Staying Safe in Prison During COVID-19

By The Prison Health News Advisory Board

From PHN Issue 45, Winter 2021

Prison Health News asked our Advisory Board members for suggestions on how people in prison can advocate for their safety during the pandemic. We’re very grateful for these responses, which we edited for length and clarity.

Try and stick together, because there are a lot of people fighting for you. I’m for sure one of them.

The first thing I thought of was having people join the lawsuits being represented by the ACLU. People can write to their state representatives and the health department about health violations related to COVID-19 and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for inmates. I also would recommend consulting with the healthcare workers in the prison, because they could be allies in fighting for more PPE and better health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These guys are left to fend for themselves while quarantined (without access to commissary) so I have taken it upon myself to try and help them by making sure they get extra T.P. (diarrhea), aspirin (headaches and fever), blankets (chills), cough drops (cough), gatorade (dehydration), stamped envelopes, and pens and paper to write to their families or whatever they may need that I can buy at the store.

An institution should have a “safety manager” who should coordinate the cleaning supplies. The superintendent is also liable for our lives, so they have the ultimate responsibility for us. The staff who have ignored mask mandates are subject to the grievance process available to prisoners. Every state has an ombudsman who is appointed by the state governor. Their duty is to police long-term care facilities, which also includes prisons. Complaints can be made to them.

For extended solitary confinement, my suggestion is to ask for a “federal habeas corpus” challenging their conditions of confinement to have a court make a ruling in an emergency setting. As for denial of phone calls, their right to talk on the phones has “some protection under the First Amendment” of the U.S. Constitution. “Most courts agree that prison officials can restrict telephone privileges in ‘a reasonable manner.’” —McMaster v. Pung, 984 F.2d 948, 953 (8th circuit, 1993).

People in prisons should get copies of their DOC policies for “code of ethics,” “code of conduct,” and whatever else their state rules are for holding correctional staff accountable. So that way, when they file grievances, inmates can quote an actual rule that staff violated. The DOC Inspector General can be complained to about staff as well. When an IG gets voluminous amounts of complaints about certain staff members, they pay attention to that. DOC directors hate getting bad publicity about their prisons. They can get motivated to make changes from lots of outside inquiries!

You can write to these organizations about what is going on at your facility. They might not write back unless they think they can help you:

ACLU National Office: 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004 Ask them for the address of your local or state ACLU chapter.

Center for Constitutional Rights: 666 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY 10012

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