With the possible exception of Brazil, no country has handled the pandemic worse than the United States. In early July, Arizona, Florida and South Carolina had the world’s worst per capita infection rates. The Middle Eastern country of Bahrain was fourth. Overall, nine of the world’s top dozen hot spots were U.S. states.
No one knows where the pandemic will head next — as I write, California is being pummeled with new cases — but there’s been one constant from the moment the pandemic hit the country: prisons and jails hosted the worst outbreaks. When I wrote this column last month, statistics compiled by The Marshall Project showed that at least 43,967 people in prison had tested positive and 522 prisoners had died of COVID-19. As I write today, 64,119 prisoners have tested positive and 651 have died. And, as you’ll see elsewhere in this issue, there are reasons to believe that the true numbers are far higher.
Another constant has been the lack of any reasonable political or humanitarian response to deal with the pandemic in prisons on the part of federal and state governments, nor by private prison companies that profit off mass incarceration. There’s been little follow through on an order by Attorney General William Barr that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) speed up early releases to slow the spread of the virus. There have been multiple horror stories about elderly prisoners being refused early release, or people in jails for minor offenses being unable to get out because they didn’t have the money to post bail. Social distancing guidelines are still routinely ignored.
San Quentin in California remained COVID-free until June, when the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation transferred infected prisoners there from another prison. Very swiftly about one-third of the 3,700 prisoners at San Quentin were themselves infected.
On July 10, Aaron Littman, deputy director of the “UCLA COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project,” tweeted a quote from an anonymous physician at San Quentin. It read: “I have to tell you how much I worry. I worry that the victims will be blamed when we look back and talk about San Quentin. Our patients worked so hard to clean their cells and the surfaces of these ancient buildings. They cleaned them like they had a chance. They never did. This isn’t their fault. None of the ... guidelines prepared us for this. I just don’t want any of them blamed. It’s not their fault.”
We’ve asked prisoners and their supporters to let us know what’s going on at their facilities, and are publishing excerpts each month. Letters below have been lightly edited for length, clarity and, in some cases, details have been omitted, at the writers’ requests, to protect against potential retaliation.
A prisoner at the maximum-security California State Prison, Sacramento writes:
I am faced with many illnesses in the face of COVID-19, including asthma and scoliosis, and am being housed in solitary. I have been and still am asking for adequate disinfectant cleaning supplies. And I keep getting told no, they won’t give us gloves, scrub pads, and new masks. They won’t even clean let alone deep clean the cells and cages before putting us in them. I’ve filed an emergency grievance on this matter and was told that my grievance was not an emergency. But I am living in these foul conditions and I am an African [American]; shouldn’t this be an emergency if I’m more likely to catch it over a white person? Can you please help me out with this because I’m lost.
A federal prisoner in Devens writes:
I got tested yet again to see if I still had the virus. This is because I still have symptoms that are much worse than when I actually was sick. I get a heaviness in my chest and it’s hard to breathe. It’s scary. I get this often and I have asked for help but they ignore me. One so-called nurse said sick call was for “emergencies only” and refused to see a group of us. We got into a heated discussion (to say the least) and she left in a rush all mad. I had it 2 nights ago and I was very close to asking staff to call an emergency. It would take me being on my deathbed to say it’s an emergency. But I’m still testing negative, they said. They won’t actually TREAT our symptoms. They just keep telling us they will go away one day. I sat on the floor of the SHU crying because my head hurt so bad after they refused to give me anything for my headache since I “was in the SHU” — which is where they put me when I tested positive! They threw us in disciplinary seg and ignored us, except when they needed their stats: blood pressure, temps, etc. But they wouldn’t listen to our complaints. One nurse walked away and simply said “I can’t” when I asked her for Tylenol or a cup so I could at least get some water from the sink.
A prisoner at the medium-security Gowanda Correctional Facility writes:
I have asthma real bad, and with the virus going around and over half the officers not wearing masks and one officer always standing at the end of our chow line breathing on us and our food, I am worried about catching the virus. With my health issues, I know that I have a good chance of dying. I have kids at home who I am trying to get back to. I am here on a probation violation for not calling in, but I have heard that they are letting people go with health issues with ankle monitors. I don’t really want to die here. Don’t mention my name here because I heard of inmates getting hurt and sent to the box.
A prisoner at Downstate Correctional Facility, a state maximum-security prison in Fishkill, writes:
As of right now, I have less than a year left before my sentence is complete. Here at the Downstate, there’s no such thing as social distance. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, is 6 feet away from anybody at any time! It’s scary because none of us were ever tested for the coronavirus and any of us can have it at this point.
I wasn’t sentenced to get sick and die in prison, Nobody here has a death sentence! Every day the officials are changing the rules of the facility and still no social distance is being followed or ordered. This is cruel and usual punishment!
A state prisoner at Ross Correctional Facility, a prison in Chillicothe, writes.
In wake of this Global Covid-19 pandemic, I’m writing this letter in concern of not only the preservation of my life and health but also the lives and health of the individuals who live and work in this facility, including inmates, correctional officers, Aramark food service workers and medical personnel, as well as their families they go home to every day at the end of their shifts.
This facility holds approximately 2,000 to 2,500 inmates. It includes a community Chow Hall, rec yard, day room and showers that we all share on a daily basis. That makes it impossible to practice certain measures such as social and physical distancing that’s held to be necessary to eliminate or slow the spread of COVID-19.
This facility is not conducting any kind of testing amongst us to detect an infection in order to isolate any infected inmates from the non-infected population. Therefore, everyday essential activity is a risk to exposure just by simply eating meals or taking a shower. The risk further includes the officers and workers who come into this facility every day who are not being tested, either.
There are hundreds of individuals who come [here] every day to work who may not show symptoms but may still have the virus and can transmit the virus into this facility. Of these hundreds, all it takes is for one person to have the virus and that one case will surely spread amongst this prison population, including inmates and staff, like wildfire. It would surely be the same reoccurring episode that transpired in other prison populations across Ohio where thousands of inmates and prison staff caught the virus. Inmates, prison staff and nurses have lost their lives.
The medical team and resources here are not equipped to deal with a worst-case scenario in this facility. Presently, we don’t even have alcohol-based sanitizer, bleach or chemicals that can kill this virus. We surely don’t have enough ventilators and PPE. Unfortunately, neither do we have a compassionate medical team willing to put themselves in jeopardy by dealing with contagious and sick inmates. Since I’ve been here, I’ve encountered nurses who wouldn’t even give me a Band-Aid when I needed stitches, who allowed my broken nose to heal without care and who even sent me to the hole for being persistent about medical attention. My wounds healed in segregation without any medical attention.
A federal prisoner in Seagoville writes:
Things have deteriorated significantly. We are seeing our Covid-positive numbers exceeding 2/3rds of the population with no end in sight. Many here are sick including me. I may be one of the more fortunate ones since I feel fairly strong and should be able to survive this, but honestly, I feel as though I was either in a car accident or beaten by a baseball bat.
A prisoner at the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail in Front Royal writes:
I’m in here on a misdemeanor probation violation. As of right now, this facility has 62 inmates and four officers who have tested positive for COVID-19 virus. Just recently we were given masks to wear and as of right now we are on 24-hour lockdown with no opportunity to move around or exercise. Today makes five days I have been in my cell for 24 hours. I have not taken a shower going on three days now. I cannot reach my family to tell them what is going on.
A female trusty at Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail writes:
The COVID 19 disease/virus has finally found its way into our facility.
My reason for writing is my concern for not only myself, but for the population as a whole here at RSW because of the disregard for the welfare of the offenders who are left here.
I do commend RSW for their part in reducing the population at the beginning of the pandemic. However, since then, the idea of social distancing has become basically nonexistent. RSW has resorted to the approach completely opposite of social distancing; shutting down pods and filling up empty beds making social distancing nonexistent. Instead of utilizing space, offenders are packed together with the daily concern being lockout and lock-down procedures. Let’s make sure all of the offenders are complying with the lockout procedure, off our bunks and out of cells, grouped in masses in a day room or small rec yard.
The next part of the journey will take us to the females who are a part of the offender trusty program. Our job is laundry for the facility. Unlike the male trustys who have their own living unit, we are housed with the general population. Being responsible for the facility laundry over the past several weeks, we have done the laundry for those infected with COVID-19. After finding this out, we all requested tests and were basically told by medical if we were not exhibiting symptoms, there could be no test.
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