Mask mandates have been removed from the world; planes, bars, and sports stadiums are overflowing; and governments, corporations, bosses, and bosses are increasingly encouraging people to return to their cubicles, office buildings, classrooms, or shopping malls. Yet, despite this push to return to “business as usual,” we must act to ensure that the pandemic-generated focus on prisons and jails — their deplorable conditions, the high rates of deaths, and the status quo of medical neglect — does not waver.
During the panic that erupted from the pandemic, many countries, including the United States, were forced into realizing that prisons and jails were part of the available spaces. hardest hit by COVID-19SARS-CoV-2 virus. In April 2020, Cook County Jail in Chicago was the nation’s top COVID-19 hot spot. The COVID-19 rate for federal prison populations was. three times higherCompared to neighboring communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic was made more deadly by the inherently dangerous nature of incarceration. Devon Terrell, held in Illinois’s Stateville Correctional Center and a contributor to Illinois Deaths in Custody Project’s short film about COVID-19 in prison, Let us know if you are looking for lost loved ones, described the lethal neglect: “Months came and went before soap, bleach, disinfectant were distributed,” he said.
Horribly, even the reported rates at these prison hot spots were underestimated. It is difficult to get accurate information about COVID-19 rate inside prisons or jails. some prisons, jails and states refuse to even collect this data, Test prisoners in prison for the virus. This reality is reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, when former President Donald Trump argued against letting ill passengers leave a cruise ship, saying, “I like the numbers being where they are…. I don’t need to have the [confirmed COVID-19] numbers double.” Many officials’ positions regarding infection rates in prisons and jails seems to be, if we don’t test it or count it, it didn’t happen.
As members of the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project we — a group of artists, educators and researchers — were motivated in 2016 to work collectively to gather information about all deaths in prison in our home state. We were outraged at the conditions in prison and encouraged by other countries’ mandatory independent inquests following any death in custody, so we started to push for information access.
We used public records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests or mail to gather, digitize, and post online data about deaths occurring in Illinois prisons between 2010 and 2021. At the same time, we began publishing our findings, including a comprehensive factsheet — the first public document using Illinois Department of Corrections data about deaths in custody. We sought to increase public knowledge of deaths in prisons. But, far more important, we worked to foster accountability and grow decarceration programs.
Our research revealed that prison death and illness have always been business as usual. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 80-100 people died in prison every year in Illinois, and nationally prisons are “increasingly deadly” places, according to Bureau of Justice data. Research by the Prison Policy Institute documents that incarceration arrests individual lives and “has shortened the overall US life expectancy by almost two years.”
2022: At least five prisons in IllinoisPeople were with active cases of the deadly Legionnaires’ disease,Yet, the Illinois Department of Corrections made misleading statements about the presence of the bacteriaThe illness was not caused before finally acknowledging its spread.
It’s not just the conditions in prisons that are dangerous. People who work in prisons perpetuate harm: As documented by Chicago’s public radio podcast MotivePrison guards use violence with impunity against prisoners.
It is difficult to know what happens inside a prison when the routine business of harm or death occurs. Families and friends have difficulty finding out what happened to their loved one while they are in prison. Often, when information is finally made public, it is often through struggle and pressure. It is often incomplete, confusing, and riddled with errors. Guards and other prison staff rarely face accountability. An independent inquest is not required.
COVID-19 brought attention to the issue of death in prison. “The pandemic has only exacerbated the poor conditions that I’ve experienced for 35 years in prison” notes Henry Messenger, a writer incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York. Documenting isolation, neglected health, refusal to provide needed care and violence instigated by guards, Messenger highlights the details of prisons’ business as usual that arrests lives, including during this pandemic. COVID-19 emphasized the fact that prisons have always encouraged premature death.
Some shifts have been achieved through organizing by loved ones, investigative journalism, and the work of advocacy organizations like ours. Some states have passed slightly more powerful legislation that could incrementally increase transparency.
For example, in Illinois, Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed legislation 2021 that required prisons to notify their immediate family members of the death of an incarcerated individual and to investigate these deaths. Families ask: can’t they be notifiedParents and siblings can die before children. This legislation has very few reporting requirements and does no mandate an independent investigation.
We must remember to look beyond prison and COVID-19 at the larger landscape, even though public attention is still being paid to them. Yes, it is important that there is transparency — all information related to our public institutions should be made fully available — but we know that transparency cannot be the end goal. In a nation with the world’s largest prison population, decarceration must be our goal.
Inhumane warehousing of people doesn’t create public safety nor make it easier to hold individuals accountable for their actions. Instead, it causes fractures in communities and ends lives.
Arundhati, an Indian author and activist, famously spoke about the pandemic in the early days. pandemic as a “portal,”The pandemic was an opportunity to let go of the past and reimagine the world. How can we make the COVID-19 portal into a vision for a world that doesn’t have prisons? How do we keep the public’s attention on the business as usual of lethal prison conditions?
Even more importantly, how can we keep the nation’s attention on the lives, not just the deaths, of people in prison — who are always someone’s brother, mother, auntie, cousin?