Prison Postcards: Prisoners Write About Fears, Incompetence, at Their Facilities
On April 15, President Donald Trump announced that the coronavirus pandemic had peaked in the United States. That same day, nearly 2,300 people in the country died from COVID-19, the disease cause by the virus, which was the highest tally in a single day. The following day the number nearly doubled.
That brought the nationwide death toll to more than 35,000 and the number of cases to about 650,000. The U.S. has slightly more than 4% of the world population but, rather astonishingly, nearly one-third of all global cases and more than one-fifth of all deaths as of April 16.
All this raises serious doubts about whether or not the incidence of coronavirus will decline significantly any time soon, as the president optimistically stated. Predicting how a global pandemic will unfold is a fool’s errand, as the coronavirus outbreak has well demonstrated. The media has trotted out “scientific” models that show sharply different outcomes, with some allegedly reputable experts having claimed up to 2 million Americans will die while others say the death count will be around 60,000.
One thing that’s absolutely clear, though, is that the situation is particularly dire in America’s carceral complex, with the country’s prisons and jails having become “petri dishes” for coronavirus, as a CNN headline put it. The New York City Department of Correction found in mid-April that 287 prisoners and 441 employees had tested positive for coronavirus.
With 4,353 total prisoners, that’s an infection rate of 6.6 percent, seven times higher than in New York City—which had more than 12,000 deaths, a larger number than in all but four countries in the world besides the U.S.: Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom.
There were numerous outbreaks at other prisons and jails around the country, including a number of national hot spots, such as Cook County Jail in Illinois and Parnall Correctional Center in Michigan. Nationwide, the percentage increase in infected cases rose by about 4,000% between March 20 and April 15; in prisons and jails it rose by more than 36,000%.
We have received calls and letters from prisoners and families around the country, and are publishing excerpts of their accounts of life inside during the pandemic. Note that some of these letters, received between late-March and mid-April, have been edited for length and clarity.
On March 30, a death-row prisoner in Florence wrote that prisoners have been restricted to one bar of hand soap per week, “but we have to request it.” Also, he wrote, “if we exhibit any symptoms that we may be infected, and put in to be seen by medical, the $4 co-pay will be waived.”
A Pleasant Valley State prisoner and jailhouse lawyer wrote that the prison library has closed and that he has no access to LexisNexis or a copier. “The librarian must conduct rounds; conducting rounds increases the probability of infection because a once relatively stationary staff must now go to each building...contrary to staying in a dusty room with three people. Life at prison has stayed essentially normal besides cell feeding, which I enjoy.People still go out to the yard, play sports, stay in the dayroom. Coronavirus is not here.Yet.”
A federal inmate at Danburg women’s prison camp expressed concern in late March that no protective gear is provided and social distancing is not taking place. “However, that is nearly impossible,” she writes. “We are housed in dorms that are connected by small hallways and bathrooms that can be accessed by either dorm. Each dorm houses between 32 and 40 women in 8x9 rooms, two women to each room. We have not been given any soap, disinfectant, bleach or any other cleaning supplies. They provide watered down liquid soap that doesn’t lather up. They have stopped all visits until further notice, stopped commissary, and terminate calls when we attempt to expose certain injustices.” She said there are four cases of coronavirus at the adjacent men’s facility. “We were told by medical staff that it’s not if we get it here, it’s when we get it. Considering I am one of the people at high risk, I am terrified. ... I don’t want to leave in a body bag.” She urges people to contact the BOP, to move people who fit the criteria for home confinement. “We are the people the CARE Act was supposed to help; instead the BOP has decided they don’t have to abide by the rules and are going to limit the information received by the outside so the truth isn’t discovered.”
In Sumter: “Nasty flu here, and one guy had pneumonia. Overall, I think they are doing a good job, especially with the staff shortages. Checking temperatures daily in the dorms. We get outside for 45 minutes each day and a canteen run. Otherwise, everything is brought to the dorm.” (As of April 25, 44 inmates and four employees tested positive for the virus at Sumter.)
A prisoner at FCI Miami says during the temporary lockdown there are “3 people in a room that is less than 60 square feet. We cannot stand up all at once for count without touching each other. We are out for showers three times per week for 40 minutes and emails.”
A prisoner at Wabash Valley says “the 44 door handles are allegedly being cleaned (so officials will claim) by inmate offenders who do only use one rag for all 44 door handles each time. They only use a very watered-down disinfectant (the same used year-round for many years). A lab test would prove how ineffective it is and to point out officials’ falsehoods about it. Bleach, greatly cut with water, is only used once a day to clean showers.”
At Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, a prisoner says the coronavirus has “drastically” affected prisoners. We have “lost visits, all classes, gym [and] recreation and shower time are compromised.” Social distancing is not a reality. “We still eat chow with other 300 people in the cafeteria, pill call over ten people, etc. We also only get mail three times a week. We have no chapel, social groups or shop.”
April 19, a prisoner reported that SCI Mahanoy was on lockdown. “We get 45 minutes per day to shower, make calls, use the tablet kiosk, hang out in the day room, six cells at a time,” he says. Everyone gets out to the yard about once every three days. “We have to give the illusion we are utilizing a mask or face covering anytime we are out of our cages,” he says. There are no library visits, but prisoners can order up to four books per week brought to them.
A woman at Camille Graham Correctional Center said a guard told her that the prison is quietly quarantining anyone suspected of having coronavirus without disclosing the policy. The guards, she claims, had to sign non-disclosure agreements.
At North West Annex, Tiptonville: “Nothing has changed, and I am worried we’re all going to get the virus. The COs and teachers are not practicing social distancing from other staff or inmates. They’re still making us go to school and all of my teachers have been sick. …no staff is wearing masks, not even the nurse that gives me my daily meds.”
“I’m happy to report that there are still no coronavirus cases on Ramsey unit. Every other unit in the area has reported at least one case, but so far we have been fortunate indeed. … This time has been difficult for me as there are several members of my family who are in the highest risk group. Fortunately, they were all prepared and are all practicing social isolation. … The administration has no clue on how to run a quarantine. They banned visits and made us travel in groups of 10, but crowded the showers with 40 or more (that is basically shoulder-to-shoulder) and put eight or nine groups of ten into the mess hall at the same time. Yesterday, they finally told the guards to wear cloth masks (which they provided), but the guards take them off to shout and talk to prisoners, defeating the whole purpose. Since the guards are the only pathway for the virus to get into the prison, I really wish they would use the masks properly.”
At FMC Fort Worth: “The facility is very worn down and unsanitary. The air quality is terrible and ventilation is extremely poor. If an unlucky inmate contracts coronavirus in one of the units, all of the other inmates would be highly susceptible to it; the coronavirus would spread and multiply like wildfire on a dry grassland. It is impossible, due to lack of doors, to control inmates’ movements and to have a lockdown. On top of that, the units do not have cameras.”
On April 1, this person was in solitary (SHU), where “they had been quarantining people if they either just arrived at the facility or if they have corona-like symptoms. SHU is NOT designed and equipped to medically quarantine individuals during pandemic/epidemic. The ventilation system is SHU is all interconnected. SHU also is significantly deficient in both medical manpower and apparatus. SHU is also very unsanitary and frequently the cells contact biohazardous material, such as food waste, fecal matter, etc. … Also, the medically quarantined people are usually quarantined two inmates per cell. Even people who are in here for administrative and medical purposes are subjected to same conditions as disciplinary inmates, with only 1 15-minute phone call per month.”
A news report of two chorale members who died from COVID-19 and 45 out of 60 who were diagnosed with the disease after choir practice in Washington state caught one prisoner’s attention in Seagoville. “This should give an accurate representation of what happens with this highly contagious and deadly bug in crowded settings. Crowded settings ... Hmm. How about prisons? I am housed in a unit [in Seagoville] with over 350 inmates. We share toilets, shower stalls and washbasins, not to mention phones and computers. Undeniably some steps have been taken here by staff but at first glance they seem pointless.
“We are given bag meals for breakfasts; we pick up the bags with cereal, milk and a pastry and take them back to our unit to eat there instead of as we used to, in the chow hall. Social distancing here is impossible. We congregate in classrooms, libraries, rec yard and music rooms. The policy of MASS incarceration has come home to roost.
“An inmate who should have been released a year ago under the compassionate release process (he has terminal bone cancer, is in terrible shape, barely able to move himself around in a wheelchair — when I first came here, he was on a walker), will FINALLY be released in mid-April after the BOP found just about every way possible to drag its institutional feet and delay his departure. This man is well into his seventies. This man is OBVIOUSLY dying. Now he’s in quarantine. His quarantine consists of remaining in the unit’s four-man cell he’s occupied for the last four years and to sit in the open unit surrounded by other inmates coming and going around him while he watches TV. He will be in this ‘quarantine’ for the next two weeks.
“How much more close and intimate is the contact in our prison setting than between those ill-fated choir members? The choir’s rate of infection was 90%. The choir’s rate of death was 4%. There are 1,500-1,600 inmates housed on this compound. Do the math.”
Policies have been “implemented to keep the coronavirus out of our” unit, says a prisoner in Rosharon. Masks must be worn by prisoners who work in the furniture factory (“or a location off of their living area”); those 65 and older must wear them anytime they leave their cells. “Only five prisoners are allowed at the commissary window at a time to allow for 6-foot spacing.” Securus allows “two free, 15-minute-long phone calls to everyone who is registered to use them. …” Phones are now made available 24 hours a day “because of the phenomenal increase in usage.”