Prison Postcards: A Plea from Kentucky and Dispatches from Texas and Massachusetts
by Ken Silverstein
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, prisoners, their families and advocates have braced for major outbreaks at America’s prisons and jails. It’s still not clear just how bad prisoners are going to be hit, but numbers are climbing at an alarming rate. As of June 9, joint reporting by the Associated Press and The Marshall Project found at least 43,967 people in prison had tested positive – and that was an 8 percent increase from just one week before. On that date, at least 522 prisoners had died of COVID-19.
In early April, Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to speed up early releases to home confinement due to “emergency conditions” created by the coronavirus. Instead, federal prisons – and state prisons and jails – have moved incredibly slowly, leading to multiple lawsuits across the country.
Few social distancing measures have been put into place, while lockdowns and punishment have been employed in place of releases. “COVID-19 has led to an explosion in the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers,” said a report released in mid-June by an advocacy group called Unlock the Box, with research provided by Solitary Watch and support from The Raben Group. “At least 300,000 people have reportedly been placed in solitary since the advent of the pandemic, an increase of close to 500 percent over previous levels.”
We’ve asked prisoners and their supporters to let us know what’s going on at their facilities, and are publishing excerpts each month.
These letters have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
A prisoner at Federal Medical Center, Lexington, a women’s federal prison, writes:
It’s Sunday April 26th and I haven’t been able to speak to my children in 2 days. I am asleep at 6:45 pm because during the COVID-19 outbreak, I am on lockdown. No movement, no exercise, no sunlight and barely any fresh food. What else are you to do in a 32-by-16 room with 16 other women? We eat standing elbow to elbow, yet somehow they justify this herding of us as “Safe.” I glance around and realize that my room is more evident of a senior housing development than anything. Weren’t the sick and anyone over 50 supposed to go home??
During the COVID-19 outbreak we have been stripped of our very limited freedoms and luxuries to be herded together even closer than normal with limited to no communication with our families. As a “Camper” we are all “low level” criminals. Drug cases that are usually casualties from the opioid crisis and tax crimes usually top the list. I am the latter, spending 21 months for underreporting my income on my taxes when I was 26 years old. I am now 35 and a mother to amazing little humans who are scared for my well-being daily. I am fortunately only a few months away from going home, but I write this for the hundreds of women who are stuck here. I am now wondering daily if my mental health state can withstand this level of torture. No sun, no gym, no outlet, hell we can barely move without being screamed at.
They are baiting all of us to have a mishap .... to break. Then the BOP has a solid and easy reason to deny us to the home confinement that Attorney General Barr directed them to grant us. As my eyes flutter to reality [at 7 a.m.], I hear it. I hear earth-shattering screams. The kind of screams that you can feel in your heart from a distance away. The kind that makes you want to drop everything and run to protect and comfort that person, no matter whom they are coming from. Yet, of course, we are reduced to staring and gawking out of our rooms and waiting to hear what has happened.
Death. Death is what happened. A woman here in our federal abode has just found out that her father has died in the midst of the pandemic from a newspaper! A newspaper! The man who gave her life has lost his and his daughter found out in the most insensitive manner plausible. Her family has been trying to contact her, but here at FMC Lexington they ignored the calls. A therapist didn’t offer her an ear to listen while she processed this heartbreaking info either. Funny thing is, she should be one of those released under the CARES Act.
Last weekend was full of hugs and tears of joy. All a part of the bipolar emotions since Barr has been directing the BOP to release prisoners. Many mothers and women signed papers with their Case Managers to go on home confinement. My roommate who came in with me last May got to sign her papers for release. When you live in tight spaces with someone, you become close, become an intricate part of each other’s lives. She is more like a little sister to me than a fellow Club Fed Member.
I don’t think I can recall many times in my life that I have hugged someone so tight. My heart burst for her. She gets a second chance at life and protection against this virus. She was going home. Not only do these women now get to lessen the burden on their families, but more importantly leave the Petri dishes we currently reside in. We live in constant fear that the guards will bring the virus in here to us.
Our healthcare is a joke. Some of the guards pick up extra shifts at the University of Kentucky hospital for inmates in care, and then walk right back through our same doors. We all know that if it comes in here, there will be deaths. Period. I look around my room that I am currently housed in and I shudder. These women become a part of your life no matter how hard you try to keep it separate. It breaks me to think of it. We have to all hope that it doesn’t happen. That COVID-19 doesn’t get inside of these walls.
We don’t have any form of communication with our families over the weekends, so as you can imagine, Monday at the phone line was pandemonium. I didn’t get such news as an early release but still felt an overall sense of happiness and relief as these women called their children and husbands to tell them that they were coming home. It was really happening! They would be home soon! Some of these women had served only three years of their nine-year sentences.
This news is life altering. They would still be out of the public and confined to their homes while being monitored by a probation officer, but nonetheless, home! Can you fathom?
By Wednesday, the assistant warden was walking around with a smug half smile, handing out denial papers. What?!? These ladies’ security levels had “magically changed” or a new write in option of 50% time served was added. Even though Attorney General Barr never mentioned this in his direct orders.
This is inhumane. This is incomprehensible. COVID-19 doesn’t care if you have done 25% or 50% of your sentence. It doesn’t discriminate, it infects you no matter of any factor, race, or religion. We are sitting ducks, hoping it doesn’t seep its way in here. If it does, we wouldn’t even be able to tell our families or children goodbye.
Let’s for a moment talk about the women getting denied for release when they have medical issues. One woman in my room has brain lesions that have progressed severely over the past 2 years of her incarceration that are caused by an autoimmune disease, yet she is still here. There are countless numbers of women in their 60’s and 70’s incarcerated here for nonviolent, white collar crimes, sitting in fear. The CDC has told us time and time again that the elderly and the immune system deficient are the ones most at risk, yet not one of those women have been able to go home to their families. We also are so far locked down that our immune systems are being further compromised daily. No vegetables, no activity, no sunlight and no family ties. All we have is hope, that maybe one day the BOP will follow through on the things they have been directed to do. Yet, we are their paychecks, their currency of sorts. We are worth more sitting here and even more so DYING in here than for them to do the humane thing. The MORAL thing. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican, Democrat or in the middle, we all know that this is wrong.
I know we are prisoners and did something to be punished in the eyes of the federal government. The real question is when is enough enough? When did my 21-month sentence turn into a possible death sentence? When did it become rational to crowd us even closer during an age of social distancing? Not to mention that the warden took away our soap that was provided because we used it too much for their likings. Or was it too much for their budget? Yes, we are prisoners now, but not forever. We are Americans and we deserve better than this. What lesson do we learn for breaking the laws and rules while the Bureau of Prisons ignores every single one of them?
Please excuse any errors, as I had to type in 10 min segments. This needs a voice. We need a voice.
A prisoner in Devens wrote:
On lockdown (again), this time because of the riots in the streets. There’s infected guys in the unit — all of us in here. So, there’s really nobody in here. Staff won’t pick up mail, garbage, anything. They push a cart with food on it through a curtain and we hand it out ourselves. We push the cart back through to them. This morning the orderlies started yelling at staff about the garbage piling up in the common area. They finally came and gave us a cart to throw it in. We are supposed to be retested next week and if we are negative, we will stay here. If there are any positive guys, then they go to disciplinary segregation and wait until they are negative. For some reason, they are using disciplinary seg to house guys with the virus, instead of administrative seg. They say it’s because disciplinary seg isn’t allowed phones, mail, commissary, etc, so there’s no staff interaction. And no laundry service. We get punished for staff giving us this virus, in other words. This is so frustrating.
A state prisoner from Rosharon wrote:
In mid-March, after President Trump declared a national emergency due to the coronavirus, [the Texas Inmate Families Association – TIFA] donated hundreds of thousands of cases of Hot Pockets, Pizza Rolls, Pop Tarts, cereal bars and Gatorade to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to be given to prisoners. TDCJ was giving it to staff members, instead, while we had bread in our sack meals. I had seen a prison guard walking with boxes of Pizza Rolls, Hot Pockets, Cereal Bars and Pop Tarts, giving them to other guards. I have also heard guards talking about these things being available to them.
A state prisoner from John Wynne Unit in Huntsville wrote in late April:
I’m an “at-risk” prisoner (former 2x cancer patient who underwent intensive chemo in the past) who decided to initiate a hunger strike on 3/30/20 seeking to bring awareness/reform to Governor Greg Abbott’s decree of ‘No Compassionate Releases’ for state prisoners. For my actions I was: a) removed from the general population on 3/30/20 before my strike was ‘official’; b) denied my phone privileges; c) met with harsh resistance from the unit’s administration, and placed and am still being housed in the ‘Quarantine Wing’ with administration’s knowledge that I’m an at-risk individual with a compromised immune system.
I wrote an emergency grievance on 3/30/20 concerning my personal safety in light of being incarcerated amid this threat of COVID-19. By policy, this type of grievance is to be investigated and resolved and returned to me within 15 days. It has been 27 days today and I still do not have the grievance back. I’ve contacted the grievance department 3x since the 15-day time period has passed and no one seems to care about this. I’ve written to the classification department, the Major, and the head Warden about my being moved off this ‘Quarantine Wing’ where men who are COVID-19 positive or symptomatic are kept, but they do not seem to care about my physical or psychological welfare. I won’t even come out of my cell to shower because I’m afraid to contract the virus.
From a state prisoner at the Telford Unit in New Boston:
Despite the ticking time bomb that COVID-19 represents, the TDCJ has failed to implement necessary or even adequate policies and practices to stop the spread. Prison inmates are observing that, in the spite of committing to do so, the TDCJ ignores most guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and thus neglects critical measures for halting the spread of the novel coronavirus within the system.
The Telford Unit has been locked down since the first inmate was killed by COVID-19 on April 5. As long as there are one or more cases of the novel coronavirus within the state of Texas, the unit will remain on locked-down status. At this time, inmates are confined to their 8’ x 11’ cells or dorm cubicles only being allowed to shower and make one five-minute phone call per day.
On April 15, the TDCJ began passing out one single layered mask to each inmate within its facilities. Medical experts state that cotton masks must be double-layered in order to be effective. The TDCJ reported that each inmate was given two masks and that they are laundered regularly. Inmates at the Telford Unit assert to have been given one mask, which has never been laundered nor exchanged. Many inmates have resorted to washing their masks in cell toilets, which is said to be the most effective way available. They are forced to use bars of soap because the TDCJ withholds the cleaning supplies its own policies mandate, and refuse to sell detergent available through commissary.
In contrast to the TDCJ’s polices, inmates claim that medical care for COVID-19 and other illnesses are substandard. They have not received one hot meal in over 50 days, sack meals fall 500 calories short of the 2,200 calories required per day. Their clothing is only laundered and exchanged once a week, whereas the bedding has been laundered once within seven weeks. They cannot purchase cleaning supplies from commissary and they are not receiving out of cell time, thereby depreciating their mental health.
Recently, Texas taxpayers’ “coughed up” $45 million for 300,000 curative COVID-19 tests in order to perform mass testing at the TDCJ’s correctional facilities. Results are expected to take two to three weeks. During this unreasonable delay, unknown inmates and prison staff who are positive for COVID-19 continue to intermingle with those who were negative at the time of testing. The sole purpose of testing is to isolate infected persons from those who are not infected. This excessive delay has rendered all efforts to eradicate COVID-19 from the prison system meaningless.
From a state prisoner at Wallace Pack 1 Unit in Navasota, late-May:
Our Unit may sound familiar as we won Air Conditioning in a settlement in 2017 and as a subclass member I am ENTITLED to TEMPERATURES OF 88 degrees in my housing area.
As to COVID-19: 50 positive cases and 2 deaths are attributed to the virus. The unit is on a “precautionary lockdown” and I don’t see how they are being precautionary, cause what they are doing is not working as positive numbers continue to climb. They tested the entire unit on May 11th and 12th, and upon getting initial test results, they moved positive cases into the same dorm. The kicker is they didn’t get the results for over 10 days, so the positives were still housed with the negatives for at least that long as they were quarantined together. Then they moved the negatives to a bigger dorm that holds 110 offenders!!
We are confined to our cubicle and have been for 6 weeks now. We get a peanut butter and syrup sandwich with prunes for breakfast, (that’s after 12 hours since last meal) syrupy PB&J with 2oz or less meat sandwich for lunch and dinner. Twenty-five of the 60 here filed grievances on the food they been feeding us and it’s still the same non-nutritious meals here on the sack-lunch protocol that they hide from us in the law library.
We are supposed to get nutritious meals, but they not. They’re giving diabetics like myself 10–12 slices of bread a day to survive, hardly no meat, and prunes and raisins as fruit, zero vegetables and no HOT MEALS IN 6 weeks.
When we get it as it is making its way down the hallway here to the vulnerable geriatric handicapped offenders, so it’s not if but when we get COVID-19. And the constant supply of non-nutritious food is all we have to help our bodies fight off this deadly virus on a unit where the entire population has underlying conditions. Seems to me TDCJ is looking for coronavirus to replace the parole process and release us to our families in body bags as they get more government funds for every positive case confirmed on the Wallace Unit.