[Pnews] With Over 115, 000 Confirmed Cases, Incarcerated People Are Challenging Deadly Pandemic Conditions in 'Women's' Prisons

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Sep 6 19:19:00 EDT 2020

truthout.org [1] 


Victoria Law - September 6, 2020 

On April 10, Esther Arias made a video call to her son and asked him to
stream the call on Facebook Live [2]. 

Arias wanted the larger public to know about how the federal prison in
Danbury, Connecticut, was handling COVID. One woman, she said, had
tested positive three times -- but remained in the housing unit. Four
other women had been placed in quarantine, then onto her housing unit,
she said. 

In March, Attorney General William Barr had ordered the Bureau of
Prisons, which operates the federal prison system, to expand the early
release [3] of prisoners classified as low-risk to home confinement.
But, Arias told her son, Danbury officials were "only picking the
inmates that already have a [release] date." That left herself and many
other women, all of whom had already been classified as low-risk for
recidivism, stuck in crowded dorms desperately hoping to avoid
contracting COVID. They began asking their families to call Barr's
office and demand their loved ones' release. 

Two days later, Arias called her son again [4]. "We really need your
help," she pleaded to him and friends on Facebook. She reiterated that
the woman who had tested positive three times remained on the housing
unit, which she described as "a warehouse with cubicles." The
dormitories are divided into cubicles with two bunk beds approximately
four feet apart. The dividing wall often does not reach the ceiling,
resulting in women on the top bunk sleeping next to the woman on the top
bunk in the adjoining cubicle [5]. Each dorm room has 160 to 170 beds
and three bathrooms. 

"We are being exposed to the virus," Arias stated in the livestream,
urging viewers to contact Barr's office and demand more releases to
prevent the spread of COVID. 

Two weeks later, Arias made a 43-second video call [6] to announce that
her bunkmate had tested positive and been hospitalized. "Right now,
they're taking about 30-something people to the kitchen because there's
no place to quarantine," she said. "Please, whoever can help us … help
us," she pleaded. 

That day, Arias later told _Truthout_, her bunkmate had been extremely
sick. Arias and others repeatedly asked the lieutenant on duty to call
an ambulance. When the lieutenant refused, Marius Mason, a 58-year-old
trans man on the unit, called his attorney to alert her that a woman was
being refused medical help. In response, the lieutenant threatened him
with a disciplinary ticket for disclosing information about another
incarcerated person. (Ultimately, Mason did not receive a ticket, which
could have incurred penalties such as solitary confinement and a loss of
"privileges" such as phone time and social contact with others in the

By then, at least 44 incarcerated people and 39 staff members at Danbury
had tested positive [5], at least two incarcerated women had been
hospitalized, and one person had died. The incidence rate exceeded 2.8
percent of the prison's population and, at the time, was "among the
highest concentrations of positive tests per capita" of any U.S. federal
prison, charged a lawsuit filed on behalf of people incarcerated at
Danbury [5]. (Danbury incarcerates both men and women in separate

That afternoon, Arias and 10 other women tested positive. The visiting
room became their makeshift quarantine unit for the next two weeks. 

There are now over 115,000 confirmed cases of COVID [7] in state and
federal prisons nationwide. This figure does not include local jails,
immigrant detention or youth jails/prisons. The federal prison system
has had 13,139 (or 849 per 100,000 people) [7]. It has had 125 deaths
from COVID, the third-highest number of prison deaths (behind Texas,
which remains the highest, and Florida). 

In Danbury, Arias and others were individually and collectively
resisting the prison's indifference to their safety. Arias not only
asked her son to post her video calls on Facebook to garner more
attention, but encouraged others to ask their families to contact the
media about what was happening inside. Those in quarantine had no access
to the phone or CorrLinks, the federal prison's e-messaging service;
they had to write pen-and-paper letters to keep their families informed.

That same month, several incarcerated men and women filed a class-action
lawsuit against Danbury and the Bureau of Prisons [5], demanding the
immediate release of people ages 50 and older and/or who have serious
underlying medical conditions. For those remaining in the prison, the
suit demands that prison officials "provide medically adequate social
distancing and health care and sanitation." 

On May 18, Arias tested negative for COVID. Instead of being returned to
her housing unit, she was placed in the Special Housing Unit, a solitary
confinement unit. "They said I was the reason they were getting so much
attention," she recalled. She remained isolated for over three weeks
until her release from prison. 


People incarcerated at Danbury are not the only ones organizing to
challenge conditions during the pandemic. As _Truthout_ previously
reported [8], the Indiana Women's Prison (IWP) began a policy of locking
women into their cells, with no running water, toilet or emergency call
button, for lengthy periods of time. The doors can only be opened
manually by the solo officer on duty, raising concerns among
incarcerated women, advocates and lawmakers if a fire or other emergency
breaks out. As the summer temperatures rose, the inability to keep doors
open -- to allow air to circulate or to enable women access to running
water -- exacerbated the heat and humidity inside the cells, many of
which housed up to four women on two bunk beds. 

Women inside filed grievances or complaints en masse about the new
policy. "The grievance box is in the chow hall," explained Michelle
Daniel, who was incarcerated for 20 years at the Indiana Women's Prison
and remains in contact with friends she left behind. One of those
friends told her that she frequently saw women in the dining hall
directing other women to the grievance box over several days. 

In Indiana, grievances first go to the shift supervisor. If the
grievance is not resolved, it then goes to the superintendent's office.
If it still remains unresolved, it is then sent to the Indiana
Department of Correction's central office. But, says Daniel, women are
often pressured not to pursue their grievances. Every time she filed a
grievance, she would be called into the shift supervisor's office.
There, she would meet not only the shift supervisor, but a team of other
correctional officers who pressed her to sign off, or mark as resolved,
her grievance. Doing so would prevent it from going to the
superintendent or central office. 

The women also contacted their families, friends and advocates,
including Daniel and Kelsey Kauffman, who had previously run the
prison's college education program. They, in turn, contacted legislators
who demanded that the practice halt immediately. 

This collective resistance is atypical inside that prison. "Women at IWP
have a tendency to just do their time," reflected Daniel. Under the
previous superintendent, Dana Blank, she said, "you didn't have to go
off and protest or [collectively] grieve an issue. You'd put in a blue
slip and she would come to your housing unit and talk to you about your
concerns." Blank retired in 2006. So did many of the officers who had
embraced her more humane approach to the women in custody. Meanwhile,
women who had entered prison in their twenties had grown older -- and
less willing to passively put up with policy changes that adversely
impacted them. "People are growing into their own leadership," Daniel

By July 23, the Indiana Department of Correction reversed its
closed-door policy. "All doors in the cottages must remain open due to
the extreme heat we are experiencing," stated a memo issued that day.
"It is not optional." In addition, women are allowed outside of their
cells for limited hours in the day room and one hour in the recreation

But, said Daniel, the doors must remain open all the time. If a woman
closes her door to change clothes or temporarily block the noise from
others, she risks getting a write-up, or a disciplinary ticket for
breaking a prison rule. Some of the women who filed collective
grievances have experienced individual retaliation, including being
issued disciplinary tickets for not wearing masks while eating meals in
the chow hall, being removed from prison jobs and having their cells
repeatedly shaken down -- a term for a cell search in which belongings
are tossed and trampled. "They're punishing them for winning," stated

People locked in other systems, including immigrant detention, often use
letters to alert the outside public and press for changes. Women at the
Eloy Detention Center, a privately-run immigrant prison in Arizona which
reported 249 COVID cases as of August 23 [9], wrote dozens of letters
[10] to clergy, attorneys, volunteers and family members describing the
deplorable conditions -- and their fears of coronavirus spread. They
described lockdowns, lack of medical attention and hot food, staff
reusing personal protective equipment [11], and retaliation against
those who spoke out. 


On August 1, people incarcerated at Georgia's Ware State Prison rioted
for two hours, taking several staff hostage, setting fires and smashing
windows. Some used smuggled cell phones to document the uprising [12],
posting videos on social media. By the time prison staff retook the
prison, five people -- two staff members and three incarcerated people
-- had been injured. 

The following day, the Georgia Department of Corrections stated that the
causes of the disturbances were "unknown," [13] but both incarcerated
people and staff have told various media that chronic staffing shortages
[14], coupled with lack of medical care [15], overcrowding [16] and lack
of working sinks, flushing toilets and edible food [17], caused the

Two weeks before the uprising, a young man had been killed by another
man in Ware's dormitories [18]. The killing, on top of the other
conditions that the men had long endured, lit the powder keg. 

"I think it was the prison not responding to the coronavirus -- not
keeping the place clean or disinfecting," Kathy, whose son is
incarcerated at Ware, told _Truthout_. (Kathy asked that only her first
name be used to prevent reprisals against her son.) "People are dying
and they aren't making any changes." 

Shortly after being placed in a dorm where a man had died from COVID,
her son called and told her that he wasn't feeling well. But it was only
after Kathy and other family members repeatedly called the prison that
he was tested for COVID. His test came back negative, but he's unsure
whether others in his dorm had also been tested. 

In the aftermath, family members have repeatedly charged that
incarcerated people are not being given proper food or hygiene and
remain locked down in their cells. "They're not doing anything but
sitting in their cells 24-7," said one woman whose husband is
incarcerated at Ware [19]. 

As of July 2020, Ware held 1,448 people [20]. Family members described
conditions as cramped and leaving their loved ones unable to social
distance. As of August 23, four people have died from COVID and another
26 incarcerated people and 56 staff members have tested positive [21]. 

Dwight Futch spent five years in Georgia's prison system. Futch, who had
previously worked as a correctional officer in New York City and
Wareham, Virginia, was appalled at the abuses he witnessed from Georgia
prison staff and began documenting them. When he was released, he
started Parole Reform, a nonprofit advocating for parole reform but also
changes to the prison system itself. 

Kathy's son is in an open dorm with little ability to socially distance
from the other men. Since COVID hit, they've been confined to their
dormitory, not allowed onto the yard and issued only one mask. She noted
that Ware does not provide soap or other personal hygiene items to the
men. "They have to purchase their personal items," she said, adding that
she and her family continually put money on her son's prison account so
that he can buy soap and other necessities. But, she continued, "they
don't all have family to take care of them, which is why you have guys
attacking and taking stuff from others." 

Post-riot, the men continue to be confined to their dorms or cells.
Prison staff have told them that the kitchen was damaged during the
rebellion; for weeks, the men were given bologna sandwiches rather than
hot meals twice a day. 

Staffing shortages have meant that these meals are sometimes delivered
hours late -- Futch told _Truthout_ that he received numerous messages
from men at Ware stating that they are not given lunch until 8 pm. For
the past month, they have been unable to access the prison commissary to
buy food to tide them over or cleaning supplies to disinfect their
living areas. 

Staffing shortages have left housing units without a supervising officer
during certain shifts, said Futch. He read a message from a man at Ware
who noted, "If a gang fight were to break out or someone were to get
sick, we'd be really screwed." 

Packages have also been delayed. In mid-July, several weeks before the
uprising, Kathy ordered her son $100 worth of food from Union Supply
[22], a private company that contracts with the prison to provide food
packages. The company's website warns that, because of COVID, orders may
take an additional 72 hours; one month after placing her order, Kathy
says her son has still not received his package. "He's in depressed
mode," she said. She tries to encourage him that things will change, but
she's not so sure. 

Other family members and advocates know that change won't happen unless
they press. "A lot of mothers call me and ask, 'When are we going to do
something about Ware?'" Futch said. He and Parole Reform have protested
outside the governor's mansion and are planning a car caravan from
Atlanta to Ware, approximately 235 miles and four hours south. They are
demanding that the prison provide nutritious meals, reopen the prison
commissary, and allow visits to begin again as well as a complete
investigation into the causes of the uprising and ways to prevent
another one from occurring. The date has yet to be determined. 


[2] https://www.facebook.com/100011446929573/videos/1215252048866348
[4] https://www.facebook.com/100011446929573/videos/1216743275383892
[6] https://www.facebook.com/100011446929573/videos/1229110867480466
[9] https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus
[15] https://twitter.com/hcrc_ga/status/1289849331659370498/photo/1
[21] http://www.gdc.ga.gov/content/cases
[22] https://www.gainmatepackage.com/Home.aspx
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