A Nation of Coronavirus Inmates

by Daniel A. Rosen |

It seems people locked down at home due to the Coronavirus outbreak have taken to comparing themselves to prison inmates on social media. That’s not really amusing to those of us actually locked down in prisons and worried about what happens when (not if) the virus gets in here. But maybe there’s an upside to it, if everyone out there has even a little better idea of what it’s like to be in prison.

American communities have come around one by one to the inevitable understanding that effectively locking down citizens at home and suspending all non-essential business are the necessary tools to fight the Coronavirus pandemic. But over two million ‘involuntarily socially distanced’ US citizens in prisons and jails across the country already know what that feels like. These are the types of limitations on our freedom we live with every day, some for years on end.

It’s understandable that most in society are unnerved by being unable to move around freely and are anxious about the health of their loved ones. Those of us incarcerated also worry about our families and friends getting sick. But those worries are constant and unending – they won’t go away when the virus outbreak subsides.

Of course, prison officials everywhere have taken steps to minimize contagion inside as well. Here in Virginia’s Department of Corrections, classes and programs are cancelled, and movements severely curtailed. Transfers have been postponed, both from local jails and between state prison facilities. We’ve been confined to dayrooms and are able to get outdoors for recreation once every few days. The chow hall is closed, and we now eat in our cells. At least we aren’t completely confined to our cells.

No inmates here have coronavirus symptoms yet, as far as we know – but prison officials aren’t very transparent about these things either. We all expect a stricter lockdown if active virus cases become prevalent. We are used to having our movements and actions curtailed, so these new restrictions can be frustrating, but they’re not an overwhelming difference from the norm, as is the case for those stuck in their homes right now.

Inmate workers are wiping down surfaces several times a day, but we don’t really have the chemical disinfectants needed to clean properly (bleach is forbidden). And it’s an uphill battle when 75 men are sharing phones, televisions, microwaves, showers, tables, and an email kiosk.

VADOC’s website informs the public we’re getting two free bars of soap per week to ensure cleanliness. But in reality, we’re getting one per week, they’re mini travel-size soaps, and they’re not anti-bacterial. It’s also simply hard to wash your hands properly when the sink in your cell operates by push-button and only has lukewarm water.
When we ask the guards in the booth for disinfectant or paper towels to clean our cells, we’re told that those supplies are reserved for pod workers to clean the common areas.
Protective masks were passed out recently, two per inmate. Wearing them is now mandatory, and inmates have been threatened with charges if caught without them. Guards and staff – who are the most likely transmitters of the virus in here – are all wearing masks and gloves, but nurses at the pill window are not.
We all know here that the inmate health care system can’t handle numerous Coronavirus infections – most days it can barely handle routine maladies. And social distancing is impossible when you live in a 60 square foot cell with another man.

More broadly, across the country, governors and mayors have directed law enforcement to thin out jail populations by using alternatives to incarceration and writing citations for low-level offenses instead of locking people up. That’s great but it raises an interesting question for many here: If states and localities can safely take those steps in the midst of a health emergency, why can’t they do so the rest of the time? The very fact that those alternatives are within the realm of public safety options means that under more normal circumstances, we simply choose to lock up more of our citizens than we really need to in order to protect the public.

I realize that some reading this might think: “Don’t break the law, if you don’t want to go to prison.” I understand that sentiment – but also know it fails to acknowledge that many of these inmates don’t belong here at all; there are better ways to deal with drug addicts, mental health problems, probation violators, and elderly people serving ridiculously long sentences because parole was abolished in the “tough-on-crime” 1990s.

Beyond virus-related changes, Virginia has taken a few small steps to keep petty non-violent offenders out of jail under a new Democrat-controlled Assembly this year, and those are a good start. But many of the more serious reform proposals were tabled in Committee until next year and met stiff resistance from Republicans who see little constituency for justice reforms. The families of inmates just don’t have the kind of political and economic clout that lobbyists for prison industries do, it seems.

In the end, inmates and the public alike have little say in how this current crisis is handled. We share the hope that those in charge choose the wisest course of action available and then we pray for the best outcome. We all adapt and do the best we can; we find we’re able to innovate and adjust our baseline. I’ve found that prison inmates are particularly creative and adept in that way – we have to be to survive. It’s a scary time, for everyone. But if the end result is a public that understands even a bit better what it’s like to be locked down and missing everyday freedoms, maybe it’ll lead to a little more generous thoughts about and treatment of those serving time behind prison walls.

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