While attention during the coronavirus pandemic has often been focused on celebrities, the well-to-do, and the so-called influencers, another population finds itself receiving very little notice: those behind bars.
In telephone calls from two inmates, one in D.C. jail and the other at a Maryland correctional facility, both describe what life is like while quarantined and locked up.
To protect their privacy, we are using only the first name of the inmates, who both are serving time on assault charges.
“No, we don’t have any hand sanitizer,” said Craig, astutely anticipating the question of whether prisons have broken a long-held rule of allowing such a product inside. Because hand sanitizer contains alcohol, it is prohibited inside most of the country’s correctional facilities.
“But,” Craig added as he broke out in comic-relief style laughter, “we have lots and lots of soap, and that’s kept everybody clean and comfortable.”
The 50-year-old noted that he’s in a pod with roughly 15 others, “and we are all symptom-free. None of us have the coronavirus.”
Seth, an inmate in Maryland, said while there is concern, he mostly worries about family members who aren’t incarcerated.
“They are the ones on the front lines,” Seth said. “Not much can go on here, but out there, my mom and sisters have to go to the grocery store, they have to go to work. They are fully exposed.”
Public health and correctional officials have repeatedly warned that unsanitary conditions where inmates are housed in close quarters could ultimately become a haven for the virus.
States and counties have begun releasing thousands of inmates who are considered lower-level offenders and those with just weeks remaining on their sentences.
President Trump has received numerous requests to use his authority to grant passionate release to older inmates and many nonviolent offenders.
Earlier this month, a U.S. deputy marshal at the D.C. Superior Court tested positive for the novel coronavirus, underscoring the growing concern the disease may have on the courts and, by extension, the prison system.
The marshal’s positive test means that prisoners, co-workers, and individuals associated with the court and jail may have been exposed.
“As a result [of the positive test], we immediately notified those court staff who may have had contact with the deputy marshal and had both courtrooms and the holding cells that adjoin them thoroughly cleaned and disinfected,” said U.S. Marshals Service spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz.
The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has claimed nearly 3,700 lives in the United States, and more than 180,000 people have tested positive, as of Tuesday, March 31.
Health experts said approximately 80 percent of patients experience a mild form of the illness, which can include a fever and pneumonia, and many of these cases require little to no medical intervention. However, the elderly, particularly those with underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart and lung issues, are the most vulnerable.
“The thing is, now that we can’t have visitors, it’s pretty safe,” Craig said. “There’s no contact with the outside world. We have the officers and nurses come in and out, but that’s it.”
Pre-coronavirus days usually included visits from relatives and loved ones, exercise on the yard, card playing, and other recreation. Now, inmates attempt to exercise social distancing while watching television.
“Our social distancing is a bit different from you on the outside,” Craig said. “You guys have a six-feet thing. We have about six inches. We watch the news together, and we know what’s going on. Everybody seems OK, though.”
Craig and Seth both noted that hand-washing is frequent, food is covered, and those serving meals are permitted to wear gloves.
“I don’t think the Department of Corrections wants us to be sick in here, so they are probably doing all that the law will allow,” Craig said. “The attitudes so far has been good. I know it’s not the time to have a meltdown.”
Phone calls are still allowed, which help Craig and his cellmates pass the time.
“Talking to family is important. If that goes away, then there could be problems,” he said. “Look, most of us are in here because we did something stupid. But we all are hoping for a second chance. A second chance shouldn’t mean that we have a deadly virus and they say, ‘well, you can go home and die.’”