Prisons Are Using the Pandemic to Impose Lockdowns

(Common Dreams) - Advocates say the extreme restrictions on movement are punitive and dangerous.

Prisons Are Using the Pandemic to Impose Lockdowns

When New Jersey issued its stay at home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, residents holed up in their homes and businesses shuttered. But for the thousands of residents whose home is behind bars, it was a different kind of “lockdown.”

"People are calling home crying saying that they don’t want to die," he said.

“They have totally stopped all recreation. We do not go outside at all, no walking, no sitting on the bench to get air,” said a woman incarcerated at Edna Mahan Correctional Institution for Women, whose testimony was circulated by local advocacy groups in late April. “Isn’t this illegal? We are suffocating in here.”

"Suffocating" isn’t an exaggeration, according to accounts of the final moments of another woman incarcerated at Edna Mahan, Tiffany Mofield, who died in the shower after spending two weeks quarantined in the prison infirmary. The Intercept reported that Mofield complained of not being able to breathe, after being placed in solitary confinement despite being visibly sick.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) insists that its prisons are not actually under lockdown—which, in prison lingo, refers to locking people in cells as a security measure. Rather, NJDOC says it is taking “proactive measures to mitigate the spread of the virus” by restricting programming and promoting social distancing.

According to the Marshall Project, more than 300,000 people in prisons or jails are under "full or partial lockdown" in response to the pandemic. Typically this means that people are being confined to their cells most or all of the day, meals and recreational activities have been restricted, and visits are suspended. With more than 21,000 coronavirus cases and about 300 deaths in the federal and state incarcerated population so far, rights groups say these supposed public health measures are both ineffective and inhumane.

In Connecticut prisons, with more than 525 confirmed cases of COVID-19, correctional authorities are placing people with the virus in a separate “supermax” facility, Northern Correctional Institution, for medical isolation, supposedly in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Leighton Johnson, an organizer with Stop Solitary CT, who himself spent years in solitary confinement at Northern, said in an interview many incarcerated people have been telling family members that they feared not only getting infected, but also being transferred to Northern.

“People are calling home crying saying that they don’t want to die,” he said.

lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Connecticut on April 20 called the Connecticut Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 response plan “reactive, haphazard, and inconsistent.” The suit states that some transfers of COVID-19 patients to the facility had been delayed. and others who needed care had “not been screened, quarantined, or otherwise protected.”

One plaintiff, Ken Pierce, said in a legal declaration that he had already seen some dorm mates vanish after they came down with COVID-19 symptoms: “I feel like it is just a matter of time until we all get infected with the virus . . . Being in quarantine means that we usually don’t leave the dorm anymore . . . . By our count, there are ten people within four feet of each of us every time we go to sleep.”

Another plaintiff, Robert Miller, said that in late March and early April, he and other residents of the Carl Robinson Correctional Institution had protested against a lack of cleaning supplies and food that “was rancid, old, and often moldy,” by deliberately forgoing a meal.

Then, Miller said, correctional officers abruptly transferred him to Northern—apparently as a disciplinary measure—even though it is also serving as a temporary isolation ward for sick people from other prisons. He was placed in “a cell the size of a closet” and “given a Styrofoam cup of LEMON-ALL and paper towels to clean.”

Miller said he was suffering from severe asthma and “[feels] like I’ve had a cold for weeks,” but when he asked for a refill for his inhaler at his last medical appointment, “All [the staff member] did was check my vitals.”

“We are now sending sick incarcerated people to our supermax prison as essentially a warehouse for sick people to get better,” says Melvin Medina, Public Policy and Advocacy Director of the ACLU of Connecticut.

People who work in prisons are also at risk. More than 360 correctional staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19 across the state. Many of the frontline workers in the state’s prison system, including nursing staff, have complained about inadequate protective equipment at their facilities. Last month, a union that represents correctional staff, SEIU 1199NE, held a “rolling rally” with a car caravan, protesting what they say are unsafe, overcrowded working conditions.

Roughly 1,000 individuals were identified as potentially eligible for release, but as of early May, fewer than 100 people had actually been freed, the rest apparently still waiting to be approved by law enforcement authorities.

Advocates have warned that turning a COVID-19 diagnosis into a sentence to a maximum security prison will backfire. “A lot of cases are going to go undocumented,” Johnson said, “because they are using this torture chamber to send those who are supposed to be sick.”

In New Jersey, a prison spokesperson said that the state’s prisons are not under “lockdown” and referred to language on NJDOC's website, stating that “group activities, dining, recreation, religious gatherings, and education have been either suspended or modified to minimize potential exposure.” Correctional staff were providing “enhanced sanitization efforts using bleach,” and “quarantine and medical isolation accommodations” to people who are potentially sick.