To Understand COVID in Prisons, Listen to Incarcerated People

The last few years I have written many articles attempting to diagnose the deep malaise within the U.S. criminal legal system — in particular, the human costs of high walls, razor wire, locked doors, grossly restricted mobility, punishment-violence and execution — prison’s defining characteristics.

I have also attempted to expose and explain how over time, communities have been forced to give up their rights and power to help their members when harmed by conflict, crime or just crises in general. Policies and practices have taken root that transform communities into passive observers of the totalitarianism of the state and a clique of private companies.

I am witnessing this in real time with prison officials’ self-serving self-reporting response to COVID-19. Despite a few incomplete gestures toward fulfilling Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations of social distancing and wearing masks, prison officials remain committed to one objective above all others: absolute domination.

Prison officials are releasing daily COVID-19 updates to the press, but the public should not trust they are truthful or factually accurate. First, right now, no one who is completely independent of the state and its particular interests is allowed to enter prisons and witness for themselves why most incarcerated citizens are living in a constant state of fear of falling ill and dying from the virus. The state can say whatever it wants.

Second, why do state officials have the only say? What member of the mainstream media has interviewed incarcerated people diagnosed with COVID-19 for a firsthand account? What member of the mainstream media has pushed back on claims that a major contributor of COVID-19-related deaths is the result of incarcerated people failing to seek medical attention (thus blaming the victims)? What member of the media has toured the hallways and gyms where incarcerated people are suffering from COVID-19, without medical attention from an actual doctor? (Of course, this last possibility is not an option — but it simply underscores the necessity of trusting incarcerated people’s accounts of COVID-19 behind bars.) The distance between self-reporting and the facts is reflected in the culture.

The horrific global coronavirus pandemic is revealing flaws in our current state-sponsored capitalist system, hollowness in the private health insurance system, actual strength of the economy, the true scale of “preexisting conditions” and shortcomings in basic social protections. It is also making common cause across race, class, occupation, religious denomination, city and state lines. The virus is pulling the covers off the American socioeconomic system, and the most basic test of the legitimacy of government: the ability to protect its own population. The virus gives us moral authority to denounce decades of unrelenting privatization at the hands of the oligarch-serving Republican and Democratic political parties. Moral authority to denounce the absurdity of an employer-based health insurance system where tens of millions of people are without health insurance and many more with inadequate insurance. And moral authority to denounce the fact that, in this country, livable wages, food, housing, health care and education are not human rights.

Those of us behind bars are painfully qualified to speak about these realities and these injustices. Unfortunately, because of the enormous barrier of state-sponsored reporting on what is taking place in prisons right now, the covers are not being pulled far enough back to expose the life and death plight of incarcerated people, which speaks to the larger plight of vulnerable people in the United States. The populations of prisons and jails reflect the stark differences between rich and poor, the existence of absolute tyranny, the glaring racism of the system, the use of victims against other victims, endless reforms that change nothing and an utter lack of resources to speak out.

Incarcerated people are expected to passively comply with the demands of prison officials, expected to passively accept severely repressed and restricted acts of daily living, including the elimination of critical thinking and individual decision making. We are largely deprived of access to education, vocational training and transformative programming. And we are rendered largely invisible to the general public.

There are valiant attempts to break through this manufactured invisibleness. Courageous incarcerated people who, amid an environment whose brutality demands that people concentrate on their own safety, are concerned for the rights and safety of others. People have been making connections between the personal and the socioeconomic system — and many of us have been punished severely for daring to foster a dialogue among all stakeholders.

There are also equally courageous and valiant attempts by alternative media to supply information ignored by mainstream media. These include attempts to be “a voice for the voiceless.” But, in fact, we are not voiceless. We need our voices to be heard. More open lines of communication between us on the inside and the general public still do not exist, and they should. Prison officials having basically the only say about what is or is not taking place behind locked doors cannot help but give license to shamelessly distort the truth.

There is a strong belief among incarcerated citizens that we have a responsibility to help keep the public informed, in real time, and help figure out how to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But the system is fine-tuned to control people through the control of information. And what better way to do that than control what information does and does not get to the public?

The fact that prison officials are the only ones making reports about COVID-19 to the public allows the system to steer clear of mentioning the underlying causes of the long continuity of making incarcerated citizens’ lives a merciless struggle for survival. They steer clear of mentioning how privatizing its health services is a permanent step backwards for health care rights. And they steer clear of mentioning how it is nearly impossible for an institution not rationally planned for human needs to care for people under the extremes of a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has made clear the limits of both state-sponsored capitalism and private insurance — as well as the limits of institutions of state violence (such as prisons) to “care” for those it punishes and controls. Such fundamental problems cannot be solved without information sharing. The inside and outside must do this together in order to stop the worst outcome of the virus from becoming reality. That begins with a constant and consistent flow of information directly from all stakeholders.

Prison officials have proven they cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves. We must refuse to accept the role of noncritical thinkers, which they have cast upon us.

For those of you on the outside, I call on you to rethink your approach to gathering, analyzing and sharing information, as opposed to simply trusting official reports that come from oppressive institutions. We need to think about building an approach that is long-range and does not go back to “business as usual” after the virus recedes. And, when it comes to larger goals of pursuing justice and a healthy society for all, we must move forward with the understanding and good will of a broad coalition of people who believe this country should be democratic and participatory, inclusive and affirming of human agency and human capacities for working collaboratively to create change.