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.

Continue reading Prison Decarceration in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic  

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

Medical neglect of elders: Ivan Schweitzer in Pennsylvania

July and November, 2021
Ivan Schweitzer
incarcerated in Pennsylvania

To whoever can help,

I would like to know if I can sue Wellpath or the prison for medical negligence. If so, how and can you find me a lawyer? I have been waiting for 2 years to get my teeth fixed. Meanwhile, a couple months ago 2 teeth broke off and I lost a filling. I have put in sick calls but no response. I have ended up with infected lymph nodes. They gave me antibiotics and said I would get X-rays. 15 days later, no word from dental. With the lymph nodes, I got double and blurred vision. Continue reading “Medical neglect of elders: Ivan Schweitzer in Pennsylvania”

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.

Inhumane Conditions

An Excerpt from Felon: The New Slur Word by Justin Guyton
Chapter 7: Inhumane Conditions

            One of the issues that prisoners face in maintaining their health is the inadequate medical treatment that is given to prisoners. We all know that medical treatment isn’t cheap, but just because a person is incarcerated doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to adequate care. The nursing staff and the majority of the doctors suggest the same remedy for pretty much any health issue a prisoner may face: “Take these ibuprofen, drink lots of water, and get some rest.” They know that this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t solve most problems that are brought to their attention, but this is one of the many tactics that are used in an attempt to save money at the expense of the prisoners’ health. These same individuals who took an oath to provide adequate care to those that they encounter are doing the exact opposite. Depending on the illness, this type of ploy can often result in tragedy.

            Some years back, I had a friend that for the point of this story I won’t reveal his name out of respect for his family. This friend was serving a three-year sentence that he’d almost completed. As a means of escape in addition to staying in shape he would work out regularly.

            I’d ended up being moved to another housing unit due to the dormitory that I was previously in was being used to house prisoners whom were lacking their GED. Though no longer in the same dorm, my friend and I would cross paths regularly. A few weeks after I was moved, my friend tragically passed away at twenty-three years old.

Continue reading “Inhumane Conditions”

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?

Continue reading “COVID Prison Testimonies: Rudy Vandenborre in Florida, September 2020”

COVID Prison Testimonies: Henry Newton in PA, September 2020

September 24, 2020
Henry Newton
SCI Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

Please print to let people know. The DOC here at Camp Hill had us clean up after they used the decon chemicals in the kitchen and dining hall. We were sent back after 4 hours of cleaning. We were not allowed to get showers for 8 days. We worked on 9/15/2020 from 4:45 am until about 9:30 am cleaning up the decon chemicals they use for decontamination for COVID. I repeatedly asked to get a shower, see MSDA sheet on chemical, was told my skin was not falling off or melting. I was later told it could burn skin by other source. When inmates are around chemicals that are hazardous because staff has respirators and PPE, we are not afforded that or allowed to know hazards of chemicals we come in contact with. They have refused to give me any info on the hazards of chemicals or allow us to get showers after coming into contact with chemicals.

Camp Hill’s Medical Department do not respond to sick calls when you ask for meds to be reordered because order about to run out. In May I had to put 4 sick calls in, grievance in, have family call up. The medicine ran out on May 22. It took over 20 days to start the med back. I was charged $10.00 even after I was told my account will not be charged. My med was due to run out Sept 27. I was forced to put 2 sick calls in 2 request citing policy. We need outside help with oversight concerning medical issues.

Respectfully,
Henry Newton
Camp Hill, PA DOC

LGBTQ Prison Testimonies: Dakota Rose in California

July 2020
Dakota Rose Austin
Kern Valley State Prison, California

Ms. Dakota Rose, a trans woman incarcerated in California, asks for help to stop the violence against LGBTQ people housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a place intended to keep them safe from homophobic and transphobic attacks. Various populations at risk of harm are placed there, not just LGBTQ people. For more information, see this resource written by currently and formerly incarcerated trans activists.

“My Cup of Tea”

To all of my incarcerated trans-sisters/brothers and non-binary identifying individuals, what’s Gucci! I am Dakota Rose, an incarcerated trans-woman, African Am. who was privileged to read my sis-in-solidarity, Fatima M. Shabazz’ submitted article regarding “transgender housing in prison.” Instinctively, I felt a sense of pride, compelled to interject my perspective and push for out (LGBTQ) advocacy, activism and overdue civil recourse.

Currently I am housed at Kern Valley State Prison, a max security level IV (180 design) SNY/NDO (sensitive needs yard/non-designated) in which a vast majority of the population are identified by CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] administration as STGs (security threat group/gang members). CDCR administrators, such as Sec. Scott Kernan in conjunction with C. Pfeiffer, K.V.S.P. warden, have knowingly condoned a perilous homophobic and transphobic culture, which has subsequently led to various hate crime acts of violence, discrimination, sexual harassment and assaults upon the LGBTQ population.

Continue reading “LGBTQ Prison Testimonies: Dakota Rose in California”

COVID Prison Testimonies: Clifford Smith in California, July 2020

July 8, 2020
Clifford Smith
Avenal State Prison, California

Hello there! : )

Greetings “again” from the inside society in central California … the forgotten society! 

Hope and pray all is OK and your day going well! : )  

Isn’t this virus something as it spreads across the world, states, cities, towns, prisons, etc. 

They moved a group of us over 60 to this building, so please note, new updated address : )  

Kind-of a “useless” move as we are still mixed in with the under 60 and not all over 60 moved, so they also mixed in with the under 60! 

The whole IDEA of move was to keep us over 60 safe from this virus! Not a whole lot of thought put into it … 

Continue reading “COVID Prison Testimonies: Clifford Smith in California, July 2020”