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COVID-19 behind bars

Pandemic restrictions lead to extreme isolation for inmates who can’t access visitors, ministries, and education

Illustration by Rachel Beatty

COVID-19 behind bars
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In recounting the last few months in prison, Jamel Blackwell didn’t start with the story about how he almost died from COVID-19. Instead he talked about the New Jersey Department of Corrections shutting down visits, Bible studies, and education for inmates in mid-March.

“I couldn’t see any of my Christian brothers on the other units,” he said. So he and several Christians segregated together in his unit started their own Bible study twice a week to study the Gospels, which he said was “relieving … during this stressful pandemic.”

In late March, Blackwell began feeling ill. He couldn’t taste or smell anything, and his body ached. For two weeks he sat sick in his cell in New Jersey’s Southern State Correctional Facility. As he grew more seriously ill, the prison rushed him in an ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he hovered near death and was on a ventilator for six weeks. He said the experience was “scary … but the staff was very kind and patient with me.”

“Through the grace of God I came through,” said Blackwell.

After two months in the hospital, he turned a corner. Authorities transferred him from the hospital to another prison, South Woods, to quarantine for two weeks. After testing negative for the coronavirus multiple times, he returned to Southern State. In a new unit, he and other Christians started another twice-weekly Bible study that is still meeting today.

It’s been a long eight months for inmates since the coronavirus pandemic began—months without visitors, ministries, educational programs, addiction recovery meetings, or even chaplains in some cases. Some prisons had big COVID-19 outbreaks, while others fared better than the outside world. Now as a second wave of COVID-19 infections hits prisons, some that just began opening to visitors and programs are locking down again. That means more isolation for prisoners.

Some inmates in this crisis avoided outside treatment for health problems because leaving the facility would mean going into segregation units for two weeks. Many Christian inmates, while discouraged by intense isolation, said they found solace in a simpler focus on reading Scripture and prayer.

Several inmates described to me their daily lives during the pandemic. They did so via correspondence, since many facilities still aren’t permitting visits and in-person interviews. Some inmates were in their cells for 23½ hours a day for months, the type of isolated lockdown usually reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in the highest security settings.

Studies show such isolation can wear away an inmate’s mental health. Daniel Mears, a criminology professor at Florida State University, studied isolation in prisons in 2009 and told PBS that states keeping inmates in isolation for long periods without education, work training, or other programs would likely see higher rates of recidivism.

“The crisis is also revealing what the true prevailing attitudes towards corrections are,” said inmate Jacques Robidoux, who is serving a life sentence without parole in Massachusetts. “When reform/rehabilitation/reconciliation is the goal of corrections, response to a crisis will include innovative solutions to help continue those goals even amid difficult circumstances. … When the goal of corrections is warehousing/storage of human bodies, then the only priority is to react in a way that gives the appearance of safety. … Man needs sustenance for his heart, mind, and soul, and meaning and purpose for his existence, as opposed to three meals a day in a protective bubble.”

COVID-19 CASES in U.S. prisons spiked in the spring, abated in June, but rose again to an all-time high in August, according to the Marshall Project’s data collection. Prison agency numbers showed that by mid-November, 182,776 inmates contracted the coronavirus and 1,412 inmates have died from it, while 41,949 prison staffers contracted it and 93 died.

Coronavirus testing in prisons isn’t uniform. Some prison systems test the entire inmate population regularly, while others test only those with symptoms. Some prisons, including New York’s, provided early release for some inmates to try to reduce crowding that could spread the virus. The early release strategy has been controversial, and the New York Police Department has complained about recidivism among the recently released. But in terms of viral spread, if New York’s numbers are right, only 800 inmates out of a population of 43,000 in the state contracted the virus, a much lower level of infection than in the general population.

In New Jersey, South Woods State Prison canceled visits, Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, classes, and worship services in March, according to inmate Jim Hyson. “Not having any worship services has been the hardest,” he said.

Hyson faced other hurdles: For 40 days he was quarantined to his cell for 23½ hours a day. The other half hour was for showers, phone calls, or JPay (an online service for inmates for things like visitation or sending and receiving money). He didn’t have exercise or fresh air for 40 days, and he struggled with “mental battles,” he said.

“Dealing with confinement within an already confined setting plays havoc on the mind. … I did get lots of Bible reading/studying in, but after a while everything began to become blurred,” he said. “While everything was said to be for our protection and well-being, it didn’t feel that way.”

According to state prison data, more than 700 inmates at South Woods had confirmed cases of COVID-19, about a fifth of the total inmate population. Seven died. Sixty staff members also contracted the virus.

Hyson said inmates didn’t receive masks until April. He was tested for the virus in May, then moved to a quarantine room, so he assumed he tested positive although no one told him. He had no symptoms, but he shared a bunk with someone who had tested positive and had a cough and fever.

He and his cellmate recovered, although Hyson said neither received treatment other than twice-a-day temperature checks. In mid-October, New Jersey prisons began allowing visitors again, and the prison chaplain told Hyson they would begin limited worship services soon. But if one person in a unit tests positive, the entire unit must isolate for 28 days.

More than 700 inmates at South Woods had confirmed cases of COVID-19, about a fifth of the total inmate population.

At Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Mass., visits and programs also ended in March and chaplains, considered “nonessential” personnel, had to stay home. Inmates could only leave their cells in groups of four for a half hour a day for a shower, to make a phone call, or to send an email.

By May the inmates could go outside to the yard for an hour a day in groups of eight, and in July medical services resumed. By September, they could have five hours outside their cells and chaplains had returned, although worship services hadn’t begun.

Robidoux, an inmate there, said their facility had no COVID-19 cases that he knew of, but he found parts of quarantine “unfeeling.” Inmates said they had to go to “the Hole”—a segregation unit typically for disciplinary purposes—for two weeks if they exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19, or if they had returned to the facility from a medical appointment or court hearing. Protocol for “the Hole,” according to Robidoux, is that the inmate receives only two changes of underwear and scrubs, and maybe a book from the book cart.

“Some men canceled their vital scheduled surgeries out of fear for the impending horrible treatment they would receive in The Hole,” Robidoux claimed. Two inmates in Robidoux’s unit had to quarantine in the Hole: “Both felt like it had drained a year off their lives,” he said. But Robidoux added: “This is where the miracle of Jesus Christ in the inmate’s heart becomes such a shining light.”

The Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) said in response that quarantine areas in prisons are “necessary to ensure that healthy inmates don’t get sick. They are not solitary confinement units or akin to solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is not and has not been used by the Department for decades.” The DOC said throughout the pandemic inmates still had access to medical treatment, mental health support, and attorney visits, and the department provided two free 20-minute phone calls to every inmate every week.

CELESTINO “SAL” COLON is serving a life sentence in a unit with Robidoux. When first sentenced, he decided he wasn’t going to allow “anything beautiful” into his life, but that changed for him over time. The pandemic made “the need for something greater than ourselves become even more imperative.”

“We have to hold on to those godly principles and cling to the only One who can guarantee not only our survival, but a life full of purpose and meaning,” Colon said. He and other Christians have been sharing communion from the canteen, with whole wheat wraps and grape juice.

Robidoux has eight regular visitors whom he has missed over these eight months: family members and those from ministries he has grown close to. But other relationships developed: Two old acquaintances, a high-school friend and his junior-high French teacher, reached out to Robidoux for the first time. The pandemic gave them time to think about relationships they had avoided, they said. Massachusetts resumed allowing preapproved visitors, once a week, on Sept. 28.

Though Robidoux found lockdown to be personally productive for uninterrupted work and study, like a “sabbatical,” he said, the lack of programs and work among the general population produced fights and “stir-crazy induced acting out.” Home-brewed alcohol increased. At one point the facility had to stop serving fruit because of alcohol production, which disappointed Robidoux since fruit was one of the few whole foods in a diet heavy in processed foods.

While the lack of activity at Robidoux’s facility had created problems, other facilities were busier than ever. At David Berkowitz’s facility in New York, inmates were producing thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer for the state.

Berkowitz, serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, said inmates hadn’t had access to hand sanitizer before the outbreak. But in the pandemic, their facility became one of the three state prisons producing mass quantities of hand sanitizer, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted in press conferences. So now inmates have hand sanitizer themselves too.

Inmates said they had to go to “the Hole”—a ­segregation unit typically for disciplinary ­purposes—for two weeks if they exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19.

By the end of April, Berkowitz said, Shawangunk had produced 1 million bottles in response to a nationwide shortage. Forty-five inmates were working 8-12 hour days, six days a week, he said, to produce the sanitizer that went to many state and local government offices and schools. Several workers were on the cell block with Berkowitz. Previously the prison’s industrial shop had been making T-shirts and undershorts, he said.

Over the months of the outbreak, Berkowitz said, various cell blocks had to be quarantined when someone tested positive, but now the facility is in better shape. Shawangunk has had 101 cases total among inmates and one death, according to the New York DOC, which only shares cumulative case data. Berkowitz has to wear a mask when he leaves his cell, and everyone has to keep their distance from each other.

Shawangunk ended all visits in mid-March but resumed allowing visitors in August. Some New York prisons are shutting down to visitors again because of recent COVID-19 spikes. Berkowitz said all college courses stopped but inmates could fax school papers, so he completed classes in sociology and world religions. Chaplains have resumed visits too, but he said they haven’t had worship services since March. The inmates resumed their own Bible studies in September.

“I think God takes a special pleasure in growing fruitful trees in the prison desert,” said Robidoux.

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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