Voices from the inside out: COVID-19 in prison

May 3, 2020

From the May-June 2020 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

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

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. Because of some of the previous lifestyles and health conditions of many of these guys, quite a few will probably die because of poor immune systems and the negative impact of those lifestyles.

Back in the world the healthcare workers 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, don’t wash their hands, then touch…well, everything. 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.

Also, 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.

How will a culture that is focused on pure capitalist endeavors 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. Part of what is challenging about the times we live in is dealing with a modern worldwide pandemic when it is imbued with the results of other natural calamities.


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