“We Are Sitting Ducks”

As the Covid-19 crisis escalates, incarcerated people across the country describe a climate of fear, uncertainty, and unpreparedness.

Mari Cohen
March 23, 2020
Photo: Larry Farr via Unsplash

ROOSEVELT MYLES said he hadn’t slept or eaten in several days. He wasn’t sure why, but he thinks it might have been anxiety. Myles is currently incarcerated at Illinois River Correctional Center, a state prison near Peoria, IL, as he awaits an appellate court ruling on his alleged wrongful conviction. According to an email he sent last week, the entire facility has been on quarantine lockdown since March 11th, which leaves Myles in his cell all day, unable to do his regular work at the bakery, use the phones to call his fiancée and other loved ones, or mingle with fellow inmates. He’s not sure of the exact reason for the lockdown. He recently experienced another lockdown because an inmate had the flu, but this time he suspects it might be because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19. “Nobody’s talking,” he wrote me in an email. Even with a lack of information, he is well aware of the shortcomings of prison health care—and as a 55-year-old man, he’s worried about what could happen if the virus hits. 

Myles is one of five incarcerated men from across three states who emailed me through the prisons’ messaging services and described a general climate of fear, uncertainty, and unpreparedness behind bars as Covid-19 spreads across the country. As the magnitude of the crisis became clear earlier this month, activists across the country began pointing out that prisons and jails could easily become sites of widespread infection. In some cases, county and state officials have begun announcing measures to address the crisis: Every state, as well as the federal system, has suspended personal visits; some jails have begun releasing inmates or preventing the incarceration of those arrested on low-level crimes; 25 states have suspended medical copays for incarcerated patients with Covid-19-related symptoms. But these inmates and their families told me that they believe their facilities’ responses are still insufficient, citing problems such as a scarcity of cleaning supplies and lack of screening for staff. And there’s no time to lose: 21 inmates at Rikers Island jail in New York City have already tested positive for the virus, as have a New York federal jail inmate, two New York state inmates, three state inmates in Georgia, one in California, and one in Massachusetts. Forty-five Rikers inmates have now gone on strike, refusing to leave dorms for meals or work, in protest of the facility’s inadequate protections against the virus. 

The Covid-19 crisis highlights many of the existing problems in the carceral system, including insufficient health care, limited opportunities for communication with the outside, and a lack of access to personal hygiene items. Within the current system, the measures that carceral systems are taking—including suspending all personal visits and, as in Myles’s case, putting wards on lockdown—further isolate inmates from communication with friends and family, and deprive them of their typical work or enrichment activities. 

“It wasn’t until we were notified that our visits were being indefinitely suspended that we realized how serious this situation is,” wrote Stevie Wilson, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute at Fayette in western Pennsylvania. “We are sitting ducks, locked in. We know that if the virus gets inside, we are done.”

In response to the crisis, according to Wilson’s email from last week, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has increased the commissary spending limit so that prisoners can buy more cleaning supplies and toiletries, but has not distributed any free supplies. Inmates make only 19 cents an hour, and most are taxed to pay court fees; a bar of soap costs 90 cents, Wilson said. “If it were not for the generosity and solidarity of outside allies, many of us would be unable to clean ourselves and our living spaces,” he said. (Maria Finn, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said in an email that all inmates are now receiving free soap.) Joel White, an inmate at the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility in Minnesota, wrote that he had been given cleaning supplies, but was worried they were inadequate. “According to the CDC, the cleaning supplies that they give us are supposed to have a certain percentage of alcohol and they don’t,” White said. (Nicholas Kimball, a spokesperson for Minnesota’s Department of Corrections, said that cleaning supplies meet CDC guidelines and that inmates are being given free hand soap.) 

Michelle Lind, whose 74-year-old husband Robert Lind is incarcerated in Sullivan Correctional Center in upstate New York, said that her husband has been given a gallon a day of bleach—previously considered contraband—to wipe down his cell. But given limited access to news, she doesn’t think her husband and his fellow inmates have been made aware of the magnitude of the crisis. Lind said that her husband, who just went through chemotherapy treatment for prostate cancer and had previously undergone surgery for a severe bacterial stomach infection, has already struggled to access quality health care in prison. “Once [the virus] hits correctional, he’s not going to make it,” she said. “It is a human tragedy. What does he have, four or five years left? He has grandchildren out here. I’m losing my mind knowing the system is going to get him.” 

Rafael Goodman, who is incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Waymart in Pennsylvania, wrote that he and other inmates fear that the facility has not been careful enough in ensuring that staff don’t bring in the virus. “One officer worked my block and complained of a sore throat and cough,” he said. The officer denied having coronavirus-related symptoms, but was sent home the next day with a 102-degree temperature, according to Goodman. “There are NO isolation protocols in place and we fear that once one person gets it, it will sweep through the entire prison, mostly because the prisons are ill-prepared and they care more about their staff than us,” he said. As of today, Goodman said his facility has gone on lockdown. (“Please understand that DOC officials, and by that I mean EVERY DOC/parole employee, has been working for weeks preparing for this virus and working to mitigate it entering our facilities. We are doing all we can to delay the virus entering our prisons,” Pennsylvania DOC’s Fink wrote in an email, adding that every facility has a plan in place for quarantine, isolation, enhanced cleaning, and screening of everyone entering. She said that no facilities are currently on coronavirus-related lockdowns,.) 

Given these conditions, many activists say the only viable path forward is decarceration, both to reduce the crowded conditions that could cause Covid-19 to spread, and to give vulnerable inmates a better shot at receiving health care outside of prison if they contract the virus. The Prison Policy Initiative, for example, has called for prisons and jails to release elderly or medically vulnerable adults—like Lind—and to stop using incarceration to punish violations of probation or parole; local advocacy groups across the country have made similar demands

Robert Lind is a close friend of José Saldana, the director of New York’s Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign, who was himself released two years ago after 38 years of incarceration. RAPP was already pushing for the state to release elderly inmates, given their health complications and the low likelihood of re-offending, and the crisis has brought new urgency to that campaign. “Most of the elderly inmates have age-related ailments: thyroid cancer, HIV, hep C, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. It’s realistically and practically fatal if they’re infected by [Covid-19],” Saldana said. “We’re asking Governor Cuomo to value these men and women’s lives and release them immediately.” (The governor’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment on its plans for elderly prisoners by press time.) 

Another group that advocates have long pushed to release are people serving time because of technical violations of parole or probation conditions. The crowding of prisons with technical violators is a particularly acute problem in Minnesota: while the state has low incarceration levels as a whole compared to other states, violations of parole or probation conditions make up a third of state prisoners, and at least a third of that number are incarcerated only on technical violations, rather than new criminal offenses. 

Over the past few years, activists have urged the state to consider alternatives to incarceration for technical violators like Michael R., who previously served time on a drug charge after a plea deal and was released on a strict parole program. (Michael’s mother, Lisa, asked that only first names be used for her and her son to avoid any retaliation against him for speaking out.) Michael was doing well, meeting program requirements and working a good job, when he was re-incarcerated because a woman with an unpaid traffic ticket gave him a ride to one of his parole meetings—something Lisa says he didn’t know was a violation. His mother has been advocating tirelessly to appeal his incarceration and secure his release, and she’s especially concerned now about the threat of the virus. “Why should technical violators be punished by risk of death?” she said. 

Nicholas Kimball, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said in an email that the state’s commissioner of corrections has reviewed what authority he has under state law and that the options for medical release of inmates do not appear to apply to those at risk of contracting Covid-19. Also, he said, the department is concerned that for some inmates, release could actually worsen their health care and housing options, especially given that the healthcare system is already taxed. He said the corrections department has been in touch with the state’s probation leaders to encourage them to consider alternatives to sending people back to prison on violations. 

Rachel Sandler, the medical director for the county detention center in Hennepin County, Minnesota, said that reducing populations of carceral facilities is key to combating the pandemic and reducing its spread. “That’s one of the best prevention [measures] we can have,” she said. “Our jail population’s dropped like 20% in the last couple of days,” she added. “It’s been an ongoing issue for a few years now, so it’s interesting to see that this pandemic is what gets people out of jail.”

Sandler said that the jail she oversees is lucky to have four special infirmary cells to hold medically vulnerable inmates, and that they have already mobilized one area of the jail for Covid-19 patients; if enough inmates are released, she hopes to be able to use a third separate area. But while isolating people with symptoms for 14 days might be necessary to protect the rest of the population, Sandler said it’s an ethically challenging choice to have to make as a provider, given that isolation in her facility means 23 hours a day in an uncomfortable cell, with only an hour allotted to walk around, shower, and perhaps use the phones. “Really the only way to prevent that sort of treatment is to get people out of custody,” she said. Having more access to testing would also help, she said, since this would make it easier to determine who needs to be in isolation and who doesn’t. 

In many facilities, inmates with symptoms are not the only ones impacted by isolation measures intended to stop the spread of the virus. Normally, most inmates have the option to stay in touch with friends and family through a combination of snail mail; in-person visits; and paid phone calls, video calls, and email run by prison technology companies (availability of email and video varies by state). For Myles in Illinois, quarantine means no access to the phones; he can use a special tablet made for inmates to send emails from the confines of his cell, but not all inmates have tablets. In New York, Michelle Lind said that if prisoners are quarantined and lose access to the phones, she won’t be able to hear from her husband at all, and will have no knowledge of how he’s doing. “If my husband gets sick, they’re not going to call me,” she said. 

Some states have responded to the suspension of visits by increasing other communication opportunities. Wilson said he’s received five free phone calls and five free emails a week in Pennsylvania. Lindsey Hess, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said in an email that “the Department is expanding opportunities for video visits and phone calls”; she did not respond to inquiries about which facilities are on lockdown and about what communication opportunities are available for those in lockdown. Kimball, the Minnesota DOC spokesperson, told me that inmates are receiving two free phone calls a week, and the DOC is working on making free video calls available. David Boenhke, an activist with the Decarcerate Minnesota Coalition, said this isn’t enough: video technology doesn’t work well, and increased use of the phones “also raises the possibility of people being in long lines, which would increase transmission.” A better move, he said, would be to distribute donated smartphones to inmates so they can contact their families directly. For Boenhke, inmates’ ability to communicate with the outside world is also essential because it’s the only way that they can make their conditions known. “So often you have these awful conditions and the prison system just pretends it’s not the case,” he said. 

In addition to communication with friends and family, daily prison life is being reshaped in other ways in response to the crisis. Through their jobs, some inmates in Illinois prisons can earn “good time” credit to shorten their sentences; Myles is worried that not being able to work his bakery job will mean earning less of this time. Wilson said that in his Pennsylvania facility, all religious services have been canceled, and some other programming is being restructured so it can be done from inmates’ cells. 

In Wilson’s view, one positive outcome of the dire crisis has been “an uptick in mutual aid and community building amongst prisoners, facilitated by outside allies.” “We hope to build off this energy to increase solidarity inside and outside the walls,” he said. “We hope to use this moment to highlight the importance of quality healthcare for everyone, inside and outside.” 

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.