The Vulnerability of Prisoners amidst a Global Health Crisis

A Call To Release All U.S. Prisoners in Response to COVID-19

With the rapid outbreak of coronavirus (covid-19) pandemic, life as people know it has been altered. Nations placed on virtual lockdowns, sports events cancelled, school closures, bans on mass gatherings, and unessential travels ect. This outbreak is deemed to be greater than the 1918 so called “Spanish Flu,” SARS epidemic, Bird flu, and Swine flu if vaccine isn’t quickly developed. In mere months covid-19 managed to reach every corner of the world. To illustrate how fast it spread, March 8th there were 500 confirmed cases in the U.S. that number skyrocketed to 3,000 in just a week and currently stands at over 300,000 with over 1,000 deaths.


Hospitals have been overwhelmed and pushed passed their capacity the shortage of personal protective equipments (PPE) and ventilators only exacerbates what’s already a global health crisis. At the time of this writing there are over 2,000 confirmed cases of covid-19 and 60 deaths in the state of Virginia. At the rate this virus is spreading it will inevitably affect a large percentage of the population in society… and prison’s. I’ll focus on the latter.
Virginia, like other states, declared a state of emergency after cases of covid-19 were discovered. Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) suspended all visits from prisoner’s families, friends, and for attorneys until further notice, an obvious attempt to prevent covid-19 from entering its prisons.


A memorandum was subsequently distributed explaining what the virus is and issued precautionary methods on the best way to avoid contracting this virus such as, frequent hand washing, avoiding touching eyes/ nose/ mouth, and it was also suggested to practice “social distancing” starting at 6 feet away from others. These are guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and adopted by VDOC as I’m sure by other state prisons as well.


This notion of “social distancing” in a prison setting is utterly impossible for a member of reasons. Many of those in general population have roommates , walk to chowhall with others, attend school, program and gym together, religious services, outside and in-pod recreation, ect. All of these activities conducted in large gatherings whereas those in solitary confinement though they don’t participate in such gatherings. It requires they be restrained and escorted by 2 guards anytime they step out of the cell for any reason. The point being, close contact is inevitable whether one is in general population or solitary confinement. Despite VDOC efforts to prevent this virus from entering its prisons by temporarily suspending visits judging by the trend on how rapid it spreads it seems bound to make its way into prisons.


Indeed, this is a peculiar situation and since there is no fool proof way to prevent it from coming in it’s easy to predict how fast it will spread due to the aforementioned reasons, the close proximity prisoners live under and taking in account other relevant factors such as; we use the same phones, JPay kiosk, same recreation equipments, guards using the same restraints on prisoner’s ect. The conditions are ripe for a massive outbreak.
In an unprecedented case of transparency VDOC issued another memorandum on updates of the covid-19 virus, which in summary, stated that March 18th 2020 a dozen inmates at Coffeewood Corrections had fever and 2 tested positive for the flu, all were housed in the same unit. The Virginia dept of health was notified and they were quarantined awaiting the testing of covid-19. This highlights yet another issue, the testing of this virus has been a major issue for those in society, so much so, that the government keeps reiterating that the test kits are in short supply and adopted a “priority list” of who should get tested, suffice to say it’s not exactly a far-fetched inconceivable assumption that prisoners are not on this “priority list” no matter how ill they get.


One of the many things I’ve learned about how prisons function is that often times prison officials have the propensity to be reactive rather than be proactive, meaning they wait for something to happen then structure a policy around it. The best thing for prisoner’s to do is not wait to see what prison officials will or won’t do, we can take the initiative ourselves in protecting our own health by adhering to the CDC guidelines by washing hands often, cover mouth when coughing, avoid touching eyes/ nose/ mouth, take any preventative measure we feel will keep us safe. With hospitals being overwhelmed many of them lacking necessary medical equipment to combat this virus such as; not enough ventilators, masks, gloves, gowns, healthcare workers having to reuse protective gear they’d otherwise discard after single use. Obviously prison medical units aren’t prepared, let alone equipped to respond to an outbreak of covid-19. Lets take any and all preventative measure of ensuring we don’t contract or pass on this virus to others. We are in a uniquely vulnerable situation whether in society and especially those of us in prison but we’ll be alright.

ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Panther Love

“Pitt” Peter Kamau Mukuria #1197165
Red Onion State Prison
P.O. Box 1900
Pound, VA 24279