Thoughts of COVID-19 in prison

April 1, 2020

Black River Falls, Wisc.—We are definitely living in interesting times with this virus and the results regarding the reactions of people to the virus.

In prison here in Wisconsin, the guys are not as engaged as people in the community simply because of the nature of where we are. We are still in a relatively sterile environment which would change dramatically if someone comes in from the world and is a carrier.

When that happens then nearly everyone in here will get sick to some extent and, because of some of the previous lifestyles and health conditions of many of these guys, quite a few will probably die because of their poor immune systems and the negative impact of those lifestyles.

Back in the world the healthcare workers and all are having a hard time coping. Depending on the state and their prison system, healthcare inside is marginal during the best of times. Some prisons in Wisconsin are better than in most states, especially those in the South, when it comes to responsible healthcare. But that care is not consistent throughout Wisconsin’s 36 or so facilities.

We also have a population who’ve had poor social sanitary protocols as a general aspect of their lives; people who cough in their hands or use the toilet, don’t wash their hands, then touch…well, everything. No matter how often one counsels such individuals to cover their mouths when they cough or wash their hands when they use the toilet it’s like the old axiom about trying to lead a horse to water who’s not thirsty. There is not much that can be done about that since we live in overly crowded conditions and it’s nearly impossible to get people to change habits that they have practiced all of their lives—especially when they are in prison.

Wisconsin’s prisons are about 6,000 people over capacity, and our social distancing rules are three to six feet apart as opposed to six to ten feet back in the world. The spacing of the bunk beds in a cell is approximately three feet, so go figure.

In the old maximum prisons like Waupun and Green Bay, those cells were built in the late 19th century to house one person only and are much smaller than the cells that I am currently in by several cubic feet, yet they now house two people in much more crowded conditions than you would find in a medium or minimum facility.

Additionally, those in maximum prisons can’t go outside when they want, or leave the cell when they want, so that would exacerbate the problem. The main thing is the lack of proper ventilation mixed with the lack of space.

What is going to be interesting is how a culture that is focused on pure capitalist endeavors is going to recover from nearly a complete shutdown of some of the fundamental elements of its financial infrastructure. Then you have things like tornado season in full force followed by hurricane season and potentially other natural disasters. We are definitely in uncharted waters and it will be informative to see the results of a modern worldwide pandemic when it is imbued with the results of other natural calamities.

—Robert Taliaferro

2 thoughts on “Thoughts of COVID-19 in prison

  1. My 23-year old great nephew is in prison in Ohio. Most of his dysfunctional family had been ignoring him even before the pandemic. The prison store has been shut down and visitors banned, so we sent him money to buy peanut butter and oatmeal. The inmates did get a little free phone time.. He is lucky in that he can also use J-pay. I worry because his ability to exercise has been curtailed and his workouts were helping keep his spirits positive. On top of that, add everything Robert wrote about the state of unhealthy care in prison.

  2. Michigan Liberation, a prisoner advocacy organization, held a statewide town hall with elected legislators via Zoom to ask Governor Gretchen Whitmer to implement all possible avenues for removing as many inmates as possible beyond prison walls with “the fierce urgency of NOW.” Options include releasing frail and sick inmates, all parolees with pending dates, non-violent prisoners who have already served their sentence minimums, and all those with marijuana convictions since marijuana is now legal in Michigan. They also want commutations to be expedited and [juvenile] Lifer hearings to proceed as those are conducted by video.
    Michigan prisons.

    They are also demanding adequate personal protective equipment and sanitizing equipment for the inmates who clean the buildings; waive the $5.00 health care visit fee and allow unlimited phone time and email opportunities through the J-Pay prison email system. They also want the guards made to wear their masks and practice social distancing. As of this writing 107 Michigan Department of Corrections staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

    One returning citizen who had served 35 years pointed out that women in the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Center weren’t just dealing with COVID-19 but black mold in the facility.

    Other speakers cited the need for mobile phones on the units. A doctor whose sister is an inmate noted the high death rate from COVID-19 in prisons because so many inmates have pre-existing health conditions. Another cited that the tension and fear around overcrowded personal space is exacerbated by the virus and in some facilities fights have increased. One speaker described organizations that can help with re-entry and remarked that house arrest for some released prisoners was another option.

    Several meeting participants did not want violent offenders to be excluded from the request, pointing out that they are human and not necessarily the way they were decades ago. The leadership consensus, though expressing empathy, was that it is not realistic to ask to move violent offenders, despite the severity of the COVID-19 crisis.

    A couple of weeks ago Governor Whitmer released approximately 400 jail inmates to mitigate the crowded conditions there. Michigan Liberation plans to amass as much public support as they can to support their demands.

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