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“Half this unit is about to die”: COVID-19 ravages U.S. prisons

Many of us, myself included, are sitting at home right now in the midst of this pandemic, practicing self-isolation. People across the U.S. and around the world are struggling emotionally, financially, and physically as a result of COVID-19, facing the constant and looming threat of severe illness.

As you swipe through social media, news stories, and notifications, you will likely see messages urging others to stay home and practice social distancing—even going so far as to shame others for not doing something so seemingly simple. The government and health officials nearly everywhere are encouraging self isolation above all else, and are preaching the mantra that it is necessary to “flatten the curve.”

Despite all of this, there seems to be one aspect of this crisis that the government either hasn’t considered, or simply just does not care about.

Recently, a video surfaced on social media, taken inside the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio. It features an interview with an unnamed masked inmate describing his surroundings and the current situation in the prison at which he is serving his sentence. In perhaps one of the most jarring clips from the video, he flips the camera around to show another inmate, about 3-4 feet away from him and coughing. “This motherfucker is over here dying from corona,” he describes. “They got this motherfucker in my room. How the fuck am I supposed to live?” He proceeds to inform us that his third cellmate also has coronavirus and that he himself is symptomatic.

According to reporting by Politico on a class action lawsuit brought against the prison in a courtroom in Cleveland, District Attorney Judge James Gwin noted that “six inmates there infected with the virus have died in recent weeks, with 52 inmates confirmed infected and 48 staff — the highest number of staff infections of any federal prison in the country.” Furthermore, out of 2,400 inmates at Elkton, less than 100 had been tested for the virus. Gwin’s decision to order the transfer and release of some inmates came just a couple days after a federal judge in Louisiana rejected a similar class action lawsuit brought against a prison in Oakdale. The Oakdale prison had seen seven recorded deaths, with 21 inmates and 22 staffers having tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

The federal government fought against both cases, “warning that mass releases could endanger public safety.” U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s Bureau of Prisons has released just 1,440 nationwide inmates during the pandemic.

Throughout the video, the inmate shows multiple other prisoners, curled up on cots, covered in blankets, and desperately struggling to breathe. No medical supplies, no medications, and no medical personnel can be found in the video. He goes on to say, “they literally gave us these masks, like, and said ‘good luck.’”

According to the inmate, there has been no effort made to isolate sick inmates. As a result, the illness is spreading rapidly through the prison walls. On one such occasion in which there was a nurse present, the inmate recalled the nurse telling him: “Be prepared, half this unit is about to die.”

Designed to help—or at least give the illusion of it—there are programs that allow certain healthy inmates to return home during this time. Gwin emphasized that in his order, he was not endorsing a mass release of prisoners, but rather a process of finding which inmates are “eligible for various programs that would get them out of the facility, such as compassionate release, home confinement, parole or furlough.” He has prioritized the elderly, and those with pre-existing medical conditions that puts them at higher risk for coronavirus.

The inmate describes a vague, confusing experience when trying to participate. “I went to talk to these motherfuckers to get on home confinement,” he says. “But they're not gonna let us on home confinement. Why? Because they gotta make money off of us, cause they're not gonna make any money if we're at home.” Despite a massive international health crisis that is costing thousands their lives, profit still seems to be the main concern for prison establishments and governing bodies.

This phenomenon is not-so-coincidentally mirrored in President Trump’s prioritization of the economic effects of coronavirus over American citizens’ health. Despite the fact that human beings are quite literally dying, the government refuses to prioritize the lives of inmates in prisons, who are uniquely vulnerable to getting sick without access to medical care. This becomes even more evident later in the video when the inmate flips the camera to show the outdoor basketball court, on which a massive black tent is arranged. He informs the camera that after inmates die, this is where the bodies are dumped and abandoned.

It is no secret that there is an extreme stigma around convicted felons and anyone who has served time in our society. Today, this stigma has reared its ugly head, and in doing so is costing hundreds of people their lives. As the inmate said in his own words, the government and the prison system are quite literally “leaving us in here to die” in favor of prioritizing “more important” members of society.

Meagan Keefe is a second-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. She is an Editor for Campus Affairs for the Agora.

Image courtesy WKBN, Creative Commons

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