COVID in Prisons: Where Are We Now?

Illustrated by Sue Lee

James Ellis wrote that, in April 2020, “We felt like they had left us to die. On the inside, it felt like we were in the basement of a burning house with no way out.” Ellis fell ill a month later. While he recovered within a few weeks, the effects on his fellow prisoners at Ohio’s Marion Correctional Facility lasted far longer. Men suffering long COVID remained silent for fear that they would be placed in isolation. They began to behave irrationally, often appearing vacant, or getting high on everything from bug spray to hand sanitizer. By January 2021, Ellis concluded, “I believe that the pressure and the fear of this pandemic has pushed people here to their breaking points” [9]. 

Incarcerated people are some of the most affected by the pandemic. Inmates are three times more likely to die of COVID than the American public, even after accounting for the fact that they tend to be younger [8]. As of February 11, 2022, the Covid Prison Project reports 567,253 cases among inmates, resulting in 2,819 deaths, with the highest numbers coming from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at 2,808 deaths and 560,581 infections [6,7]. Large, populous states like California and Texas are close behind, with 70,520 and 44,634 cases respectively. Comparatively, Missouri reports 9,833 cases in a population of 62,568 incarcerated people [5]. 

Prisoners faced particularly egregious conditions at the beginning of the pandemic. James J. Lennon, incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, described wearing a paper towel mask and latex gloves to phone his wife. While the guards could wear masks, regulations forbade prisoners from doing the same [3]. Jennifer Graves at the Florida Women’s Reception Center explained that seeing a doctor was nearly impossible. Inmates waited at the clinic for hours before being sent away. They had to repeat the process three or four times before being admitted, and, to add insult to injury, all appointments came with a five dollar fee [9]. 

American prison systems’ 405,000 correctional officers also experience abnormally high COVID rates  [11]. In August 2021, University of California, Los Angeles compiled data from 21 states revealing that, for every 10,000 people, 81 staff contracted the virus, in contrast to only 36 of 10,000 members of the general population [12]. In fact, staff often have even higher levels than the inmates with whom they work. This trend is partly due to their low vaccination rates [1]. In Alabama, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, fewer than 25% of employees report having received both shots — more of them actually contracted COVID. Pennsylvania is a particularly striking case: 88% of inmates but only 23% of officers are vaccinated. At SCI Smithfield in Huntington County, this number falls to only 7% of officers [12]. 

Vaccine hesitancy has created tensions between governments and correctional officers. In October of last year, a federal judge in California ruled that staff must be vaccinated, prompting strong opposition from Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom worried that such a mandate would inspire enough officers to resign that prisons would not be able to function [1,13]. An appeals case will begin in March [1]. Political efforts in Illinois were more successful: the state government successfully ordered all correctional officers to be vaccinated by October 2021; however, that administration faced backlash from county jails after halting transfers to prisons at the beginning of the pandemic. Sheriffs asserted that not only were county jails unequipped to deal with higher numbers of inmates, but the government also overextended its power. This challenge was unsuccessful [5]. 

Correction officers’ response is problematic for the federal government, whose pandemic response increasingly seems to rely on vaccination. At the beginning of his term, President Biden swore to offer vaccines to all BOP inmates and employees, a policy that seems to largely have panned out [8]. Recommendations for prison populations continue to echo general public guidance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourage masking and vaccination, particularly among and around high-risk individuals [4]. Of course, incarcerated people and correctional officers are all generally “high risk,” living and working in conditions where strict social distancing is rarely possible. As such, the CDC recommended that states privilege the delivery of vaccines to these populations [4]. 

Governor Mike Parson partially followed these guidelines in prioritizing the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) staff in his vaccine rollout. As part of Phase 1, corrections officers were eligible to get vaccinated starting January 14, 2021; Missouri was one of only eleven states to offer this accommodation. Four days later, particularly susceptible individuals, including medically vulnerable prisoners, qualified. However, all other incarcerated people waited until at least April 9th with the beginning of Phase 3. On its website, the MODOC points out several other facets of Missouri’s prison COVID response, specifically the purchase of air purifiers and sanitizing spray dispensers [10]. However, Representative Cori Bush, who has called for decarceration in the St. Louis congressional district in order to reduce cases, says these efforts are not enough. Bush accompanied Mayor Tishaura Jones on an inspection of conditions in the St. Louis City Justice Center, a jail that the visiting group deemed “absolutely disgusting.” A spokesman for the mayor subsequently promised revisions to the city’s system [2]. 

Changes may occur at the federal level as well, particularly after the impending departure of Miguel Carvarjal, the former director of the BOP. The bureau may become more strict in its safety measures under new management. Moreover, the ACLU has announced a suit against another, oft-ignored part of the federal justice system — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — citing the agency’s failure to provide boosters to detainees. In December 2021, the CDC announced a program to provide more PCR testing to prisons among other communal, high-risk settings. And, most importantly, deaths seem to be on the decline due to widespread general immunization. One study of 281 deceased inmates insists that 66% died in 2020, while only 30% did in 2021 [8]. So perhaps cases will continue to gradually decline, whether federal and state governments take additional action or not. But then again, 30% of 281 is still 84 people. 

Edited by: Jillian Martin
Illustrated by: Sue Lee 

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