked to be tested for coronavirus. Associate Warden Flowers simply replied, “No.”
The same hiding-the-ball principles have played out in local politics. In Santa Barbara, California, county officials petitioned the state’s Health and Human Services Agency to exclude prisoner infection and death data in county figures. The issue was that if figures from Federal Correctional Complex Lompoc were included, the county could not reopen certain businesses due to failing to meet Gov. Newsom’s requirement that there be no deaths within a two-week period.
“The individuals in Lompoc prison are not out in the community, so it’s really a whole separate population,” explained county spokesperson Suzanne Grimmesey. “Inmates of state and federal prisons generally do not return to those counties in which they are incarcerated.”
The flaw in this logic is evident. What about all of the prison staff who do live in the local community? And this is to say nothing about dangerously passing the buck to other counties.
“It’s a fiction,” explained Justice Collaborative Senior Justice Advisor Kate Chatfield. “The virus doesn’t stay within the walls of the prison, as we know.”
“There’s a great risk of seeding infections into the community,” agreed Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel for the ACLU of Southern California.
Grading the States
In June 2020, the ACLU and the Prison Policy Initiative issued a report, Failing Grades: States’ Response to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons, in which the organizations evaluated each prison systems’ response to the pandemic. The report scored each state based on criteria that included these factors:
• Whether the prison system provided testing and personal protective equipment to staff and inmates.
• Whether the state’s county jails and prisons reduced their populations.
• Whether the state’s governor issued an executive order – or the state’s prison system issued a directive – accelerating the release of medically vulnerable detainees and prisoners.
• Whether the state’s prison system regularly published data on coronavirus infections and deaths.
The results were unsurprising. The analysis found that states received scores ranging from F to a high of D-. Nine states led the pack with scores of D-: Tennessee, Michigan, Kentucky, Vermont, West Virginia, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and Maine.
The analysis found the five lowest-scoring states to be Wyoming, Florida, Arizona, Texas, and Hawaii. The federal BOP was not included in the rankings. Illinois was also not included due to “some of the relevant data [being] the subject of pending litigation.”
The report highlights that the traditional school letter grading scale had to be modified because “every state scored so poorly.” According to the report authors, this was done “to create some meaningful differentiation in the scores, and better identify the states that, despite falling far short of these minimum standards, did make some notable strides.”
Lack of Coronavirus Testing and Medical Attention
Unlike in the outside world, prisoners are at the whims of prison officials to test for coronavirus. One tactic prison officials have seemingly employed is simply not testing inmates. As the logic goes, if prisoners are not tested for the virus, there will be fewer positives. This is both shortsighted and dangerous.
For example, Texas state prisons house over 130,000 prisoners. As of mid-April, the TDCJ had only reported testing 2,300 inmates, of whom 74 percent were positive. Testing finally ramped up the following month, which invariably led to a spike in reported cases. By mid-June, more than 100,000 prisoners had been tested for coronavirus and in mid-July, TDCJ acknowledged that more than 12,000 had been infected as well as 2,100 prison employees. At least 94 prisoners and 10 employees had died.
The BOP has engaged in the same type of protocol, even while claiming that they are aggressively testing “to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 into the federal prison environment.”
Data provided by the BOP on July 16 stated that 29,896 prisoners had been tested for coronavirus. Of these, 8,717 had tested positive, with 3,655 additional tests pending. Assuming that none of the pending testing results are positive, this equates to a staggeringly high infection rate of around 30 percent. It should be highlighted that the BOP claimed to house as of that date about 140,000 prisoners (including those directly incarcerated and those under other forms of supervision, such as halfway houses). Less than 7,000 had been placed on home confinement.
“People were just not being tested. I don’t know of anyone who was tested where I was,” said Lily Wright, a former medium-security federal prisoner released in late May. “Even if you asked to be tested, they wouldn’t.”
A review of official data indicates that 56 total prisoners have been tested at her facility, while 46 of those tests remain pending. BOP data does not indicate when the tests took place.
Lily, whose name has been disguised to protect her from retaliation, explained that inmates at her facility had their temperatures checked around three times per week. The BOP has claimed on its website that it conducts temperature checks “at least once a day” or, on other occasions, “at least twice a day.”
“Due to us being locked down because of COVID-19, if someone needed medical assistance, they would need to push the duress button in their cell,” Lily explained. “This would result in a buzzer going off. After a few minutes to 45 or so minutes, the unit officer would respond. You would then have to argue with them for why you really needed medical help. Then you would have to repeat the process with a lieutenant. And, finally, again with the medical staff member the lieutenant would theoretically call. If you managed to convince all three prison officials you actually needed medical care, then you could get help. Pathetic.”
This type of emergency medical treatment in prisons is typical, as this author saw first-hand while incarcerated some years ago at Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg Medium in Virginia. One night, the duress alarm was activated. Staff responded in around 30 minutes. Then a lieutenant had to be called. By around the 50-minute mark, additional guards were called to bring a stretcher. The prisoner was then taken to medical.
Around three hours later, the prisoner was brought back to the housing unit. A guard escorted him because he could no longer walk on his own. After pulling the elderly man up a flight of stairs, he was placed back in his cell. Fifteen minutes later, the duress alarm again sounded. The same process followed, with the prisoner being taken out on a stretcher again. He had suffered a stroke and died.
“Unlike when we are under regular operations, inmates can’t just go to medical,” explained Lily. “In the COVID-19 era, you either have to press the duress button or fill out a sick call slip. At best, you might see a physician’s assistant once a week after filling out a sick call. At worst, medical staff will argue with you about how you really don’t have a serious medical need.”
Lack of Personal Protective Equipment and Soap
Unlike in the free world, inmates depend upon prison officials to provide virtually everything. This is doubly the case when prisoners are locked down.
On June 2, 2020, BOP Director Michael D. Carvajal and BOP Medical Director Dr. Jeffrey Allen testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They issued a written statement to the Committee addressing actions the BOP was taking to protect inmates and staff.
“In all of our guidance, one simple preventative measure we have stressed is practicing good hygiene, as basic hygiene practices can be very effective in reducing the spread of germs,” explains their written statement to the Committee. “In addition, despite random reports of shortages, all institutions have ample cleaning products, disinfectant, and soap available.”
While it may be true that BOP institutions have such supplies, prisoners dispute they receive them in sufficient quantities. “We were issued three of those motel-sized bars of soap each week,” said Lily. “While we could purchase limited commissary items while under virtually 24-hour a day lockdown, commissary was often out of products such as soaps. Naturally, exchanges were not permitted. So, if you ordered enough soap for yourself and commissary was out, you’d have to wait for the next three mini bars of soap.”
“It should also be noted there was a corresponding reduction in the money inmates could spend at the commissary,” Lily said. “While national policy is that inmates may spend $360 per month, we had been reduced down to $25 per week due to all of the K2 overdoses. This amount was raised to $50 per week before the lockdown, but staff unexpectedly reduced it back down to $25 when we were locked down.”
The directors’ statements also addressed the matter of personal protective equipment.
“Within 24 hours of [the CDC’s change in the recommendation to wear masks], we had provided face coverings to most of our staff and inmates,” explained the directors. “Within 72 hours, all of our inmates and staff were provided face coverings.”
Lily agreed with this statement, but with a caveat. “While the staff was provided with KN95 masks, we were initially issued two paper masks with elastic ear straps,” Lily stated with outrage. “Then they switched these to khaki cloth masks and we were told to wash them by hand in our cells with our small issued bars of soap. About three weeks later, we were issued another set of cloth masks. All of these masks were ill-fitting and did not work well. You could hardly breathe through the khaki ones.”
Even with these grim conditions, federal prisoners are faring better than many held at state and local facilities.
In Alabama, the Madison County Jail has refused to issue masks to inmates. Citing safety concerns, Sheriff’s Office spokesman Brent Patterson explained that prisoners could harm themselves or others with masks that have metal nose pieces. Other masks couldn’t be used because inmates could tie them together to make rope.
In Birmingham, Alabama, prisoners were provided masks at the Jefferson County Jail when attending court and medical appointments, but evidently not at other times. “If we give every inmate in that facility a mask, they’re not gonna wear them,” asserted Sergeant Joni Money. “They’re gonna be on the floor. They’re not gonna be used.”
Prisoners released during the pandemic explained that they would have worn masks if they knew they were allowed, or even available.
The Personal Impact of Coronavirus in Corrections
While the data can tell an important part of the story, it can’t capture coronavirus’ personal impact in prison. With most American prisoners currently held under lockdown, their access to communications, information and their families has been severely restricted.
“While on lockdown, we could initially come out in small groups,” explained Lily. “For example, one group could come out for around 45 minutes to shower, use the phone, and email with our families.”
But as the situation developed, prison staff would implement new policies without warning or explanation. “Staff would often institute a new protocol, but then the notice would come out the following day,” Lily continued. “They would issue these post-dated memos as the basis for their already occurring procedures.”
Another concern that has not been well-documented is the psychological effect of a pandemic on prisoners. “Staff initially told us there were no coronavirus positives in the federal prison system or at our facility,” Lily shared. “Once infection rates skyrocketed, and federal prisoners at other facilities started dying, they just stopped telling us anything.”
While the BOP has touted offering free phone calls to inmates, this is also only part of the story. Before the pandemic, federal inmates could make 15-minute phone calls (up to 300 minutes per month) if they had the funds to pay for the calls. When the pandemic hit, prison officials made the calls free but limited them to five minutes. Eventually, federal prison officials raised the permissible phone call time to 10 minutes.
“In prison, we are cut off from the outside world,” Lily said. “We are separated from our families and the social anchor points people rely on. And when the BOP stopped telling us anything about the risk or danger we were in, it resulted in a general sense of helplessness, agitation, and fear. Prison officials created an environment where safety was reduced and mental health issues were exasperated.”
Lily was fortunate to be released from prison custody. But her release was anything but rational. Now residing at a halfway house in the Northwest, she recounted being placed in isolation 14 days before her release.
“While I can understand protecting the public, they moved me to a new cell in my housing unit for isolation,” she explained. “Mind you, I was still in the same housing unit with general population inmates. We just weren’t permitted to speak with others. The prison also viewed it as a coronavirus risk for releasing inmates to use the computers to email family. And, of course, there was no visitation for anyone.”
With two weeks until her release from prison after serving over a decade, Lily was locked down for over 23 hours a day, not permitted to receive visits or email with her family, and could only make 10-minute calls to prepare for her return to society.
A Culture of Reckless Disregard for Human Rights
As the coronavirus plague has engulfed the world, there have been examples of government acting in the best interests of its people. For instance, Newsom put teeth into social distancing measures. Sadly, there are far more examples of government officials performing badly.
As it concerns American prisons, the calculous is a bit different because prisoners are beholden to their captors. If prison officials refuse to test, accurately report tests, or provide soap and masks, prisoners can’t do much about it. In many cases, their communication restrictions are so pronounced that they can’t even try to get help from outside sources.
But this issue is more pervasive than that experienced by those subjected to incarceration. The carceral tentacles extend outwards to federal post-incarceration supervised release and state parole. Even after release, former prisoners are often at the mercy of criminal justice systems, and rarely have much choice when it comes to matters of policy and freedoms.
Sharper Future, a division of Pacific Forensic Psychology Associates, Inc., is a privately held company that provides services to state and federal criminal justice agencies across California. The company conducts drug testing, drug therapy, sex offender therapy, and polygraphs for those on federal and state probation, federal supervised release, and state parole.
In a rather obtuse example of poorly considered and dangerous policies, the company contacted treatment participants to announce that their Sacramento and Woodland, California, offices were reopening on July 1. The ongoing telephonic counseling would cease, and in-person drug testing and group therapy would commence. Of course, program participants had no choice in the matter, and would be subject to parole, probation, and supervised release revocation if they declined. This was one day after Governor Newsom ordered a swath of businesses to close due to the alarming spread of coronavirus.
When questioned about this recent order during a group call and asked if it was safe to host people in group therapy, a company official questioned with skepticism that Newsom would increase restrictions to control the spread of the coronavirus – even though the facts had been prominently reported in the Sacramento Bee and other news outlets.
The company official also called numerous individuals on federal supervised release to schedule post-incarceration polygraph tests for late July. When questioned during the same call, he advised that the private, Sharper Future contract polygrapher had been trained by a federal agency to conduct polygraphs during the pandemic. When pressed about which agency, he declined to comment. And when concerns over Sharper Future staff, the contract polygrapher, and participants were raised, the mantra of having protocols in place was repeated.
Four days later, participants for this treatment group were again on the phone for therapy. The group therapy facilitator advised that she had not heard about in-person treatment restarting. She also acknowledged the safety concerns over requiring federal supervised releasees to participate in close-quarters polygraph testing.
This highlights the single most significant problem with addressing coronavirus in criminal justice atmospheres: self-interest.
Prison officials naturally want to cut costs and report an insignificant coronavirus impact on their prison systems. Private companies such as Sharper Future want to reopen and fully avail themselves of massive state and federal government contracts. Contract polygraphers want to charge for sessions, even at the risk of becoming disease super-spreaders. Meanwhile, prisoners and those under post-incarceration supervision just want to be safe and live their lives as best they can.
It’s past time for the true state of coronavirus to be acknowledged, accepted, and acted upon. Governmental agencies and contractors should not be permitted to hide the ball, misreport infection rates, refuse to test or provide sanitization and protective equipment to inmates, or enact one-sided policies designed with only their self-interests in mind.
It’s time for political rhetoric, party affiliation, and social status to stop dominating decision-making. The only right answer is to adhere to the guidance provided by infectious disease experts. If this means restricting public activities, then that must be done. When the CDC tacitly acknowledged in their language that prisons can’t safely house inmates, massive numbers of lower risk inmates needed to be released to permit social distancing amongst higher risk inmates.
Growth and progress are not always easy. They can be challenging. Following the right path is also not necessarily easy, but the moral imperative to do so mandates as much. If we, as a nation, continue to treat those in prison as less than human, and permit them to die due to being out of sight and out of mind, we aren’t just condemning prisoners to horrid conditions and, possibly, death. We are also condemning our family, friends, community, and society at large.
About the author: Christopher Zoukis, author of the Directory of Federal Prisons, Federal Prison Handbook, Prison Education Guide, and College for Convicts, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy specializing in federal prison matters. He is a student at the University of California, Davis School of Law. He can be found online at www.prisonerresource.com and contacted at Media@PrisonerResource.com.
Sources: Cdc.gov, Coronavirus.jhu.edu, jamanetwork.com, cidrap.umn.edu, cjr.org, SacBee.com, CNN.com, FoxNews.com, TheMarshallProject.org, TheIntercept.com, PrisonPolicy.org, MercuryNews.com, PrisonerResource.com, SFChronicle.com, Covid19.ca.gov, CNBC.com, NYTimes.com, MultiChannel.com, CharlotteObserver.com, NPR.org, BOP.gov, FloridaPolitics.com, Politico.com, gov.ca.gov, SharperFuture.com.
Additional Sources: Interview with Lily Wright; confidential interviews with Sharper Future program participants.
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