“In the 51 one years of my life, I have never seen the likes of a pandemic of this magnitude. Covid-19, or C-19 as we call it, has the entire world under siege. Positive test results and the death toll is racking up numbers like a slot machine. Yet people, in our country, are still acting as if it’s nothing.” These are the solemn words of Leroy Washington, an inmate serving a life sentence in Michigan.
Like the rest of us, he is scared; scared that he will die, scared that his daughter will become sick, scared that he will never see his family again. Unlike the rest of us, Washington can’t hide or learn to enjoy meals inside his home. He can do very little to protect himself from infection, which by itself is a comment on the many issues with U.S. incarceration and inmate treatment. He and millions of other inmates are at a great risk. Until we explore why and devote resources to fix these issues, our entire community remains at risk as well. Below are text messages from Leroy as shared with Shawanna Vaughn, the founder of Silent Cry, a non-profit advocacy group fighting for prison reform.
According to what we know, Covid-19 poses the largest threat to older people and people with pre-existing conditions. Of the over 2 million people that are currently incarcerated in this country, the largest imprisoned population of any country, nearly 20% are over the age of 51, with nearly 3% being over the age of 65. Over a third of these people enter the prison system with a chronic medical condition. This means that these people as a group were already especially vulnerable to Covid-19 without adding the shortcomings of prison facilities to the conversation.
When we do talk about medical treatment in prisons things become grim. Overcrowding, lack or denial of soap and other cleaning materials, and mandatory sharing of facilities make prisons hotbeds for spreading viruses. Inmates sleep very close to each other and are usually sharing showers and toilets. Hand soap is not always available and hand sanitizer is banned due to its high alcohol content. Staff and inmates often have to share latex gloves, spreading bacteria and viruses. Prisons also have constant new arrivals and several staff that can serve as potential vectors. There is almost a promise of infection and an assurance of viral spread when you add these factors. Rikers penitentiary, for example, currently has a terrifyingly high infection rate of 4%. For context, New York City’s infection rate has been about 0.5%.
The most serious threat to surviving Covid-19 is an overwhelmed medical system. Hospitals all over the country are scrambling to get their hands on ventilators, personal protection equipment (PPE), and even staff. Doctors, nurses, and even janitors have been working nonstop to meet the demands of the virus, risking infection in order to deliver treatment. In prisons the situation is even worse. Not only is the chance of getting Covid-19 much higher, but prison medical systems already lacked resources previous to this threat. With a higher infection rate than the rest of the population and less staff to handle it, prisons are in for a very hard, long journey with the virus.
To begin with, it is very hard to fill medical positions that service the incarcerated population. Contract payments to private medical practices are way down. Staffing had dropped 17% from 2013 to 2018. The starting salary for medical staff for incarceration facilities is about $10,000 less than the private sector, making these jobs less attractive to potential candidates. This leaves medical personnel understaffed and overwhelmed. Some prisons report to a single doctor on staff to service 500 patients. And while prisons can receive private funding, the for-profit companies that bankroll these facilities are concerned with cost, not care. It’s cheaper to ignore the prisoners than to pay for quality care to be available.
Unfortunately, ignoring ailing prisoners seems to be the name of the game. When asked for their input on the NYS report, insiders revealed that much of the time people’s requests for care get ignored. Prison staff often believe the prisoner is lying in order to get better housing, or gain access to drugs. Prisoners go years without a physical or a mental health examination. At least four of the deaths in the report could have been prevented if the person had been provided with an inhaler or medication. It’s also necessary to consider dismissive and even aggressive attitudes towards the incarcerated population can’t be discounted here. As one guard at Washington’s facility flippantly commented, “ If I catch the virus I’m definitely bringing it in here to kill off all you bastards. If I’m going to die none of you deserve to live.”
With all the issues with the prison medical system the inmates face, ugly attitudes like the one expressed by his guard might be the most deadly. According to Leroy, “As I looked down at my chains, a harsh reality set in. As a prisoner, I know if I get sick, I ain’t got nothing coming. They don’t even have enough ventilators or respirators for the people in society. I’d be a fool to think they would give one to me.” Leroy’s stark reflections are indicative of class divisions, certain sections of society such as the incarcerated are simply not a priority for governments.
The American government has been slow to respond to this pandemic. Yet, even while we are encouraged to socially distance and attempts are being made to amp up testing, medical care and medical supplies, it is essential to remember that this pandemic, like many other issues, disproportionately affects underprivileged sections of society, especially in terms of race and poverty. The fact that the incarcerated are being treated as though they are not a priority indicates that this pandemic will only enhance the fundamental divisions apparent in society. For the incarcerated, Covid-19 is not an equalizer but a tragedy that disproportionately affects the underprivileged sections of society.
While many of us isolate ourselves in our homes and utilize technology in order to stay in touch with loved ones, many prisoners don’t have this privilege. According to Leroy,
“So I spoke with the Deputy Warden, asked him to contact the Director (she’s a pretty reasonable woman), to see if we can receive Video Visits. Our Jpay system is equipped to handle such and other states already provide this service to their prisoners. His response was, “It’s not possible because it’s too complicated.”…I said, “Sir, you see your family everyday and the ones you can’t see you FaceTime or talk to them over the phone. You got me contending with 720 other inmates for 24 phones. 3x a day I gotta race to the phones in the rain, sleek, or snow and I still might not get a chance to make a call.” His response, “Well, me and my family didn’t commit any crimes.” I said, “Neither did any of our family members.” Needless to say, he didn’t have a rebuttal.
So I continued, “Sir, with all due respect, some of our parents, spouses, children, other family members, friends, some us and some of y’all are going to die as a result of this pandemic. I just want to see my loved one’s faces and tell them I love them one more time. Is that an unreasonable request?”
This moment, more than other moments, calls for our compassion, not just for privileged sections of society but for the incarcerated, who are subject to high rates of infection due to a limited ability to socially distance themselves. Fear and panic regarding the pandemic are especially rampant within the prison system.
“So why does my life mean less than yours? Am I not a human being? Do I not deserve the right to life, liberty and freedom? Do my mistakes make my life less valuable? Who am I? Who are you?”
Leroy Washington would like to extend a special thanks to Ms. Shawanna Vaughn, a Criminal Justice Reform Advocate who fights hard for the incarcerated through Silent Cry Inc.