COVID-19 CASES in U.S. prisons spiked in the spring, abated in June, but rose again to an all-time high in August, according to the Marshall Project’s data collection. Prison agency numbers showed that by mid-November, 182,776 inmates contracted the coronavirus and 1,412 inmates have died from it, while 41,949 prison staffers contracted it and 93 died.
Coronavirus testing in prisons isn’t uniform. Some prison systems test the entire inmate population regularly, while others test only those with symptoms. Some prisons, including New York’s, provided early release for some inmates to try to reduce crowding that could spread the virus. The early release strategy has been controversial, and the New York Police Department has complained about recidivism among the recently released. But in terms of viral spread, if New York’s numbers are right, only 800 inmates out of a population of 43,000 in the state contracted the virus, a much lower level of infection than in the general population.
In New Jersey, South Woods State Prison canceled visits, Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, classes, and worship services in March, according to inmate Jim Hyson. “Not having any worship services has been the hardest,” he said.
Hyson faced other hurdles: For 40 days he was quarantined to his cell for 23½ hours a day. The other half hour was for showers, phone calls, or JPay (an online service for inmates for things like visitation or sending and receiving money). He didn’t have exercise or fresh air for 40 days, and he struggled with “mental battles,” he said.
“Dealing with confinement within an already confined setting plays havoc on the mind. … I did get lots of Bible reading/studying in, but after a while everything began to become blurred,” he said. “While everything was said to be for our protection and well-being, it didn’t feel that way.”
According to state prison data, more than 700 inmates at South Woods had confirmed cases of COVID-19, about a fifth of the total inmate population. Seven died. Sixty staff members also contracted the virus.
Hyson said inmates didn’t receive masks until April. He was tested for the virus in May, then moved to a quarantine room, so he assumed he tested positive although no one told him. He had no symptoms, but he shared a bunk with someone who had tested positive and had a cough and fever.
He and his cellmate recovered, although Hyson said neither received treatment other than twice-a-day temperature checks. In mid-October, New Jersey prisons began allowing visitors again, and the prison chaplain told Hyson they would begin limited worship services soon. But if one person in a unit tests positive, the entire unit must isolate for 28 days.
More than 700 inmates at South Woods had confirmed cases of COVID-19, about a fifth of the total inmate population.
At Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Mass., visits and programs also ended in March and chaplains, considered “nonessential” personnel, had to stay home. Inmates could only leave their cells in groups of four for a half hour a day for a shower, to make a phone call, or to send an email.
By May the inmates could go outside to the yard for an hour a day in groups of eight, and in July medical services resumed. By September, they could have five hours outside their cells and chaplains had returned, although worship services hadn’t begun.
Robidoux, an inmate there, said their facility had no COVID-19 cases that he knew of, but he found parts of quarantine “unfeeling.” Inmates said they had to go to “the Hole”—a segregation unit typically for disciplinary purposes—for two weeks if they exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19, or if they had returned to the facility from a medical appointment or court hearing. Protocol for “the Hole,” according to Robidoux, is that the inmate receives only two changes of underwear and scrubs, and maybe a book from the book cart.
“Some men canceled their vital scheduled surgeries out of fear for the impending horrible treatment they would receive in The Hole,” Robidoux claimed. Two inmates in Robidoux’s unit had to quarantine in the Hole: “Both felt like it had drained a year off their lives,” he said. But Robidoux added: “This is where the miracle of Jesus Christ in the inmate’s heart becomes such a shining light.”
The Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) said in response that quarantine areas in prisons are “necessary to ensure that healthy inmates don’t get sick. They are not solitary confinement units or akin to solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is not and has not been used by the Department for decades.” The DOC said throughout the pandemic inmates still had access to medical treatment, mental health support, and attorney visits, and the department provided two free 20-minute phone calls to every inmate every week.