Columnist Razvan Sibii: Imprisoned for life — and at the mercy of COVID-19

  • In this Friday, July 13, 2018 file photo, inmates pass the time within their cell block at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho. In March 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus and its lingering threat has become a potential “get out of jail card” for inmates who argue it’s not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars. Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP

Published: 6/15/2020 2:17:15 PM

Nearly every problem in the “outside” world is worse in prison, and that includes the COVID-19 crisis.

   If the rollout of disease-mitigation measures has been delayed and enacted chaotically in much of the country, it has been doubly so in many of the nation’s prisons, despite their militaristic chain of command structure.

According to a New York Times data crunch, 35 of the 50 worst coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. so far have taken place in a correctional facility. The distribution of masks, social distancing, disinfection, testing and adequate medical treatment have all been drastically impeded by both material factors (overcrowded prisons, lack of money, huge numbers of old and sick individuals) and immaterial factors (the shaky prisoner-guard relationship, the fear of most politicians to be seen prioritizing the needs of incarcerated people, etc.). 

If I feel like I’ve lost a significant measure of control over my life since the coronavirus hit, what must someone who is in prison feel like? I spoke about that, by email, with three men serving life sentences in three of the states that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19: New Jersey, Washington and New York. They each told a story of neglect, mistrust and helplessness. 

According to the Marshall Project, which is collecting data on COVID-19 infections in state and federal prisons, New Jersey’s prisons have the highest COVID-19 death rate in the country (25 deaths per 10,000 people). If you were recently incarcerated in a New Jersey prison, you were about six times more likely to have gotten the virus than the average resident of the state, and almost twice as likely to die of COVID-19.  

Tariq MaQbool, one of the men I interviewed, is serving a 150-year sentence in the New Jersey State Prison. (See his writings here)  According to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, in that prison, 58 employees and 148 incarcerated individuals have so far been confirmed as being infected with the coronavirus, and five incarcerated individuals have died of the disease.

MaQbool, whose writings can be found at captivevoices.com, said that the way the prison administration has handled the crisis has been catastrophic. The confusion around the issue of masks is representative in this respect: the New Jersey Department of Corrections only allowed incarcerated people to wear masks some five weeks after the governor had declared a public health emergency, and even then the rules were unclear.

“Prison guards opposed prisoners wearing makeshift masks. Of course, after a bit of complaining and from fear of lawsuits, we were finally issued NJDOC-purchased blue surgical masks. Interestingly, some COs (corrections officers) complained about prisoners wearing the same surgical blue masks as them. So our surgical masks were replaced by donated black cloth masks,” MaQbool explained. “There is supposedly a strict order to practice social distancing for the prison staff and further orders to wear masks at all times, but COs, especially some of my unit officers, refuse to wear it when they are on the units. Funny thing is when a sergeant or a lieutenant comes on the wing, the same officers wear the mask, only to remove it when the supervisors leave.”

The second man I interviewed, John Lennon, is serving a 28 years-to-life sentence in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. According to the New York Department of Corrections, at that prison, 51 incarcerated individuals have tested positive and four have died. An accomplished journalist, Lennon has been documenting life in his maximum security prison for years. In Sing Sing, he told me, no one cares about masks anymore.

“Sing Sing suspended visits and programs and all that in mid March. By late March, after the first inmate died here, they started allowing COs to wear masks. Inmates were issued them on May 7. By then the virus had pretty much cycled through the joint. So it was kind of like an angry eye roll when we got them,” Lennon wrote. “Most of us don't wear masks because we feel like we've had it and have the antibodies and likely won't get it again. Most of us wish we had them earlier. The quarantine units are empty. Sing Sing is probably one of the first communal spaces with herd immunity, if there is such a thing. We're going with our guts with this. Few of us were tested. None have had an antibody test.”

The third man I interviewed, Arthur Longworth, is serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state. He, too, is a prolific writer. According to the Washington Department of Corrections, 10 staff members and 18 incarcerated individuals have been diagnosed with COVID-19. I asked Longworth why the issue of masks is so fraught with controversy and confusion in prison. He listed three reasons: politics, conspiracy theories and security. 

“The superintendent said that guards were complaining to their union about having to wear face coverings, and he didn't have the power to order them to wear masks,” Longworth said. “When the order for staff to have to wear face masks finally came, it was from the governor. After the governor's face coverings order, politics again came into play. The governor is a high-profile Democrat who the President has publicly referred to as a ‘snake.’ And a majority of the prison's staff are Trump supporters. Many COs still think that COVID-19 is ‘an overblown hoax.’” 

Were all of these impediments resolved, MaQbool would still not put his faith in the prison administration’s ability and willingness to keep him safe.

“The NJDOC benefits from being a state-run entity. If it were a corporation, it would be kaput by now,” he said. “I have long been a proponent of a committee, consisting of independent members including those from the public at large, to oversee the prisons. I think the public should know first hand what is being done in their name.”

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.



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