Prison Decarceration in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic  

Protesters in Philadelphia demand decarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Joe Piette, shared under Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

by Yosef Robele

Editor’s note: With this thoroughly researched academic article, Prison Health News has the rare privilege of offering scientific data—in addition to our continuing testimonies from people in prison—about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted incarcerated people. We agree with the author, Yosef Robele, that decarceration is the winning strategy we all must fight for.  

Yosef is a 2nd year masters student in the Environmental Health Science & Policy Track at George Washington University School of Public Health. He was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. He went to undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in Environmental Science and minored in Physics. He hopes to have a career tackling environmental justice issues from a scientifically informed background.

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has done much to reveal structural inequalities in American society. Throughout the pandemic, the Prison Industrial Complex has been shown to be wholly inadequate in protecting incarcerated persons, prison staff and the surrounding communities. As both the incarcerated persons and the staffs have higher rates of chronic disease than the general population (Wildeman & Wang, 2017), this places them at higher risk of an adverse outcome from contracting COVID-19. While the prison population has actually decreased by about 10% for various reasons during the pandemic, (Franco-Paredes et al., 2021) prison reform advocates have called for more radical slashes. This paper will advocate not only for these radical slashes but also for other forms of support for formerly incarcerated people. Over summer 2020 alone, over 500,000 cases of COVID-19 can be attributed to the carceral state (Hooks & Sawyer, 2020). In order to prevent further cases and deaths, it’s imperative that incarcerated people are not only released but released with enough health care and housing to support themselves during the pandemic.

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Prison Health News Advisory Board Member Under Threat for Health Activism in Oregon Prison

April 28, 2022

One of our beloved Advisory Board members for Prison Health News, Aaron Maxwell Hanna, filed a lawsuit last year against the Oregon Department of Corrections for not enforcing its own rule that prison employees must wear a face mask to protect those inside the prisons from COVID-19. It’s widely known that prison guards are the most common way COVID gets into prisons from the community. After filing the lawsuit, Max got COVID earlier this year. At his facility, Two Rivers Correctional Institution, 1,287 others have contracted COVID; across the state, 45 people in prison have died of it.

Due to his tireless advocacy, Max won a preliminary injunction on March 21 in federal court that requires the prison authorities to enforce their own mandate for staff to wear face masks. After Max won the injunction, guards allegedly pressured a gang member to take Max’s life, but Max was able to use the support he has from other prisoners to reach this gang member, who is now testifying for Max. We are awaiting the next court hearing, which will be May 10 and cover the alleged retaliation by prison guards against Max and others.

Max requested that we share this note from him on our website, along with a copy of the preliminary injunction:

I am fighting the good fight and standing up against an entire prison staffed with right-wing Republicans who don’t care about me or anyone serving a sentence behind these walls. You have no idea how big, how red and bright this target is on my back, but I don’t care because I am doing the right thing for everyone! This is what matters to me, and how I want to be remembered.

With what I am writing to you, I hope to encourage all of you who are prison activists, who want to protect the lives of those that can’t or won’t stand up for themselves. Please keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers. If you want to email me with words of encouragement, please do so at: MaxwellH7019@gmail.com and I’ll get those from you. I’ll even respond to you if you let me know that you want me to do so.

Stay strong, brothers and sisters!
Max

You can read the preliminary injunction here: https://prisonhealthnews.files.wordpress.com/2022/04/max-hanna-mask-injunction-2022.pdf

COVID Prison Testimonies: Laderic McDonald in Missouri, August 2020

August 31, 2020
Laderic McDonald
Potosi Correctional Center, Missouri

This is Laderic McDonald and I am writing you to ask you to advocate on the behalf of me and other offenders at PCC.

We currently do not have any Dial soap or any anti-bacterial soap at canteen when we placed our Ad-Seg canteen orders. We are only allowed 2 bars per month per policy, so if you attempted to order Dial soap, you may not have gotten any soap at all. How can we keep our hands clean? How can we sanitize our cells? They do not allow us to clean our cells, a Big Health Hazard! We have no soap and COVID-19 is still pummeling America. Please call Potosi Deputy Warden of Ops, Jody Glore and advocate on our behalf. Tell him we need to be afforded access to cleaning/hygiene supplies that will keep us CORONA FREE.

Guards are not wearing a mask in Ad-Seg. They have to feed us, escort us to medical, showers, rec cages, phones and etc, but they are not wearing a mask, and they cannot practice social distancing.

It would be nice if they released offenders with no conduct violations out of Ad-Seg so we can take care of ourselves. Ad-Seg is unsafe and has offenders at risk for COVID-19. Not a good situation!

Please do something. We need your help.

With all due respect,

Laderic

Editor’s note: Ad-Seg is a term for solitary confinement. Prison Health News did respond to this letter when we received it, and we sent some information about how to advocate for oneself using grievances, lawsuits and other means.

Saving Your Mind: Mental Health in the Age of COVID

November 1, 2020
By Leo Cardez
Illinois Department of Corrections

“This is some crazy ass shit; and I thought I’d seen it all after twenty years in the joint.”  Murder*, my COVID wing co-worker, lamented while shaking his head.  We were dragging yet another fellow inmate to the hospital wing of our prison.  Murder is a seasoned con from the streets of Chicago’s South side, but I swear I saw a tear in his eye.

            There were four of us glorified janitors working in the makeshift quarantine wing of our prison.  Besides cleaning, we were tasked with moving and caring for sick (even dead) inmates.  At the peak of our coronavirus outbreak, we worked seven days a week double shifts, sweating through our full PPE—too busy to even stop and eat.  It was only at the end of the day, during my shower, that I would finally have a moment to catch my breath.  Sometimes I would break down, hiding my tears as the warm water washed over me.  My co-workers and I suffered everything from nightmares to migraines.  We lost and gained weight at an alarming rate.  We slept sporadically and were often depressed or angry.  Double D, my morning co-worker, said it best, “We are never going to be the same after this… you cannot unsee or undo this type of damage.”

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COVID Prison Testimonies: Zhi Kai Vanderford in Minnesota, April 2020

April 5, 2020
Zhi Kai Vanderford
Minnesota Correctional Facility, Shakopee

I am a trans male, been on testosterone about a year here. I am a Minnesota lifer that they sent out of state for 14 years in California, 12 years in Oklahoma, and the rest of the time broken up in Minnesota, so a total of 33 years.

The inmates here are fortunate—we have each been issued a mask and told we will get a new one monthly. But out of all the staff, and they are coming in [from the outside world], I have only ever seen one wear a mask—a foreigner—a nurse, bless his heart. The rest of these jackholes are ignorant young folks that feel fine—of course they do. They are asymptomatic.

Of course, what is the excuse of the 2 old geezer doctors that I saw? They don’t care about our health. They joke it is inmate population control.

And the inmates I spoke with are saving their masks for when they are needed. When people are actually dying. But there are Minnesota prisons that have it [COVID].

Thank you for keeping me in the loop and being a lifeline. If I get more time, I will draw or write. Feel free to print my work. Just give me credit. Maybe I can get things improved here.

Stay safe.

Zhi Kai

COVID Prison Testimonies: Rudy Vandenborre in Florida, September 2020

A Donkey’s Rock
By Rudy Vandenborre
Everglades Correctional Institution
September 12, 2020

When I went to Washington, D.C. from a small farmer’s town in Belgium, it felt like I entered a whole new unknown world. As a butterfly who morphed, fluttering its wings for the first time, I believed that I was invincible by living a very dangerous lifestyle. “Whatever happens to other people ain’t going to happen to me,” became my motto.

The first time I encountered an unseen enemy was when I took a guy home who insisted on us wearing condoms. AIDS was running rampant all around the world—every country, every city became a hot-zone. However, the mainstream media stayed mum on this HIV pandemic, as it was still branded a gay disease.

There is a saying that even a donkey will not stumble over the same rock twice! So, why did I?

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Against the Odds

By Antwann Johnson

From PHN Issue 47, Fall 2021

My name is Antwann Johnson, and I felt compelled to share my experience with COVID-19 while incarcerated. On October 16, 2020, I was working as a DLA (Daily Living Assistant) and I was approached by the Housing Unit FUM (Functional Unit Manager). He asked me if I would be willing to live in the Medical TCU for the purpose of giving assistance to the medical personnel who cared for inmates that had contracted COVID-19 and were severely ill and dying.

At first, I felt reluctant because this virus was still a mystery to us all. Not long after that conversation with the FUM, I was informed that my cousin and two of my close friends had tested positive for COVID-19. After that, I made the decision to go to the TCU Unit. I’ve seen firsthand how many of the inmate patients don’t have any family or people who care about their well-being. The primary purpose of being selected to live in the medical unit was to help prevent any cross-contamination or spread of the virus as much as possible. It would be two inmate patients that I grew close to while they were battling COVID-19 who would ultimately give me the strength to continue fighting this worthy cause.

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COVID-19 and Vaccination Update

By Lily H-A

From PHN Issue 46, Spring/Summer 2021

On February 27, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a third COVID-19 vaccine, developed by Johnson & Johnson (J&J, sometimes called “Janssen”) under the same shortened process as the other two currently approved vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna).

The J&J vaccine only requires one dose instead of two, and doesn’t need ultra-cold refrigeration, so it’s easier to distribute. It also uses slightly different technology from Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines. All three vaccines work by making the cells in your body produce harmless proteins that look like parts of the coronavirus, which teaches your immune system how to recognize and destroy the actual coronavirus if it enters your body. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines use a messenger called mRNA to do this, while J&J’s uses a deactivated virus called an adenovirus. This deactivated virus cannot infect you, and is not the same as the coronavirus.

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How Other Health Conditions Interact with COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

By Lily H-A

From PHN Issue 44, Fall 2020

Researchers have found that there are certain factors, including having other health conditions, that make it more likely you will have a severe illness if you catch COVID-19.

Here are some of the factors that seem to go along with more complications from COVID-19. Of course, having these health conditions doesn’t guarantee you’ll definitely get severely ill if you catch COVID-19. And people who are otherwise healthy can still get very ill if they catch COVID-19. The best way to prevent getting severe complications from COVID-19 is to not get it at all, so it’s important to keep practicing social distancing when possible, wearing a face covering, and practicing hand hygiene.

Some of these you can do more about than others. For the ones you can do something about, we’ve included some tips. Eating healthy, being physically active, and quitting smoking can improve or lower your risk of a lot of these health conditions. If you take medications, take them regularly and make sure you have enough refills.

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Promoting Mental Wellness in the Time of Coronavirus

By Rosa Friedman

From PHN Issue 42, Spring 2020

Being locked up is difficult enough under normal circumstances, and right now circumstances are far from normal. You may be experiencing a wide range of emotions, like loneliness due to lack of contact with peers and visits from loved ones, helplessness and anger at not being able to protect yourself, or numbness at the unrelenting nature of this crisis. You might shift dramatically between moods with little
warning, or have more thoughts about or symptoms related to other traumatic experiences. Whatever you’re feeling, remember there’s no wrong way to react to what’s happening. It’s normal to feel ungrounded, helpless, or just “off” in such an unusual situation, one where there’s so much uncertainty and powerlessness. It’s also normal to feel extra calm, especially if you’ve been through a lot of crises before. What’s important is to focus on what’s within your control and to do what you can to
care for yourself, mentally as well as physically. Here are some ways to practice selfcare during this difficult time:

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