COVID-19 response: What about us?

Is the incarcerated population on the priority list?

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As we watch the COVID-19 pandemic consume global attention from inside our cages, one thought comes to mind: Out of sight, out of mind.

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has created a worldwide public health crisis; as of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, there were 7,038 confirmed infections and 97 deaths in the United States. Some experts estimate that over 100 million Americans will eventually be infected, with expected fatalities reaching at least hundreds of thousands and potentially millions.

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Keeping a “safe” distance from others while in prison is a joke.

The population most devastated by the pandemic could very well be the most vulnerable and powerless citizens in the country: our incarcerated brothers and sisters. I have been following the news cycle religiously and daily, governments are declaring national and state lockdowns (schools, churches, sporting events, work places, etc. have been closed or canceled) and urging residents to practice prevention by through tactics such as frequent hand washing and “social distancing” (a new phrase for our social lexicon that we suddenly now all use regularly). But, how do you practice these things in a prison or jail setting? Prisons are naturally very unhygienic places. Consider:

Medical care is notoriously poor. Many prisons and jails are located in rural or poor counties, where administrators have neither the resources nor the expertise to hire, train and supervise doctors and nurses.

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The incarcerated population is plagued by poor health already.

Cleanliness is not a strong suit. Basic disease prevention techniques are either against the rules or simply impossible. For example, the CDC is recommending the use of hand sanitizers with 75% alcohol content. But any products containing alcohol are typically banned in prisons. Likewise, it’s not always possible to wash your hands regularly. Sometimes your water is out. Sometimes you don’t have access to a sink.

“If you spend even just a couple of minutes in any jail or prison area, you would quickly find that many of the sinks there for handwashing don’t work, or that there are no paper towels or no soap. In other words, handwashing, the most basic tool that incarcerated people have, won’t be consistently available.” (Dr. Homer Venters, physician, epidemiologist and the former chief medical officer of the NYC Correctional Health Services)

And social distancing? Prisons and jails are overcrowded — with an estimated 2.3 million people incarcerated in only 7,000 facilities. Consider that you’re often literally chained to the person next to you when moving from place to place.

So, I ask… What type of contingency plans are being put in place to prepare for if or rather when the virus sweeps through our prisons? Or do we not care?

The majority of my 25 years of incarceration have been served in the federal system (since DC does not have its own prison, and thus contracts with the feds), so I have a lot of first-hand knowledge about how it will likely attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. It will lock down the institutions. And this, in itself, is a problem.

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Once the coronavirus enters a prison, the institution will become a petri dish for the spread of the virus. The person who introduces the virus into the institution will more than likely be asymptomatic, and thus a large majority of the population will be infected before the “invasion” is discovered. Then, because prisoners are forced to share everything — the cramped space of a cell, the air in a housing unit, the microwave, the computers, the phones, the showers, the meal trays, the utensils, the workout areas, etc. — the virus will be rapidly transmitted around the jail or prison. By the time symptoms begin surfacing, it will already be too late. And this is the reason why just locking the institution down is not the solution but the problem.

The government is already struggling to produce enough test kits. So, you know they will not have enough kits for us. And even if they did, will they wish to “waste” them on prisoners, when they haven’t even thought about how to adequately protect us in the first place? On top of this, there isn’t the space to quarantine every single inmate who would likely test positive.

In 2011, I was in Canaan USP (United States Penitentiary) when a salmonella outbreak occurred. It seemed like the entire resident population was suffering from diarrhea, fever and vomiting. What was the administration’s response? You guessed it… lockdown. People were literally locked in their cells 23 hours a day, throwing up all over the place and having bowel movements at the same time. The administration still wouldn’t permit anyone to leave their cells to get medical care.

I watched as people literally passed out and were finally carried to get medical care on a stretcher.

The emergency alarm in our cells buzzed constantly as people kicked the door moaned in agony all night, trying to get medical attention. This went on for a day or two until, finally, staff recorded everybody’s name who said they were sick and took them a few at a time for care. But guess what? The “medical” staff simply took our vital signs, gave us Gatorade and put the whole institution on a ramen noodle diet for 10 days. Most diabolical of all, they attempted to discourage people from filing lawsuits charging the staff for incompetence.

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But there is another problem with institutional lockdowns. The practice has huge mental health ramifications. It is already bad enough that we are locked up and can’t be with our children, family and friends. But to endure this while being cut off from seeing or talking to our families while a pandemic ravages the nation, would kill us mentally. When you are forced to sit in a cell 23 hours a day, you tend to think about the same things over and over again. This can quickly turn into an obsession, literally driving some people insane. Can you imagine yourself lying in your bed all day thinking about whether or not your family is safe, and not having an answer?

Even before lockdowns can be declared, isolation is being enforced. Visits have been cancelled at prisons across the country, and around the world, in an effort to stop COVID-19 from entering. After what I just described, is it any wonder that in Italy, nearly 30 prisons broke into riots after visitation rights were suspended?

So, I am sending out a clarion call to family, friends and other loved ones of people incarcerated… Make sure you reach out to them and let them know you are okay… It may very well be the news they need keep them sane.

Call to action: Phone and/or video calls are now the only option for inmates and families or friends to stay in touch. But too often, the cost to make calls is too expensive for them to pay. Send this letter to your local jail or prison, asking them to make video and phone calls free.

Written by

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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