Intense debates about the role of government interventions in public health became the norm during the pandemic. When do the benefits of prevention and containment policies aimed at stopping COVID’s spread outweigh the costs to individual rights?
I watched these debates from behind prison walls, where the rights of inmates are secondary to safety concerns. Here inside Ironwood State Prison, like every other correctional facility in California, prisoners are afforded a narrow range of “rights,” which are mostly privileges that can be suspended to preserve institutional security.
This principle meant that beginning in March 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) denied prisoners all their visiting privileges, educational and vocational classes, self-help groups, religious service gatherings, and many work assignments. In effect, CDCR closed the system to the outside world and put prisoner rehabilitation on indefinite hold.
Prison yards can be unpredictable places, so we are a population accustomed to living with uncertainty. But in early 2020, no one expected that the shutdown would last more than a few months. COVID seemed like just one more thing that would soon pass.
Nonetheless, COVID infiltrated the system, and prisoners had to contend with the slow development of effective pandemic protocols. The first masks I received in March 2020, when I was at a level four maximum security prison yard in the San Joaquin Valley, were made from the same cloth used for our state-issued pants. Months passed before better masks became available. And while inmates were required to wear masks from the pandemic’s onset, months passed before mask usage by staff became uniform.
My initial experiences with mass testing involved being herded into a line with about 50 other inmates to have our noses swabbed by a large contingent of nurses. I can recall looking around at my fellow inmates, many of whom, like me, were wondering about the wisdom of assembling us so close together. Jokes were common about being negative before such tests and positive afterward.
Other early policies also seemed to increase risk unnecessarily. Quarantine units housed both infected inmates and those identified as “exposed.” On the yards I have been on, inmates whose cellmates tested positive also had to go to quarantine, regardless of whether they themselves tested negative. I have also seen inmates sent to quarantine after being exposed during trips to medical facilities. This clumsy policy had the perverse effect of discouraging prisoners from attending medical appointments.
Over the past two and a half years, I have seen the wide range of experiences for those of us incarcerated during the pandemic. For inmates living in dorms, isolation is impossible. Cell blocks, like the ones where I’ve been housed, afford a measure of isolation but mean that we are locked away for longer periods than in previous years. And cell blocks are no guarantee against catching COVID.
I am in a cell block where practically every inmate got infected. Inmates in dorms experienced these large outbreaks on multiple occasions. I have met inmates who were infected multiple times (and others who weren’t infected even once). Prisoners, in isolation, have had to cope with losing loved ones to COVID. And across the state, more than 250 inmates have died from the disease.
Two years into the pandemic, I contracted COVID. By the time my test came back, my symptoms had passed. (I was already vaccinated and boosted.) While other prisoners felt weak and achy while packing up their property to move to quarantine, I went to quarantine feeling fine. Nurses checked my vitals twice daily during my 10-day stay. It was a relatively uneventful experience, and I feel lucky that I did not get COVID earlier.
Meanwhile, the statewide suspension of rehabilitative programing remained in place from March 2020 into mid 2021. There were no visiting or education or vocation or self-help groups or religious services for over a year. These are the programs that create pockets of positivity in an otherwise negative environment. Losing any of these opportunities for a few weeks can be a serious setback for an inmate’s rehabilitation. Losing them all for a year-plus was devastating for the whole inmate population.
Trial and error made prison COVID protocols more effective and sensitive, but it was the vaccines that lifted the statewide shutdown. Inmates were again able to hug their loved ones. Work toward a GED diploma degree or vocational certificate resumed, and many inmates returned to their work assignments. Self-help groups—where inmates learn to overcome addiction and criminal thinking and to develop pro-social skills—restarted. So too did religious services.
With COVID appearing to become endemic, we now measure program disruptions by weeks and months. Rehabilitative programs are still suspended for at least 14 days at any yard with a COVID outbreak, normally defined as three or more positive cases. Prison programming now operates in fits and starts rather than being completely shut down.
This reality is problematic because outbreaks often last at least a month, and successive outbreaks are not uncommon. These disruptions are significant setbacks, especially for inmates hoping to parole with a GED, diploma, college degree, or trade certification, and for those preparing for upcoming parole hearings.
Lessening the impacts of these disruptions—and creating a more organized response to the next public health crisis—will require more than just better management. California as a whole would benefit from an independent commission to examine how state personnel and institutions responded in the pandemic. Done well, such an inquiry could lead to broader changes in prisons and other state systems.
In the meantime, there are ways to make improvements in outbreak response under present conditions, or in the event of a COVID resurgence.
CDCR should change incentives so that outbreaks are fewer and smaller, and less disruptive. Every quarter without a facility outbreak could earn inmates good conduct credits and prison guards some type of bonus. Or, during an outbreak, inmates who avoid illness could receive such credit. There is precedent for incentives like this. In 2021, CDCR awarded conduct credit to inmates who stayed discipline-free during a defined period.
Inmates should be given greater input into the review and creation of pandemic protocols—which would give us a larger stake in the overall health of the prison environment. Instituting more flexible protocols, subject to experimentation, could make containment measures less disruptive.
Proactive policies must be put in place to facilitate immediate alternative access to educational, vocational, and self-help programs when outbreaks occur and in-person classes are suspended. Right now, there is no moving classes online or scheduling make-up sessions.
On the yard where I am presently housed, programs are running. Inmates are no longer required to wear masks, and staff use masks sparingly. The progress is clear, and there is an encouraging feeling that the worst is behind us. Yet COVID testing continues every week, and an outbreak recently occurred on an adjacent yard.
It is likely COVID will move through our state prisons for the foreseeable future. At the same time, inmates will be released back into society. The CDCR can ensure that the larger mission of rehabilitation does not take a backseat to pandemic protocols. That would be a cost too great for California to bear.