Is a One-Size-Fits-All COVID-19 Prevention Protocol Working in Correctional Settings?

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic mainstream media coverage of how the virus affects prison populations has focused primarily on the rapid spread of the virus and any deaths that have resulted, both among prisoners and staff. There has been less coverage of how individual prisoners and staff members feel about the public health protocols established by the Center for Disease Control and the Washington Department of Health for use in a correctional setting. This post presents the perspective of one 40-year-old prisoner housed at Washington State Penitentiary, which is currently experiencing a large COVID-19 outbreak in several living units. We do not intend to imply that this perspective will reflect the views of all prisoners, but it does reflect the views of many prisoners we have heard from who have experienced one to two months of cell confinement quarantine and/or isolation. The ultimate lesson that society as a whole may learn from this pandemic is that a one-size-fits all protocol is not necessarily effective for all demographics, and may cause additional harm for some demographics, most especially in a prison environment where there are cultural, logistical, and architectural barriers to the sorts of public health protocols that may work well enough in other settings.

I write these words from a cell in quarantine, my second time here in the last five six weeks or so. In between stays I was confined to my cell on my housing unit, which has been locked down for over a month now. It is easy to dismiss as a trifling matter the confinement of a human being, for over a month and counting, to a concrete box—unless you happen to be one of the human beings so confined. The day-to-day grind of life when you’re stuck in such a situation takes a toll on the physical and mental health of the best of us, in ways too subtle to properly convey. Suffice it to say that the hardship is real, it is immediate, and presently it is being inflicted upon hundreds of prisoners across the state (quite apart from those made to languish in solitary confinement as a matter of course, even under “normal” circumstances—but that is a subject for another time).

Much of what led to this mess—and no mistake, this is a capital mess—is what also led to the confusing, inconsistent, terribly harmful situation affecting those in society: the decision on the part of many to imbibe the fear poured on a daily basis by ambitious politicians and their shills in the media; a near-universal failure to soberly assess the data, while, with a straight face, telling others to “follow the science”; and an ignorance of the damage wrought by measures intended—ostensibly, anyway—to alleviate suffering.

There exists an added element to the situation in here, however; it is that many of the harmful things done by prison officials this past year were done at the behest of public health agencies and members of the public who meant well, but who were largely driven by fear. At some point it becomes necessary to critically examine the actual threat posed by the corona virus, the real data concerning its potential for harm, and what the wisest course of action is at the present time. This examination should be free of political and social biases, which hitherto have plagued nearly every facet of the pandemic.

It is almost a certainty that such an objective analysis would result in the realization that we failed to properly judge the corona virus, or to really even consider what harm we might be causing in the efforts to fight it (incidentally, this “fight” against yet another unseen foe, led by slick, pretentious, politicians drawn to the limelight like moths to a flame, is redolent of the “wars” against drugs and terror—neither of which turned out very well).

We would never consider for a moment disrupting our lives—some might say nearly ruining—as we have done for nearly a year now, on account of the flu. Yet an objective, meaningful assessment of the present situation leads one to the conclusion that, if the corona virus is in fact deadlier than the flu—something difficult to ascertain because of the tallying as COVID-related those deaths resulting from other causes, including the flu—it is not deadlier by far.

In any case, the facts certainly do not warrant the hysteria on which many of us have seemingly thrived for the past several months, and it is precisely this hysteria that lies at the heart of the situation in which we find ourselves at present (and we are all in it, though I think I may be forgiven for pointing out that some of us are a little deeper in it).

Much of what resulted would have likely occurred anyway, and none of the preceding should be construed as stating that public health officials and advocates are responsible for the present plight of prisoners. Such an assertion would be manifestly unfair. However, it is probably true that a good deal of the pressure placed on the DOC by public health officials and advocates to do something, anything, has had unintended consequences which perhaps should have been foreseen.

Almost invariably the DOC’s approach isn’t to do something meaningful, but rather to give the appearance of doing something meaningful. Its handling of the pandemic has been no exception. Many of the measures taken by prison officials may look good on paper, but then so do Communism and the Correctional Industries mainline menu. The reality has been quite different for prisoners. This reality has included, among many other ridiculous things too numerous to list: (1) Having limited access to outdoor exercise, even during those periods this year when we were not lockdown entirely, as we are now seeing; (2) an apoplectic guard who was not wearing a mask scream at inmates to put on their masks, as they were on the phone talking with friends and family; (3) being taken to quarantine the day before one’s scheduled wedding because one’s cellmate—gasp!—happened to walk by another inmate who was not infected but lived on a unit with several positive cases; (4) not seeing or touching your loved ones for nearly a year, even though staff members have been permitted to enter these facilities, interact with prisoners for eight hours, leave, and come back the next day to repeat the process (I don’t have children, but I can imagine how difficult it must be to not see one’s kids for an entire year, or how hard it is for the parent or guardian in the free world to explain to the child why s/he cannot see mom or dad for what must seem like ages; (5) having your unit locked down for over a month, during which time meals are hours late because medical staff members are going door to door taking the pulses, every day, of all the inmates—even those who are young, healthy, experiencing no symptoms, and who’ve tested negative several times in previous weeks; (6) showering and making phone calls just once or twice a week; (7) high blood pressure, anxiety, heart palpitations, and any number of other ailments concomitant—depending on the individual and her or his disposition—to living in a box 24 hours a day; (8) having medical staff sweep to the side various non-COVID health issues because management has taken the position that COVID prevention (an impossibility) and treatment (nearly an impossibility, considering the nature of our captors) are paramount etc., ad nauseam.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the idea of confining hundreds of individuals to a building with a communal ventilation system, preventing them from going outdoors for fresh air and exercise, and encouraging poor hygiene by limiting showers to just once or twice a week, well, to say it’s myopic would be to lend it credit it hardly deserves. It was madness when it was suggested, it was madness when it was implemented, and it is madness now, as I write these words from my stuffy concrete box in quarantine.

It is probable that one or two or 10 readers will opine to themselves “Well, I’m sure he’d change his tune if he were to contract the virus” (there is a spiteful creature in every bunch, and this pandemic has hardly brought out the best in us). The screwy “logic” of this sentiment aside, what I will say is that I have contracted it. I write the above having been told several days ago that I tested positive. Curiously, I’d gone all year without contracting it (at least to my knowledge), and it wasn’t until I’d been confined to my cell for over a month of quarantine—and tested negative five times in that period—that I got it. So did 50 other people on my unit alone. So much for the preventive measures of the DOC.

In closing, I think it’s important to stress the need for assessing things in a practical manner and determining a course of action not on how we think things should work, but the way we know—from our experiences in dealing with these nocuous bureaucrats—how they will actually work. It is rarely a good idea to make decisions based on fear, or to induce others into making such decisions. But this is precisely what many of us have done since COVID-19 entered our lives early this year, and we don’t seem to have learned too many lessons from the mistakes that should be obvious to us all. We should learn from our mistakes, and remember that we needn’t remain tied to them. This pandemic will eventually be a thing of the past. In the meantime, let us exercise care so that we don’t cause harm in its name.

-Joey Pedersen, Washington State Penitentiary, December 2020

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