When Dwayne Mitchell was taken off a ventilator in the medical center at Federal Correctional Institution, Yazoo City in Mississippi, he begged nurses to put him back onto it. “I can’t breathe,” he told them. Police brutality is not the only context in which a black man has uttered those three words this summer. An otherwise healthy man in his 40s, Mitchell had been suffering from COVID-19. Within hours of being taken off the ventilator, he died, leaving behind five children and three grandchildren.
Mitchell is but one of thousands of incarcerated people suffering at the hands of COVID-19 spikes in U.S. jails and prisons. A study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published on July 8 found that incarcerated people are 5.5 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than the rest of the U.S. population. The confinement of a prison makes social distancing extremely difficult, making contracting the coronavirus almost unavoidable.
Marsha King, a former inmate, reflected on her time spent incarcerated at Federal Prison Camp, Alderson in West Virginia during the pandemic. “If people don’t believe that COVID is real, step inside a prison,” she said. “It’s very, very real.”
There was limited sanitation at Alderson, according to King. It became up to the inmates to clean most spaces in the facility, including the phone bank. She recalls using a pink solution provided to them in a spray bottle. At one point, some of this liquid got into her eyes and didn’t cause her any discomfort. It made her question how diluted the unnamed solution was and if it was actually effective. “If it didn’t burn my eye,” King said, “then I doubt it was cleaning any type of germs.”
After being processed, new entrants from the street were placed amongst the “regular population,” without being quarantined first. Out of frustration and outrage over this, one inmate at Alderson pulled the fire alarm, almost starting a riot.
Because of her asthma, King was granted a compassionate release, a program that has been expanded during the pandemic to authorize early releases or home confinement for inmates who are elderly or have underlying health issues. She left Alderson on June 30, 2020. 14 days prior to King’s release, the correctional nurse began taking her temperature every day. Previously, she had only taken it once every two or three weeks. Five days prior to her release, King was tested for COVID-19 for the first time. It was as if the prison cared more about protecting people on the outside from being infected by a newly released inmate than it cared about the women within its facility.
Further adding to the mystery, most state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) are either not collecting or will not release data on the race of incarcerated people who have tested positive for COVID-19, Tom Meagher from The Marshall Project, a non-profit that does intensive investigation into the criminal justice system, said. However, it’s no secret that black people are disproportionately affected by incarceration. The BOP reports that 38.2% of inmates are black, while black people comprise only 13.4% of the U.S. population, according to the United States Census Bureau.
One unit in a low-security part of the Yazoo City facility has been experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 for months. Janet Lee Walton, a paralegal and president of the Coalition for Prison Reform, and her colleagues advised inmates to sleep head to toe in an attempt to expand their breathing space, but such efforts are generally futile when three inmates are confined to a cell no bigger than the average bathroom.
One man from this unit who Walton is in contact with at Yazoo City could hardly speak when she talked to him on the phone because he was coughing so much and so deeply. Walton urged him to put in a “sick call” to ensure a paper trail of him trying to get medical attention at the facility. The facility’s response? They recommended he buy a bag of cough drops from the facility commissary.
“Normally federal prisons tend to be a good bit better than state prisons,” Walton said. “But this is an entire systematic issue.”
After Linda Bogar’s son, Luke, called her from inside the medical center at Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia crying and saying he felt like his throat was closing up, she begged the wardens at Lawrenceville to take him back to VCU Medical Center Hospital, but they wouldn’t.
He’d been transported to VCU and spent days in the hospital having his jaw reconstructed and wired shut after an altercation with about 15 other inmates. While in the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19. Despite the frightening combination of having a deadly respiratory disease while also having his jaw wired shut, Luke was moved back to the on-site infirmary at Lawrenceville.
“This is an entire systematic issue.” -Janet Lee Walton
At Lawrenceville, there is no doctor on-site for large portions of the day and there are often not even registered nurses on-site due to severe understaffing. Due to a “mix-up” with the pharmacy, Luke has not received pain medication for his reconstructed jaw or antibiotics for an infection that developed, his mom said. On top of that, water issues within the correctional facility have prohibited him from showering for over a week. At one point, the facility went three days without any water, an obvious hygienic issue anytime, but especially during a pandemic.
“I’m terrified for him,” Bogar said.
Stories like Luke’s in Lawrenceville show an obvious problem in the state’s handling of the pandemic inside its prisons, but their websites tell a different tale. Janet Lee Walton, of the Coalition for Prison Reform, cautions that the individual institutions may be dishonest or negligent when reporting COVID-19 cases within the prisons. As such, it’s hard to trust the information they release to the public.
For example, the Virginia Department of Corrections has reported just over 2,000 cases of COVID-19 in its facilities. Inmates and their families have told Walton that they or their loved ones have tested positive for COVID-19. But when she goes on the Department of Corrections website and looks up a particular facility it says they have zero positive cases, or at least far fewer than she knows they have.
Luke’s situation at Lawrenceville goes to show that a lack of appropriate health care for incarcerated people is not a new phenomenon. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic is merely exacerbating and exposing a pre-existing problem.
"The only thing that COVID-19 did was bring to light what was already an issue –– that’s a breakdown in providing adequate medical care,” King said.
It also highlights how the coronavirus is entering correctional facilities across the nation. Linda has not been able to see her son since March. She was not permitted to visit him while he was at VCU and can only speak to him over the phone for 10 minutes a day. With all state and federal prisons suspending visits since mid-March, it’s not the family and friends of inmates bringing COVID-19 into the facilities, it’s the staff.
Cameron Haag, a detention officer at Towers Jail in Phoenix, Arizona, contracted the virus early this summer. When signing into work he was asked by the computer system if he was experiencing any number of COVID-19 related symptoms. Haag read through the list of symptoms and although he felt like he could absolutely work his shift, he did feel slightly under the weather. Haag alerted his supervisor and was “out the door in 15 minutes.”
He awaited his COVID-19 test result for days, assuming it would come back negative. To his surprise, he tested positive.
“With everything going on I thought I’ll just play it safe just in case,” Haag said. While Haag played it safe, other correctional facility staff members may not report any symptoms because they are asymptomatic.
Although he may never know whether he contracted the virus within the jail or elsewhere, Haag’s diagnosis as a staff member shows that the reality works both ways.
Once one person brings the virus into a facility, the dangerously high transmission rate allows it to spread rapidly amongst inmates, who live in such close quarters. As more inmates contract COVID-19, seemingly exponentially within the confines of prison walls, staffers become increasingly likely to also contract the virus and bring it back into the outside community when they finish their shift.
“It’s not affecting only the people who are behind bars,” Walton noted. “It’s affecting everybody in the community.”
Even at jails and prisons where COVID-19 is not running rampant, the tension and anxiety the virus has caused is serious. Norman Chirco, a defense attorney in Auburn, New York, said that for most of his clients in jail or prison, their main worry is not for themselves, but rather for their loved ones on the outside. “What I’ve always heard from people, and I’ve been doing this a long time,” Chirco said, “Is that when you’re in that jail, it isn’t so much what’s happening to me, it’s that I can’t control the outside.”
Adding to the tension is that from mid-March to mid-July, due to a state-wide ordinance, Chirco was unable to visit his clients in the jails/prisons and could only communicate with them through letters. That is, when he was able to get staff into his office to send out letters. But there really wasn’t much to tell his clients anyway because the District Attorney’s office wasn’t working, the courts were closed, and everything was at a standstill. “It was almost like everything was frozen in time,” he said. “Nothing could happen.”
The standstill created a heightened sense of tension, depression and anxiety in his clients, more so than what he’s ever felt before. What’s more, all of their constitutional rights had been thrown out the window. The state of New York relaxed all requirements for constitutionality, meaning that there was no longer a statute of limitations, nor constitutional rights, Chirco said.
Normally after being arrested on a felony, a person is entitled to a preliminary hearing, meaning that within 128 hours they go in front of a judge who makes a determination on whether or not there is enough evidence to hold them. That was “thrown out the window,” Chirco said. Someone who was arrested on a high-level felony in mid-March would have sat in jail until mid-July without a preliminary hearing, a violation of a basic constitutional right.
The pandemic has caused both paralysis and chaos inside the criminal justice system. But it’s clear that it’s not the virus itself that poses the greatest threat to those inside, and rather the system that has stripped inmates of constitutional and human rights.
“You would think that the coronavirus would scare people, but it was more about everything else,” Chirco said. “The virus was secondary.”