On July 5, Rita Deanda tested positive for COVID while incarcerated at the California Institution for Women. She was immediately ordered to pack her belongings and moved to a quarantine unit, which she referred to as “COVID jail.” That was where she spent the next 11 days.
The 57-year-old doesn’t know how she got COVID; she was taking precautions, such as wearing her mask and doing her best to socially distance from others. On the day she was tested, Deanda recalled that she felt great.
But the week before, she told Truthout, “I had a migraine from hell and thought my head was going to explode.” She also had a sore throat, which she attributed to lying in front of the fan all night. She lost her appetite. She suffered from chills and what she thought were menopausal hot flashes, but now, looking back, she suspects she had a COVID-related fever.
California remains one of the few state prison systems that continues to regularly test its incarcerated population. Otherwise, Deanda might never have known that she had COVID.
Deanda was approximately one of 96 new cases that the California Institution for Women reported in early July. One week later, the prison had 169 active cases among incarcerated people; across the state, California prisons had found over 1,000 new cases.
Across the United States, COVID rates have been ballooning as people, weary of the ongoing pandemic, have been shedding masks and other precautions. Behind bars, incarcerated people have also been experiencing pandemic fatigue or, as a woman incarcerated in Pennsylvania calls it, “pandemic hangover.” (As of July 28, Pennsylvania state prisons had 39 active cases. Throughout the course of the pandemic, they reported 16,000 cases and 166 deaths.)
“There was a moment when the closed box of carceral data was partially open,” Bennett Stein, project director of the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, told Truthout. “That small opening should be the floor, not the ceiling of data transparency.”
However, as cases rise, transparency is declining: Prison systems have been rapidly reducing their testing and reporting.
Stein noted that 17 states as well as Washington, D.C., have stopped reporting active COVID cases behind bars. Ten of these systems no longer report any data at all on COVID behind bars. Other prison systems continue to report active cases, but do not report testing numbers, making it impossible to ascertain if the low numbers reflect low transmission rates or the administration of fewer tests. Various state departments of correction did not respond to Truthout’s queries about COVID and testing.
The current lack of reporting not only affects those behind bars, but also people in outside communities. The Prison Policy Initiative estimated that, in the summer of 2020 alone, prisons and jails contributed to more than half a million cases, or roughly 13 percent of COVID cases nationwide.
“We know that people are still getting quite sick. We know that people are still dying from COVID in the community and in prisons,” said Stein. “When there are outbreaks or high risks of outbreaks, it’s still important that the government, prison officials, judges, district attorneys, and policy makers are considering interventions to keep people safe and save lives.”
“Going Back to the Black Box of Just Not Knowing”
Oklahoma has a statewide daily average of 1,482 new COVID cases. But as of August 2, its state prison system reported only eight new cases — all in the same men’s prison.
That’s a lie, charged Mary Fish, who is currently incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, the state’s largest women’s prison. She told Truthout that, in late June, two housing units were quarantined for two weeks after an incarcerated woman tested positive during sick call. “Bam — locked [in] for about 14 days!” she said. “That was 120 women.” Shortly after, according to Fish, 10 women in a third housing unit tested positive, resulting in that unit being quarantined. But these weren’t reflected on the department’s website. “That [Department of Corrections] website needs serious updating,” she concluded.
“The pandemic created this opening where the public expected to know what was happening behind bars in terms of how many active cases there were, whether people were dying,” said Stein. “We saw that [prisons and jails had] the capacity to collect and publish this data.”
That information allowed policy makers to intervene — demanding more oversight and creating protocols for masking, testing and release.
Two and a half years later, however, Bennett says that he and other researchers are seeing “a rapid regression to the closed off posturing of prison systems. Instead of building off this new capacity to share with the public what’s happening and allow this information to drive policy, instead, we’re going back to this black box of just not knowing.”
Then there’s the question of how much the official numbers — if there are numbers at all — reflect reality. The Bureau of Prisons, which operates federal prisons, says that it tests people who are symptomatic, those who were in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID, and upon entry and release from custody. This testing policy applies to all of its prisons although medical staff may test entire housing units in prisons with high transmission rates.
But in at least one federal prison, people avoid testing to prevent being put in solitary confinement. While the Bureau of Prisons site lists fewer than one dozen active COVID cases in that particular prison, “Alice” told Truthout, “We do have a new wave of BA.5 COVID racing through, though, and everyone is ill. I’ve had it for the last four days and it’s a bad one — I was basically unable to get out of bed.” (Alice asked that neither she nor the prison be publicly identified for fear of retaliation.)
But, Alice said, “because they send you to the SHU [Special Housing Unit] if you test positive, no one is going to health services.” The SHU is the prison’s solitary confinement unit where people are locked in their cells nearly 24 hours each day. Unlike quarantine — where a person can still telephone their loved ones, listen to the radio, watch television or read a book — the SHU is an extreme form of isolation, typically used for punishment for breaking prison rules. People are not allowed their belongings and are largely cut off from human contact.
“Basically [you] sit around in your room for 10-14 days of quarantine in solitary confinement without anything to do or any of your things, feeling poorly without [over-the-counter medication] or even half-way edible food, and are completely immobilized,” Alice explained. “It’s the same treatment you would receive if you are punished for an infraction. It’s quite miserable and nonsensical.”
In another unit in the prison where Alice is incarcerated, a woman became sick and did not report to her prison job. Her absence triggered testing in that housing unit. Those who tested positive were sent to the SHU, according to Alice; others remained quarantined on the unit.
While outside of prison, people at risk of severe COVID can access Paxlovid and other antiviral medications, most incarcerated people cannot. The Bureau of Prisons told Truthout that Paxlovid and other therapeutics approved for COVID-19 are provided to those who meet FDA criteria. But inside prison, Alice does not know anyone who has gotten these treatments. Instead, Alice said, “We all treat ourselves with tea and honey, Vicks, Tylenol and ibuprofen.”
Even though many of the women around Alice are feverish and coughing, they prefer to pretend that nothing is amiss rather than risk being locked indefinitely in their cells under brutal conditions.
At the start of the pandemic, jails and prisons began requiring that all people — both staff and incarcerated people — wear masks. While the new policy was not always followed or enforced, many prisons and jails are now dropping even this basic precaution.
In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that counties could lift mask requirements if new cases and COVID hospitalizations are low. Three days after the announcement, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf lifted masking requirements for state employees; the state’s Department of Corrections followed suit. When it resumed in-person visits, it recommended, but did not require, masking.
When vaccinations became available, the Pennsylvania prison system offered incentives — $25 for an initial vaccination and another $25 for a booster. The money, which came from commissary (or the prison’s sole store) purchases, was deposited into the incarcerated person’s commissary account. Now, nearly 86 percent of the state’s prison population is fully vaccinated, with another 1.7 percent partially vaccinated.
Pennsylvania prisons also created separate housing units for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. At the start of April 2022, however, prison officials eliminated the distinction. It also allowed unvaccinated incarcerated people to return to work assignments, programs, education and religious services, all of which had previously required vaccination.
Still, social distancing remains nearly impossible behind bars. “I’d love to stay six feet apart from most people but alas, most people don’t recognize personal space,” said Annie, who is incarcerated at SCI Muncy, the larger of the state’s two women’s prisons. (Annie asked that her full name not be used to protect her family’s privacy.)
“No one, but no one, wants to wear a mask,” said Fish in Oklahoma. “Even the officers were lax going into Pod 5 [under quarantine] with masks and PPE gear.”
Geneva Phillips, incarcerated at Oklahoma’s other women’s prison, told Truthout that even while sleeping, women cannot socially distance. “The beds are just barely over three feet apart. I can almost touch my neighbor’s bed with my arm outstretched,” she wrote. Furthermore, she explained, the bunks are separated by a piece of particle board that does not reach the ceiling, “so any cough, sneeze [or] cloud just wafts right on over!”
Alice told Truthout that the federal prison she is in has “plenty of mingling that keeps the virus circulating. After all, we all eat together in the same dining hall.” Meanwhile, she says, “people cough and sneeze and do not wear masks at all, or only the flimsy cotton masks we are given that do nothing to prevent the spread.”
Women sleep in bunk beds less than six feet apart in dormitories which share air vents.
“It’s no wonder everyone got it — we breathe the same air in close proximity, 24/7,” Alice said.
Not everyone has shed their mask. In Oklahoma, which averages more than 1,400 new cases each day, Fish still wears hers, although she says that few others do.
Others have told Truthout that they find it hard to continue masking in poorly ventilated prisons as temperatures soar. Some also have noted that even when they attempt to mask and practice physical distancing, prison makes these preventive practices nearly impossible and many have still contracted COVID.
This includes Ardelle, now in her late 80s and incarcerated at Shakopee, Minnesota’s sole women’s prison. Although she is fully vaccinated and doubly boosted, and never leaves her cell without her mask, Ardelle has twice tested positive for COVID — most recently in May 2021. Like Deanda, she was asymptomatic and, had she not been tested, would not have known she had COVID. “We never seem to get through [testing] without a few positives,” she said.
Both times Ardelle was quarantined for 10 days. In June, another woman in her housing unit tested positive and the entire unit was placed on a seven-day quarantine, during which they were confined to their cells for 23 hours each day.
Now, Ardelle told Truthout, “[I’m] afraid to toss my mask yet, though we are on green level now.” Green means that people do not need to wear masks. (Ardelle asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family’s privacy.)
In California, after the recent outbreak, Deanda reports that masking requirements have changed. Previously, she said, women were allowed to remove their masks while they were outside. Now, both staff and incarcerated people are required to wear masks at all times, but not everyone does.
Deanda had been wearing surgical masks whenever she left her cell. But, she says, after her bout of COVID and quarantine, “From now on, I’m going to wear the KN95 or N95.”
While the California Institution for Women now issues KN95 and N95 masks, other systems continue to issue thin cloth masks or standard surgical masks, both of which are less effective against the new variants.
Warehoused and Wasted Years
Even as prisons fail to adequately test, report data and provide treatment, they continue to limit activities that are a lifeline for those behind bars.
“The restricted COVID schedule persists … severely limit[ing] time outside, educational and other programming (such as trauma classes, counseling, drug education, etc.), and basically keeps everyone contained in their unit and very bored. For so many people, that’s been the way here for the last 2.5 years,” Alice said. “These are essentially wasted years.”
She also noted that the lack of programming has prevented people from accruing credits under the First Step Act that would reduce their sentences: “Because the time in classes is so restricted and limited and often canceled, it basically is impossible to complete any programming in any kind of reasonable time frame.”
In addition, staffing shortages have hit the Bureau of Prisons (as well as other prison systems). These shortages have led to frequent lockdowns in the federal prison where Alice is confined. “The result is basically warehousing women and then releasing them without any kind of adequate preparation to face life on the outside,” she said. “It’s … a colossal waste — of resources, money, talent, brains, humanity, dignity — all of it.”
The same holds true for those in many state prisons. “They took a lot away for COVID,” said Annie in Pennsylvania.
Now, the prison has started to return to what passes for normalcy — allowing hugs and food from vending machines during visits and resuming programs.
“It would take a huge mental toll to lose what we have gotten back. I’d rather get sick again than be locked down,” continued Annie, who contracted COVID twice — both times when the prison was locked down. “My whole anxiety with COVID is more about what they’ll do to respond to it than about the virus or infection. I have no confidence that anything I do will protect myself. There are too many points of contact and too few effective PPE options.”