Sol Mercado was incarcerated for 16 years, but 2020, her last year at the Central California Women’s Facility, was the hardest. For people outside, Covid-19 news has been inescapable, but for Mercado and many other incarcerated people, the virus was a vague rumor. She was cut off from the world. Visitation was banned, phone time was severely restricted, even electricity was scarce. “Staff was coming in not wearing masks and saying, ‘Oh, this is nothing, nothing serious,’” she says. “Then they started saying, ‘Even if you get it, people don’t care about you. You’re gonna die and nobody would care.’”
At least one in five incarcerated people in the US has contracted the Covid-19. In some states, like California, it’s closer to half, with seven prisons experiencing such severe outbreaks that they have now reportedly crossed the threshold for herd immunity. “Covid was absolutely rampant,” says Lashawn Taylor, who was released from California State Prison in Lancaster in late 2020. “At the high point in my building, 95 cells out of 100 were quarantined. It got to the point where [catching the virus] was inevitable, between the phones, shower, water fountain, railing on the staircase,” he says. “Sure enough, one night I started to feel chills and the next morning I woke up wracked with pain and couldn’t get out of bed.” Luckily, Taylor experienced a mild case and recovered relatively quickly, but his experience speaks to the reality incarcerated people all over the country and the world have been facing for more than a year. They are being held in conditions so dangerous they can feel like a death sentence.
Factors like inescapably close quarters, constant turnover, and high rates of people with preexisting health conditions make prisons and jails ideal settings for contagion. While incarcerated people are often isolated from the outside world socially and informationally, the virus has no trouble crossing the porous boundary between their rooms and the outside world. “It’s typically the staff that brings the virus into facilities. But once the disease is inside, it’s detainees that are at more serious risk,” says Matthew Murphy of Brown University, who studies infectious disease risk in the criminal justice system. “It’s a really vulnerable population, and large, sustained outbreaks will continue to put stress on our already overburdened health care system.” If they go on ignored and unchecked, Covid-19 outbreaks in prisons will put everyone’s health at risk.
Fortunately, incarcerated people and the general public are currently standing at what should be an inflection point in the pandemic: mass vaccination. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 states have prioritized incarcerated people in their vaccine rollout plans in the same way they’ve prioritized other vulnerable groups housed in congregate settings, like people living in nursing homes. Oregon has offered a vaccine to every person incarcerated in the state, and nearly 70 percent of them have received at least one dose. In California, 40 percent of the incarcerated population has been vaccinated. However, while states from Maryland to Massachusetts to New Mexico have designated incarcerated people as top priority vaccine recipients in accordance with CDC guidelines, the very idea of vaccinating incarcerated people has caused controversy in other states. In a move widely condemned by health care experts and human rights activists alike, Colorado governor Jared Polis seemed to cave to social media outcry and right-wing agitation and deprioritized vaccinating incarcerated people. “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” he said while responding to a Fox News reporter at a press conference back in December. According to the Denver Post, as of early March, state officials including Polis had said that incarcerated people would receive vaccines according to the same eligibility schedule as Colorado’s overall population.
Governor Polis’ cavalier attitude toward the well-being of incarcerated people seems to be shared by some in the criminal justice system. Both Mercado and Taylor, along with prison watchdog organizations, describe prison and jail “quarantine” practices as arbitrary and ineffective. “From the very beginning, the way outbreaks have been managed is just catastrophically bad,” says Ken Hartman, advocacy director for the Transformative In-Prison Workgroup, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering rehabilitative and therapeutic programs for inmates. “The strategy was ‘We have an outbreak at prison X, so let’s move some of the people to prison Y.’” (According to all the health experts WIRED spoke with, this is a bafflingly counterproductive blunder.) Mercado reports that at the Central California Women’s Facility, people who tested positive were still allowed to reenter shared cells to collect their belongings, and that quarantine measures were inconsistent. Sometimes only the person who tested positive would be isolated, and other times all the cellmates would be dispersed to different parts of the facility. “They were making it up as they went along,” says Taylor of the rules at California State Prison in Lancaster.