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Prison Officials Limit Prisoner Communications During COVID-19 Crisis

Prisoners struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic — often without masks, sufficient cleaning supplies or the ability to social distance — are crying for help to the outside world by any means possible. Some prison authorities have responded by cutting off their access to phones and email.

At the San Diego County Jail, prisoners held up a homemade sign that said, “We Don’t Deserve 2 Die,” during a prisoner’s video chat. Three of those prisoners were sent to solitary confinement shortly thereafter.

In the Pine Prairie, Louisiana ICE detention center, contact between prisoners and members of the media via video chat included inmate complaints about the lack of protective equipment and the possibility of conflict between prisoners and staff. The result? Future video contacts were canceled by the institution.

On the federal level, those suspected of being infected with COVID-19 are often quarantined in special housing or solitary, during which time they are often without access to anything but irregularly delivered mail from the U.S. Post Office.

At the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), California facilities at Terminal Island and Lompoc, where over half of the prisoners tested positive when the Los Angeles County Board of Health stepped in to do extensive testing, staff took the unusual step of preventing prisoners from using phones and email.

According to prison officials, “During this unprecedented response to a pandemic, we have temporarily suspended access to telephones and emails, solely to mitigate the spread of the virus from multiple people touching keyboards and handsets,” a move strongly condemned by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Almost all BOP facilities have been on modified lockdown since mid-March, with no visitation, and limited access to email, phones, law libraries and copy machines.

The ACLU and other advocates have noted that the BOP appears to be doing its best to control the flow of negative information to the media, by not only declining to test all prisoners for the virus, despite the likelihood that more than half are infected, but also by deliberately undercounting both the number of known infections and deaths.

Prisoners at many federal facilities scoff at the figures of those infected given them by staff. One female prisoner at the FMC Lexington wrote: “What we all have been living in fear of has taken place. The guards have brought COVID-19 into FMC Lexington... It’s day 37 of our lockdown and I hear sirens for the third time today. A BOP nurse was asked if there were really 30 cases at the men’s facility. She laughed and said there were way more. Triple or quadruple that number. The feeling of numbness is the only way to describe hearing that news.”

She continued. “We are helpless and are forced to sit back and watch the BOP lie to the public and authorities. Death count reports are drastically off.”

Prisoners are aware that complaints to staff can result in incident reports, loss of privileges, and possibly solitary confinement. Another writes, “The BOP doesn’t like media attention, let alone when an inmate’s words make it into a publication. I am hopeful that I don’t get too much backlash from staff, but at this point I don’t care. I speak for incarcerated American citizens nationwide and personally for over 200 women I reside with.”

While prisoners struggle with their well-founded fear of death, as well as their own personal issues, they also grapple with the fact that communication to the outside world detailing their conditions could possibly put them in even more danger. Although the BOP has proven itself incapable of stemming the rising tide of COVID-19 in its facilities, it has proven much more effective at suppressing the flow of information from prisoners to the outside world. 


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