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As Some States Reopen, People in Prison Continue to Face Harmful Lockdowns

States are beginning to reopen, but many incarcerated people remain confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

Part of the Series

By early June, most of Indiana had already entered Stage 3 for reopening. But at the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), the opposite was happening: Women began being locked into their cells for extended periods of time. IWP currently holds 642 women and has tested less than 10 percent for COVID-19. As of July 27, 25 of the 64 women tested at the Indiana Women’s Prison had coronavirus.

For those in the prison’s euphemistically named “cottages,” this meant being locked into cells that hold up to four women with no toilet, sink or call button for emergencies. These cottages, a vestige from the prison’s earlier days as a girls’ reformatory, are smaller buildings which house fewer people than the traditional prison cell block or dormitory. While smaller, these cottages still contain individual cells whose metal doors must be manually locked and unlocked by the officer on duty. Women have reported not being allowed out of their cells to use the bathroom for hours, despite banging on their doors.

“Since the lockdown started, women have been forced to resort to using cups, bowls and trash cans as toilets,” one woman wrote to advocate Kelsey Kauffman. (Kauffman asked that the women’s names not be publicized.) “I have a spastic colon which causes diarrhea. I have had to replace all of my panties due to not being able to get to the bathroom in time. It has been extremely humiliating.”

Locked into concrete cells, women must contend with the extreme heat as summer temperatures soar into the 90s and excessive heat warnings are issued. The cottages have no air conditioning; instead, the four women in each cell must share two outlets to plug in their fans, which cost $30 each at the prison’s commissary. “It’s unbearable in those rooms in the summer, even when the dorms are open,” Anastazia Schmid, who was incarcerated at IWP from 2009 to 2017, told Truthout. During those years, women were not locked into their cells and could readily access bathrooms and sinks. She recalled many summer days when she and her bunkmates would lay wet towels and blankets on themselves, trying to stay cool. But the sweltering heat inside the cottages always won.

Across the country, states are beginning to reopen following months-long closures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. However, many of these reopenings have led to spikes in new COVID-19 cases and in turn revived calls to close businesses and issue mandatory mask wearing in public. And though several states have kept many of their prisons on full or partial lockdown throughout the pandemic, these actions have done little to slow the spread of coronavirus once it enters a prison. Now, prisons across the country report more than 70,000 confirmed cases and nearly 700 COVID-related deaths. (This figure does not include COVID cases in local jails, immigrant detention, or youth jails and prisons.)

“I Am Afraid of Dying by Fire”

Kelsey Kauffman, an advocate who directed IWP’s higher education program, is concerned that these locked doors might lead to deaths — either from heat or if a fire occurs in one of the cottages, which were built between 1969 and 1971. In a letter to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, she asked him to intervene and allow the cell doors to stay open so that women could use the bathroom, have access to air circulation and, in case of fire or other emergency, get help or get to safety. The governor forwarded her letter to Rob Carter, the Indiana Department of Correction commissioner, who denied her request.

She’s not the only one concerned. State legislators have also called on the governor to intervene. Even those who work inside the prison have expressed concerns about locking women into cells for up to 18 hours each day. “There’s really no reason to think the doors are being locked due to positive COVID cases,” one employee told WFYI. “I feel like they’re trying to push us in the wrong direction.”

“I am afraid of dying by fire because of the ways the outlets blow in the summer,” wrote one woman. “No one cares about the heat in the cells nor the fire hazard posed by the cells being locked.”

In California, Reopening Leads to Hundreds of New COVID Cases Both in and Out of Prison

California began reopening in May. Reopening resulted in a skyrocketing of new coronavirus cases. By July 7, the state had a record high of 9,500 new cases in one day and a total of 284,691 cases overall. Throughout the state’s prison system, 47 people have died, including eight on death row.

In May, California prisons began resuming transfers, leading to an outbreak. In late May, 121 people were transferred from the California Institution for Men (CIM), then a hotbed with 941 COVID cases, to San Quentin. Among them were people who had contracted coronavirus after they had been tested. None were tested again before boarding the prison bus and, upon arriving at a prison which was at 117 percent capacity, had no way to keep a six-foot distance from others.

As of July 27, San Quentin exceeded CIM with 2,158 confirmed cases and 19 COVID-related deaths. Statewide, prisons had 7,687 confirmed cases among incarcerated people and another 1,544 among staff. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Joshua Connor, a primary care physician for incarcerated people, wrote that this number “represents 4.8% of the total prison population, a staggeringly high rate of infection. For perspective, this would be equivalent to about 1.8 million Californians testing positive for the coronavirus, compared with 284,000 confirmed cases.” He echoed the recommendations of David Sears, a prison health expert, who urged the Senate to reduce the San Quentin population by at least half to curb the spread.

The pandemic inside San Quentin led Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce three measures to further decrease the prison population, currently at 112,507, by 8,000 people by the end of August. One of those measures allows a one-time credit of three months off a prison sentence (barring those sentenced to death or life without parole or those who have recently violated prison rules).

The state’s women’s prisons haven’t escaped the spread of COVID either. As of July 27, the California Institution for Women reported 290 cases, 121 of which were newly confirmed within the past 14 days. Scarlett, age 72, escaped COVID, but not the consequences of its stigma. (Scarlett asked that she not be identified by her legal name for fear of retaliation.) Throughout March and most of April, Scarlett worked in the prison factory making masks. She worked 10 hours a day for 80 cents an hour, a sum that allowed her to buy hygiene items as well as food items, such as salt and sugar, which the prison does not supply. Then women in the factory began contracting COVID and the factory closed, initially for two weeks. In May, Scarlett was tested and, while awaiting her results, was confined to her quarters (“CTQ”). Prison staff placed a CTQ sign and “huge mug shots” of her and her cellmate on their cell door. “Our peers look at us like we are dirty,” she told Truthout. Six days later, she received her test results and prison staff removed the sign and photos. As of mid-July, however, the prison factory remains closed and Scarlett remains without income. Now, she says, “at least 3 out of 6 of our housing units are on quarantine and on lockdown. We are all fearful that soon it will be the whole institution.”

The state’s other large women’s prison, the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), has had six confirmed cases within the past 14 days. Until late July, the entire prison was on what’s called modified program, meaning that incarcerated people must stay within their housing units. They can now go out to the yard, but only with others from their housing unit. Meanwhile, prison programs remained on pause as did most work assignments. Those who relied on the pennies paid by prison jobs had to navigate going without essential hygiene and other items. After six people tested positive for COVID, eight buildings, including those where they are housed, were quarantined. The other housing units remained on modified program. “I feel like we are just now waiting like sitting ducks waiting for the invisible hunter,” said Theresa, who is on a unit still on modified program. (She asked that her legal name not be published for fear of reprisal.) “They are not testing really anyone, especially us inmates. Remember, we are not rehabilitated in their eyes and we are to do life and leave in a body bag,” she told Truthout. She has never been tested.

Staying in her housing unit does not allow her to keep the CDC-recommended social distance of six feet. Theresa is fortunate to have only five cellmates; other rooms are at full capacity with eight women on four bunk beds. She spends most of her time in her room. “If I go out I have mask on I try not to touch anything, I wash my hands when I come back into room; my room mates do the same. And I pray a lot,” she wrote.

“If any women get sick it has the potential to spread like wildfire,” wrote Rose, another woman at CCWF. Her prison job was paused in mid-March, which means that she must go without any of the necessities and treats she would otherwise buy at the prison commissary.

Not all jobs have stopped and those who continue working risk being exposed to COVID from outside supervisors. Theresa said that 33 incarcerated women who worked in the kitchen were quarantined after a supervising staff member tested positive.

Theresa’s life with parole sentence makes her ineligible for the COVID-related early releases. Still, she is hopeful about the recently announced three-month time cut, which would enable her to appear before the parole board in 2021. As for Rose, who has served 26 years on a life without parole sentence, none of these time cuts will make a difference. “I am glad that many women are going to get the chance to leave,” she told Truthout. “I just hope that they consider something for those that have been sentenced to life without parole. There are many of us that have not received any rules violations at all or it has been years since receiving one and yet we get nothing.”

What would ease the spread of COVID? Reduce the prison population, says Theresa in CCWF, which is at 118 percent capacity. She says that releasing 8,000 of the nearly 105,000 people imprisoned across the state will not be enough to ease overcrowding and stop the spread. “Right now you could almost empty out my housing unit,” she recommended. “Because it’s an honor dorm, you have to be RVR [rules violation report] free for two years before you can think of moving in. Then you have to stay RVR free and have to do programs/groups to stay. There are two more honor dorms here so start there that will help. I know other prisons throughout the state have honor dorms.”

Prisoners in cell behind bars

For Trans Women in Men’s Prisons, Lockdowns Increase Dangers of Sexual Violence

On June 1, the Federal Bureau of Prisons went on lockdown not to combat the coronavirus spread, but because of the nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Over one month later, it remains on lockdown.

Being on lockdown at the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Virginia, means that people are allowed outside for only one hour each week. For weeks, they stayed locked in their cells for 23 — and sometimes 24 hours — each day. Now, they are allowed out of their cells for up to six hours each day, but aside from walking to the dining hall to pick up their meal trays, must remain in the housing unit.

For Heather Brooke, a trans woman incarcerated at the men’s prison at Petersburg, lockdown typically comes with an increased threat of sexual assault from male cellmates. “When I was locked down at USP Marion, I was in a cell with two men who were very adamant that they wanted to have sex with me,” she wrote in an e-message to Truthout. “One fought me and won and raped me. the other fought me and lost!”

At Petersburg, she has had cellmates who have attempted to molest and sexually assault her. Now, she has a cellmate who not only has no interest in sexually assaulting her, but has often protected her from others on the unit who wish to do so. Nonetheless, Brooke notes that being locked together in a small cell still has its challenges.

“It is not just on my part. My cellmate gets uncomfortable as well. Like when we only got a shower every 7 days, we had to bird bathe in the cell,” she explained. “This is very hard for two people who have different sex characteristics! The prison staff do not think about what it is like for people to have to change with the opposite gender in the room with you. Or to have to poop in the cell with someone else in there with you. Things they would never make a cis gender woman do. They are not allowed to strip search me in front of men but they expect me to change locked in a cell with a man!”

During her six hours out of cell, Brooke must remain wary of sexual assaults from the men surrounding her. “You remember you cannot let your guard down on the computer when your sending this email and the dude at the next computer leans over and makes a sexual request. Your Prey and in a blind spot with no cameras! Help will not come,” she wrote at the end of one e-message.

That was what happened to Precious, a trans woman incarcerated at Minnesota’s Moose Lake Prison. (She asked that Truthout only publish her first name.) The prison was under lockdown, but Precious worked as a janitor and was allowed out for more than two hours each day. So was another man, who sexually assaulted her in the cleaning supply closet. Precious immediately reported her assault to the officer on duty. “Yes, they believed me,” she told Truthout. “There was no reason not to, the evidence was all in my underwear.” She was brought to an outside hospital where she underwent a rape kit exam, then returned to the prison the following morning. But, she added, she was not allowed to shower for over 12 hours.

Precious was moved to another unit and the man who assaulted her was transferred to another prison. Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers must provide victim advocates from rape crisis centers to people assaulted in custody, but COVID-19 has prevented her from receiving visits or regular calls from her assigned advocate.

“This should not happen to anyone,” she said. “This has been really hard to get over. It ruined me as a person in so many ways.” Precious wants to ensure that the prison doesn’t allow this to happen to anyone else. “I was literally raped 50 feet from the staff desk. I was raped in the swamped closet where the cleaning supplies are. I’m very upset about all this and want justice.”

Locked Down in Lockdown

At the segregation unit at Texas’s Lane Murray Unit, people are already locked in their cells for 23 to 24 hours each day. Three days after Texas prison officials tested everyone in that unit for COVID-19, the unit went on lockdown. That meant, in addition to spending 24 hours in their cells, the women received cold meals in brown bags — sandwiches with only a small dab of peanut butter and jelly in the middle of two slices of stale bread, foul-smelling hard-boiled eggs and cold hot dogs.

“What made this lockdown difficult was the system was not keeping us informed about any aspect of our new daily routine,” recounted Jack, a trans man in segregation. He was fortunate — he had a radio and could tune in to NPR to learn more about the coronavirus and how it spread. Still, as spring temperatures rapidly soared into summer’s triple digits, he has little to no relief.

Results took over two weeks to return. When they did, 144 people had tested positive. Across the state’s prisons, 10,556 people tested positive as of July 8 and at least 91 had died.

“I Would Be Dead Because I Have no Way of Alerting the Officer”

New York’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility has two types of housing units — dormitories and cell blocks. In April, prison staff began locking the women in their cells for up to 18 hours each day. During the other six hours, the doors open for the first 10 minutes, allowing them to either leave or remain in their cell. Then the doors are closed and, if they choose not to leave their cells, they must wait until the next 50 minutes for their door to open. There are no individual doors to lock in the prison’s dormitories, so this de facto isolation only applies to the women in cells.

Anna Adams is one of the women who spends 18 hours behind a locked cell door. She has asked the prison administration to permit women to leave their cell doors open — for both air circulation and in case of emergency. Her requests were denied. She and other women filed grievances; those too were denied.

Adams points out that the women housed in the dormitories are not subject to the same onerous lockdown policies. Like the women imprisoned in Indiana, she too fears not being able to seek help if an emergency arises. “We have to yell down the corridor to be heard,” she told Truthout. But in the summer months, the noise of the fans by the officers’ station drowns out their voices. “I would be dead if I have an asthma attack [or] heart attack because I have no way of alerting the officer.”

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