Prison Postcards: Official Accounts Differ from Prisoner Accounts as the Pandemic Spreads
Ever since the coronavirus epidemic exploded in the United States earlier this year, government officials have reassured the public that they had things tightly under control. On February 26, before anyone in the country had died from COVID-19, President Donald Trump confidently stated that only 15 Americans had tested positive and “within a couple of days [that number] is going to be down to close to zero.”
Here we are – on May 18, as PLN is nearing its press date – and we have more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and over 90,000 dead. We don’t know if those numbers are entirely accurate, but the media is able to cover the pandemic and the public is generally well informed about the total number of cases, and where they are rising and falling.
Inside prisons and jails, the situation is quite different. Prisons, along with nursing homes and meatpacking plants, have emerged as the primary epicenters of the disease. A study by the ACLU has estimated that if prisons and jails don’t get the situation under control, the death toll in the United States could double. Even during normal times, press access to prisoners is limited and, as we document elsewhere in this issue, during the pandemic some jailers seem to be working just as hard to keep prisoners from speaking with the public, or their families, as they are to combat the virus.
What we do know is that the generally positive accounts of prison officials are impossible to verify, and that the gap between what they say and the infrequent accounts we receive from prisoners is enormous. A May 12 account in California’s Berkeleyside, “How safe is Santa Rita Jail under COVID-19? Inmates and the sheriff paint very different pictures,” is typical.
Alameda County Sheriff’s Sergeant Ray Kelly told the newspaper that the county’s efforts were “among the best in the nation among jails and prisons. that inmates have been given adequate supplies of soap, PPE, and cleaning supplies, and the jail’s common areas are constantly cleaned and sanitized.” Kelly said in an email, “We provide and continue to provide, masks, soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray bottles, showers, linen exchange etc.”
Meanwhile, Berkeleyside was able to speak to a few prisoners, who painted a very different picture. They said very few prisoners had been tested and that they believed that the number infected was far higher than what sheriff’s office claimed on its website. “We ain’t given no cleaning supplies, the showers smell like piss, and they keep submitting all this false information to the public,” Eric Wayne told the newspaper. He said virtually no masks had been distributed and prisoners were expected to wear the same one for days or even weeks.
PLN has asked prisoners to send us letters describing what’s going on at their institutions and the overwhelming majority have been critical of authorities’ response to the pandemic. This month, as we’ll do throughout the pandemic, we’re publishing excerpts from letters we received. They have in some cases been minorly edited for length and clarity.
A prisoner at USP Lompoc wrote in late-April:
We have been lockdown ever since March 27. Get out for a ten-minute shower one day and the next day for a 20-minute phone call. They allow us around 9 am to go pick up our morning meal at the end of the tier. At 11 am we get out of our cell to pick up our lunch and dinner at the same time. So with two [outings] we pick up all three meals, which none are hot. We stay in cells 23½ a day. On March 4, 2020 the unit managers made us give up our single cells. I believe around a week after that they started cleaning up at least one or maybe two units that were closed. One unit was set up to house the guys who were sick with the coronavirus.
The inmates at USP Lompoc did not receive face masks until April 6 or get our temperatures checked daily until that day too. What good getting temperature checks does we do not know because guys are falling out here all the time after temperature was checked. The staff were getting temperature checks weeks before we got lockdown. Every day before coming to work and we still ended up with it here.
Starting April 20, we are lockdown 24 hours a day. No showers no phone calls no nothing. It’s like we are being punished for what they brought us COVID-19. They should have to stay here 24/7 lockdown. Nope, they get to leave every day. So we are not allowed church, hot meals, sunshine, programs or exercise. How many ways do we have to be punished for what they brought us?
A prisoner at FCI Terminal Island wrote on April 15:
The anxiety and stress levels have increased dramatically. All inmates were given masks to wear. SHU [Solitary] inmates got theirs yesterday finally after numerous complaints and requests to staff. The first case of COVID-19 was introduced by an officer who had 7 inmates who work for him. On April 5, 2020, these 7 inmates were initially brought to the second floor of the SHU to be placed in quarantine because they were exposed, but the Administration changed their minds and took them somewhere else. Shortly after, E unit was cleaned out and turned into a Quarantine Unit. Within a few days it was full, and the overflow of inmates on Quarantine began to be placed in the SHU again. At this point we still had no masks in the SHU. Quarantined inmates include inmates past their release dates who have to wait 14 days without symptoms before they can be released, I was told by staff.
Medical must be so overwhelmed. They have allowed my medications to run out despite putting in my refill requests. The few staff left must be tending to sick and quarantined inmates.
Every two weeks there is “Cell Rotation” here in the SHU. They switch everyone around and they will not allow us to use disinfectant to clean after the moves. This has not been suspended, which increases our chance of exposure to potentially contaminated surfaces in the cells. Not everyone is clean. I’ve been moved into some nasty cells during this procedure and when I ask staff for disinfectant they often sarcastically say yes and never provide it no matter how many times you ask. There’s a lack of concern and lack of oversight.
On April 17, 2020 Medical and the Administration erected 20 military tents on the compound because E Unit and the hospital over-filled with sick inmates. Medical is too overwhelmed to see inmates for sick call. I’ve put in 3 requests in two weeks and was ignored.
We finally received our first big box dinner and when we opened them we found that the manufacturer forgot to enclose the meat in them, so we got a bun and mustard and a slice of cheese. There is no manufacture information on these sealed boxes. Perhaps they were made at Unicor or they got a good deal on them because there was no meat.
A prisoner at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center wrote on April 26:
Our facility has been mass producing masks for first responders for the better part of 3 weeks or more. The commissioner was hell-bent on inmates not being allowed to have/wear them with such flimsy excuses as security, because the officer has to be able to see our faces, and also she said that we could hide contraband behind them, as if we’re walking around naked. If we wanted to hide contraband, I’m pretty sure we could find a better place then behind a mask. She’s also not going to release any inmates because she claims we’re not overcrowded. This is the same place where we had a “deadly riot” three years ago and the officials claimed the root cause was overcrowding.
In late-April, a 60-year-old man at the Federal Detention Center in Miami wrote:
The medical within the whole BOP is a big joke and when on the street I would not let any medical staff I have seen so far even examine my dog. I do not know if anyone at FDC Miami has the COVID-19 and I’m not sure we would be told.
I myself came down sick around mid-March but thinking the sore throat and severe headache would go away, I waited until March 25 before I put a sick call request in. We were on lockdown and have been since around mid-March and, as expected, I saw no one. I put another request in April 6 and was told I was given an appointment. On April 13 I still had not seen anyone so I put in a written report (cop out) and finally on April 15 I advised the CO I was not feeling well and he contacted medical. I was seen on April 16 and given something to gargle with, some nose spray and Ibuprofen. None of which have helped, and I’m still sick with a terrible headache that will not go away, body aches and persistent sore throat along with other problems. I feel that if COVID-19 does strike within the BOP there will be a lot of dead inmates before they are ever examined for the problem.
There are no visits from family members, and sometimes one cannot get through on the phone, and 5 minutes is not long to talk. Tempers rise and morale is low. There is no fresh air and the inside air is stale. We are given masks to wear and a few wear them but most do not. I feel it is only a matter of time until the prison population will decrease but by mass sickness or death and nothing can be done. But in the end the BOP will be rid of the burden of older and sick inmates so they do not care.
In late-April, a prisoner at the Iowa State Penitentiary wrote:
Staff was apparently told that they had to start wearing masks; you could probably hear them crying about it down there in Florida. Some wear the masks properly and some wear them around their necks. They do not seem to understand the concept of social distancing and neither do the prisoners. No one polices the staff. They also put yellow tape on the floor six feet away from the guards’ desks in the pods, and the prisoners are supposed to stay behind the tape line. Most of the guards who sit at the desk do not wear a mask. They do not wear the masks when they do count and the 3rd shift guards do not wear masks. As they walk by our cells without a mask, they are coughing and spreading any virus they may have, throughout the prison.
The prisoners were given homemade sneeze guards, and we had the option of whether or not to wear them. A week after some of the staff started wearing masks the prisoners were ordered to wear the homemade masks pretty much everywhere but in the chow hall and our cells. The guards immediately started enforcing this mandate. But a lot of them still do not wear their masks.
We prisoners are quarantined within the prison. The only ones to leave and go out into public are the staff. So common sense tells me that if the COVID-19 virus enters the prison it’s going to be brought through the staff not the prisoners. But those who operate this shit-hole do not seem to want to recognize this fact and they choose to screw with the prisoners while not making their own people comply with any procedures that will help prevent this virus from entering the prison.
A prisoner at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington wrote in mid-May:
Just so people know, one person died here yesterday. Sad, and others next door were yelling from their windows that they need help. They have over 10 cases in their unit and cannot use the phone, computer or e-mail. They want others to call their families, but we are only allowed 20 minutes per week to use the phone now and can only use the computer two times per week for 10 minutes, so no one can help these people. In two weeks, we went from 1 person [infected] on the 27th to over 150 people and 6 staff and one dead. Many more are on ventilators. I said this was going to happen to everyone about 40 days ago, and it is happening. People need help here. Just want people to know that we need help.
A state prisoner in Rosharon wrote in mid-May:
We continue to be in a sort-of lockdown, not as severe as the one that ended last week, 14 days after they confirmed COVID-19 among prisoners they transferred here from [another] unit. Those guys were being kept in another area, so they had no interaction with the prisoners actually assigned to this unit.
As soon as there was a COVID-19 case confirmed on the unit, they told us to stay in the cubicle and fed us sack meals (consisting of pancakes with peanut butter and a sandwich three times a day), depriving us of the very exercise and balanced nutrition needed to keep up the immune system. Further, they stopped allowing the captain’s crew to come around with disinfectant and spray the wings (they were still spraying the halls, where the guards are).
They are inept in many aspects of the quarantine. For instance, they would call out “showers” and 90% of the wing would crowd together at the front of the wing. Then they would be led out in groups of ten, only to be crowed into the bathhouse three or four groups at a time. On the lesser limited-movement lockdown now in effect, the same thing happens when they call out “chow,” “rec,” or “commissary.”
Another interesting aspect during the full lockdown was the interference with communications with our families. Outbound mail was delayed in excess of a week and there was a prohibition on the use of the telephone. Now you might think that it makes sense to prohibit the use of a common surface device like the phone, but it can be easily sanitized between use. Further, we all use the same water fountain, water cooler, sinks, urinals, and toilets without any objection and not much in the way of sanitizing. I strongly suspect that the real reason there was prohibition on phone use was because the administration did not want us to be able to tell our families what was going on. It had the, perhaps unintended, effect of preventing us from knowing what was going on with our families—cruel indeed during a pandemic.
A female prisoner at FPC Alderson sent along a series of diary entries on April 21, 2020:
4/5/20: We had our first real fight on the unit in 8 months that I have been here. Too hot and too crowded. I was surprised the girls drew blood. One was put in another unit, and one came back to this unit later that day. It would normally have caused both ladies/inmates to be sent to the county jail. I credit the unstable schedule, the unknown about COVID-19 and being bored!
4/7/20: Inmates were given masks and told to wear them when within 6 feet from another inmate. Well that will be 24/7; our cubes are small/open/and side by side. The warden did a walk thru to tell us this. Out temperatures were taken. Our unit manager told inmates that anyone who had no shots, minimum security, low pattern score, 12 months or less to serve, had served 50% of their sentence could be released to Home Confinement [as early as May 5]. Many got excited.
4/10 to 4/12: A few people signed to be released in May. Other inmates who feel they qualify for Home Confinement are getting upset when they have not been called in by a counselor to sign papers. Inmates a bit upset our counselors are our daily baby sitters – why are they not doing paperwork to get us out!
4/19/20 I received an email from my sister who said my Home Confinement/halfway house date is [in] May. She had called my probation officer. My counselors at Alderson have told me my date is [in] August. I’m cautious. From my 8 months here, I’ve come to realize that they almost never seem to follow policy and procedure.