James King was incarcerated in California’s San Quentin State Prison for roughly six years. He spent much of that time analyzing the politics of incarceration by chronicling his experiences living in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. When he was released from prison in December 2019, he joined the staff of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, where he has campaigned for decarceration.
While incarcerated, King endured life in a cramped and racially segregated prison — a situation he described as living in a “petri dish.” Yet nothing he experienced prepared him for the disgust and outrage he would later feel about prison conditions during the current pandemic.
“What’s happening at San Quentin is the largest human rights tragedy in this state during the COVID era,” King recently told a local television station.
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Like Cook County Jail in Chicago, San Quentin became a prime example of how COVID-19 can devastate the lives of incarcerated people. In late May, 66 incarcerated people from the California Institution for Men — a known coronavirus hotspot — were transferred to San Quentin, sparking a COVID-19 outbreak that would infect more than 2,000 people. Medical care was inadequate, and people who were asymptomatic were forced to double up in single tiny cells. The new conditions prompted a hunger strike, reflecting circumstances that King calls a “human rights tragedy.” Thus far, prison officials have acknowledged 27 deaths, though King suspects the actual number is higher.
“The only numbers we get are from the prisons themselves,” King tells Truthout. “They put out the numbers and choose what to count and what not to count. We do know of at least one incident of a person who was released from San Quentin and died shortly after, but that person never gets counted.”
Interviews with attorneys, volunteers and legal experts tracking COVID-19 data in prisons across the United States reveal that the pandemic is affecting incarcerated people even more than initially understood. In fact, several people interviewed for this story say the public may never know the full extent of death and suffering of incarcerated people during the pandemic.
As of this writing, 147,100 incarcerated people have been afflicted by coronavirus, and 1,246 of those people have died. However, prison systems did not begin mass testing until late April, and 16 systems have declined to share data about their testing quantities.
“Prisons are a black box,” says Jessica Brand, a former public defender and death penalty lawyer. “It’s sometimes impossible to know what’s going on inside, but we do know dignity is out the window.”
Aaron Littman has spent the last seven months trying to pry data from one “black box” after another. As the deputy director of the University of California Los Angeles’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Prison Data Project, Littman leads a team of lawyers and volunteers who spend “a combined 24 hours each day, every day” accumulating all of the data they can find.
“We are the source of data for the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] for what’s happening in prisons and jails,” Littman told Truthout. It’s a fact that clearly frustrates him. “There should be a mechanism for it to be reported and collected that doesn’t require a team of volunteers.”
To put together their COVID-19 data, Littman’s team constantly monitors jails’ coronavirus dashboards and sends public information requests to state Departments of Corrections. Some institutions have been forthcoming; others have stonewalled Littman’s crew.
“Some jurisdictions provide the info in an Excel spreadsheet for free in a timely manner, which is what government should do,” Littman says. “Some have claimed it would take hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to compile. And some have claimed they can’t compile it at all.”
The result is an incomplete data set that Littman says should ideally include everyone who is infected behind bars.
“We ought to know who they are and we ought to know where people are, and we don’t have it,” he says.
Littman adds that he and his team are having a particularly difficult time tracking COVID’s spread through jails. Unlike prisons, people are often moving in or moving out of county facilities. Furthermore, the quantity and protocols of testing vary wildly in different jail jurisdictions. As recently seen in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, the transitory nature of county jails can easily lead to COVID-19 spreading in the local community. Yet sheriffs and local officials are often opaque about the true number of cases within their facilities.
“In L.A. County, the jail system held about 17,000 people before the pandemic, which is bigger than most states’ prison systems,” Littman says. “We simply have no idea what’s happening in most of them. In some cases, we have to rely on Facebook posts by sheriffs to try to figure out what’s happening.”
Like King, Littman believes the true number of coronavirus infections and deaths behind bars is yet to be determined.
“We are aware of cases where people have died of COVID, but haven’t been reported as COVID deaths,” Littman says. “As a general matter, prison and jail administrators would prefer to minimize the extent of deaths in their facilities. Two things are true: There is some legitimate complexity as to how you decide to report something as a COVID death, and it’s also the case that prison and jail administrators are opting to either minimize or be willfully blind to the scope and seriousness of the virus.”
COVID-19 compounds many other life-threatening problems that plague those behind bars. Incarceration has been shown to significantly shorten life expectancy, and has profoundly damaging impacts on both physical and mental health. In recent years, incarcerated people have committed suicide in alarming and often record numbers. California, Colorado and North Carolina have all seen steady rises in suicide behind bars.
“It’s hard for me to express how bleak jails and prisons are,” Brand says, adding that mental health care is practically nonexistent. “In Texas, ‘suicide’ watch means you just get put in your own cell. Sometimes the walls have padding, and sometimes they don’t.”
When COVID-19 entered Georgia’s prison system, several facilities descended into chaos. At both Ware State Prison and Macon State Prison, when a number of corrections officers fell ill, the prisons responded to the reduction in staff with various lockdowns. Some people were locked in their cells “for weeks at a time” without consistent food, water or showers. According to the Southern Center for Human Rights, during the time of the pandemic, suicides have reached “unprecedented levels,” with at least 19 incarcerated people dying by suicide in Georgia prisons since February.
The Southern Center for Human Rights is calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the conditions at these prisons, but attorneys want immediate action.
“This is a brutal system,” says Alison Grinter, an attorney in Texas. “And it defaults to incarceration every step of the way.”
Some jails and prisons did indeed reduce their populations when the coronavirus arrived, but many are still so overcrowded as to pose an acute danger in the context of the pandemic. Weeks after San Quentin State Prison administrations declined free coronavirus tests, public health experts visited the prison and recommended that officials reduce the population by half. That didn’t happen. In fact, King claims the prison is still dangerously overcrowded.
“Officially, San Quentin is at 95 percent capacity right now,” he says. “What that does not address is the fact that San Quentin is divided into sections. The main section, what we call ‘general population,’ is close to 200 percent capacity. Then you have other sections of the prison that are below 100 percent capacity, so they average it out to say 95 percent.”
That means roughly 3,800 people are still incarcerated and unable to socially distance in a prison with poor ventilation. King, Littman and all other attorneys interviewed for this story agree that U.S. prisons were never designed to protect the health or well-being of the people held captive inside them. The inherent violence of prisons only worsens the spread of illnesses like the coronavirus, which is still ravaging San Quentin. Nevertheless, King has watched with dismay as the prison has largely disappeared from the headlines, replaced by stories scaremongering about the potential for people released from the prison to commit violence.
“With San Quentin, the story shifted from the outrageous crisis to a potential fear of people reentering society without being supported,” King says. “Those hypotheticals about crime increasing just haven’t occurred.”
Meanwhile, King continues to call for the only thing he believes will stop the coronavirus from inflicting further damage on incarcerated people.
“My goal is to bring people home safe and prevent further loss of life,” he says. “Right now, the only way to do that is to release people. That’s the only way.”