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COVID-19 in Prisons: The Tale of Two Pandemics

In the context of mask mandates being relaxed on College Hill, it is vital to consider how COVID-19 continues to greatly affect people who have less privilege than the average Brown University student. This disparity extends not only to low-income and immunocompromised people, but those who are often the intersection of both – people who are incarcerated. Over the course of the past two years, incarcerated people have been 5.5 times as likely to contract COVID-19 as people who are not incarcerated. Given how unfeasible social distancing, regular sanitation, and adequate medical treatment are in prisons and jails, these facilities were dubbed “petri dishes” for COVID-19 – a disease that spreads too easily between incarcerated people. 

In the spring of 2020, many of us were adjusting to life in quarantine, working or taking classes from home, seeing much more of our families (and much less of others) than usual, and planning grocery trips with as little contact with others as possible. But, while the transition to regular distancing and relative isolation was a difficult – but not impossible – adjustment for most, incarcerated people were fighting for compassionate release “before their time in prison effectively became a death sentence.” 

Beginning in the spring of 2020, the Marshall Project connected with four incarcerated people and asked them to keep a record of what their experience was like as COVID-19 spread over the course of a few months to a year. One incarcerated man, James Ellis, describes how “for the most part we felt like we were the lucky ones… Then a guard got sick.” Ellis went on to describe how the governor of his state eventually had everyone in the prison tested for COVID-19 after many people were already sick. However, efforts to isolate COVID-19 positive people from other incarcerated people were thwarted by mistakes made in tracking systems, creating exposure between positive and negative inmates. At the same time that many of us began to call and FaceTime loved ones much more often, incarcerated people were struggling just to have the chance to call hospitalized family members. Another incarcerated man, Bruce, recalls how difficult it was to video call with family, even those in critical condition: 

“We spent weeks writing letters to advocacy groups who might be able to help my friend, Francisco, get a video visit with his mother. She has been hooked up to a ventilator for weeks. She may very well pass away and Francisco wants to see her one last time. Eventually the prison agreed to let him have a video visit. But right after he found out, he got another call to say his mom died.”

The completed collection of stories from the Marshall Project can be found here!

To prevent this, compassionate release should have been an option for many incarcerated people. In this case, an incarcerated person would be permitted to live at home (especially elderly or immunocompromised people). This would also make it easier to stay in touch with loved ones – especially those who are hospitalized – and would reduce the rate of COVID-19 transmission not just in jails, but also in the communities surrounding them. In 2020, the ACLU estimated that these changes (as well as a reduction in the frequency of arrests), could have saved up to 99,000 lives. Instead, government officials (such as former Attorney General Barr) claimed that prisons and jails were safer for convicted people, given that they would have easy access to medical care. However, incarcerated women like Jennifer knew that “preventive medicine is not the prison’s forté. You must be almost dead before you can actually receive care.” Ron Shehee, one of the relatively few who was granted release, similarly believed he would not receive adequate care, stating that “I did not plan on going [to prison] to die and never see my kids and my family anymore.” As a result of slow procedure and “deliberate indifference of prison officials,” according to the Office of the Inspector General, “1,070 people were potentially eligible for home confinement in April 2020,” but only 68 were transferred as a result of COVID-19 related concerns” in the facility in Butner, North Carolina. This excludes those on the waiting list to be transferred and those waiting on other administrative steps in the process of getting released, some of whom died. This treatment illuminates the minimal value society places on the lives of incarcerated people, given that most state prisons failed to adjust their capacity or implement other safety measures to protect incarcerated people from the pandemic. 

Within RI prisons like the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI), the conditions that incarcerated people face are still being defined as “human rights violations,” given that COVID-19 cases were more than doubling in less than a week (from 174 to 474 COVID-19 positive incarcerated people) as recently as this January. Incarcerated people’s rights have been consistently disregarded before and during the course of this pandemic (especially given the safety of living in close quarters). If we still cannot collectively stand in solidarity with incarcerated people and advocate for their rights, the summer of 2020 –  a time supposedly characterized by unity – was truly anything but. While the first summer of lockdown has been defined as a time of reflection for many white Americans in particular, it has also brought to bear the unequal experiences of the pandemic, especially as it applies to incarcerated individuals. They have been largely silenced in discourse regarding how this pandemic has illuminated vast disparities – especially along socioeconomic and racial lines. It should go without saying that no one’s humanity should be denied – whether or not they are behind prison walls. So, while it is never our place to speak for incarcerated people, it remains our responsibility to uplift their stories and amplify their voices.

More stories from incarcerated people about how they were affected by COVID-19 can be found here.

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