Americans, like the rest of the planet, have endured the COVID19 pandemic since early 2020. Tragically, there have been thousands of deaths. Even for those who have not experienced loss, life has been very difficult for most, especially economically.
For the first time, millions of free people are finally getting a tiny taste of the suffering of isolation – psychological, physical, medical, social – that prisoners live with every day, many for years and years, some for entire lifetimes.
To aggravate a terrible situation, from the start, most of the nation’s penal systems have been under some form of quarantine protocols, usually meaning modified or total lockdowns. A year and counting, that is.
On March 13th, 2020 the Washington prison system placed their facilities on a quarantine lockdown, in a misguided attempt to prevent a viral outbreak in response to the then-growing COVID19 pandemic that was sweeping the country and world. It was a reasonable and seemingly logical reaction, one that several penal systems across America had enacted, to differing degrees of success. In WA, most of the lockdown took the form of what is called “unit restriction” and “cell confinement.” Technically not always total lockdown, but when there is nowhere to go – no school or church or other activities – the end result is the same. However, every prisoner also spent at least two weeks in IMU – the segregation unit.
A year later, nothing has changed. There were no sweeping improvements, no crucial policy revisions, evidently no real meaningful plan of action. Just the usual knee-jerk response of “lock them up and throw away the key.” It was clear officials took the path of least resistance. The barest minimal effort and attention was applied to the situation, and even that was more as appeasement to government and public pressure than any true concern for prisoner well-being.
After several confirmed cases of guards and other staff members testing positive for corona, far ahead of the inmate cases, it became quickly apparent to us that under the given circumstances, the only way for the prisoners to contract corona was through contact with employees that brought it into the facility. Inmate visitation had been abolished March 13, as well as volunteer programs such as education and religious services. The facilities did not have temporary excursions such as furloughs or work release. The sole point of transmission of a virus would be interaction with staff, provided infected prisoners weren’t transferred into the facility.
Rather belatedly, masks were available, the quality of which gradually improved over the months. Prisoners were soon required to wear them, but it would take time before it became mandated for staff.
In an outdated antiquated facility such as WSRU, which was built a century ago, shockingly inefficiently in design and function, and with innumerable insurmountable physical structural problems, any prolonged lockdown is barely distinguishable from punitive segregation. Dozens of tiny cells line four stacked tiers, and the cell fronts are open bars. Several inmates have imposed cellmates.
Unlike most modern prisons, there are no central communal areas (“day rooms”) in which to congregate. Essentially, unless you are going to recreation, the cafeteria, or medical, you will remain in your cell, which is opened and closed electronically from a booth (oddly, for a prison, a feature which malfunctions regularly, even weekly, in WSRU). There were also sub-quarantines of specific living units, which have been even more isolating. The prison recreation “yard” and gym had already been minimized in frequency and duration and divided between units.
Progress against the pandemic and quarantine appeared to be more of a political matter than a scientific one. And corona variants and other new viral outbreaks could make the vaccines moot. The prison system has become spoiled by lockdown, so no end is in sight for the foreseeable future, especially for prisoners.
Meanwhile, a social pandemic has also swept the nation, a politically-charged divide stemming primarily from police brutality and the frequent official indifference to abuses of power. These issues have of course affected the prisoner population, prison already being a volatile hotbed of racial tensions. Various varieties of abuses from authorities are also something most prisoners are long accustomed to.
One would hope that now that most Americans have encountered a very limited sense of the isolation and lack of basic human rights that prisoners face every hour, every day, every year, sometimes for decades, or even until death, that at long last the public might be able to relate to that suffering, and begin to feel some empathy and compassion for the millions who are trapped in an unending state-sanctioned hell.
Will the calls for police reform eventually trickle down to include prison abolition? Certainly not. Will growing awareness of societal marginalization of the poor and all minorities at least lead to prison reform? Sadly, also unlikely. Still, one can hope. If the pandemic winds down, this is certainly the moment to finally attempt to resolve these problems in a meaningful way.
Prison is a destructive, unhealthy environment anyway, incarceration a practice no civilized society should support. Designing and promoting it as a punitive warehouse of cages needs to cease immediately. The profitable prison industrial complex is itself “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Systemic oppression of those with no voice or power is the true ongoing pandemic that has plagued America for centuries.
John Hovey #878017
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
John Hovey is an artist/author who was incarcerated at the age of sixteen way back in 1984. He is still serving three consecutive life sentences, and has been transferred around endlessly, incarcerated in ten different states in dozens of facilities. He has been involved in many various prison reform/abolition efforts over the decades, in particular trying to help juveniles avoid, survive, and exit prison, as well as fighting many other criminal justice issues. He can be reached directly online via jpay.com, or by mail at: John Hovey, #878017, WSRU, P.O. Box 777, Monroe, WA 98272-0777, USA))