Infected and Incarcerated: COVID-19 & Prisons

From the Midstory Studio, our team chats with Keri Blakinger, a staff writer for the Marshall Project. From her experience as a previously incarcerated woman and her time spent writing about prisons, Keri expounds upon the effect of COVID-19 on incarcerated populations, how it impacts public health and safety and her own personal grappling with reentry and isolation after solitary confinement.

True security is based on people’s welfare—on a thriving economy, on strong public health and education programmes, and on fundamental respect for our common humanity. Development, peace, disarmament, reconciliation and justice are not separate from security; they help to underpin it.

Ban Ki-moon, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations

Browse by topic or read the transcript of our interview below.

Topics covered:
[1:05] Current state of prisons during the pandemic
[3:49] What happens to inmates during a lockdown
[5:18] Clusters of confirmed cases in Ohio correctional facilities and testing in prisons
[7:40] The politicizing of public safety and inmate health
[10:09] Who’s being released during COVID-19
[12:39] Oversight in prison systems during the pandemic
[16:13] Experiencing the shelter-in-place order after solitary confinement
[18:56] The lasting trauma of incarceration
[20:53] Re-entry into the free world after incarceration
[24:48] What do you hope to see after COVID-19?

Keri Blakinger: I’ve had a lot of people, sort of, tweet at me, like you know, “They’re prisoners we don’t care.” No, you should care, because they’ll give it to the guards, the guards will come back into the free world and it’ll keep spreading in communities, for one. For two, if they get sick enough that they can’t be cared for in the prison, then you have to take them to the local hospital, and they will need the same ICU beds and the same ventilators that everyone in the free world does.

Samuel Chang: Our next guest on this week’s episode of the Midpoint is a staff writer for the award-winning nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system: the Marshall Project. She previously worked as a writer for the Houston Chronicle and her work has been featured in national publications such as the Washington Post, Vice and NBC News. As a formerly incarcerated woman, she brings authenticity to her coverage, especially during this pandemic. She’s joining us today from Houston to discuss more on the current state of the criminal justice system and the impact of COVID-19. Well, thank you so much, Keri, for joining us here today.

KB: Thanks for having me. 

SC: Yes, so I guess I want to start with a very broad question, which is, what is the current state of prisons right now during this pandemic? 

KB: I mean, I think there’s a lot of variation, but in general, things are not good. You know, prisons are just not a good environment for preventing infection or disease by a lot of different metrics. I mean, primarily, you have the issue that in both prisons and jails you just can’t socially distance. I think you’d sort of envision prisons as being, everyone’s in cells and, you know, sort of alone, and that is definitely a certain amount of prisons. There’s a certain number of cells. No one has a national tally as to exactly how many that is, but experts have estimated somewhere around 5-10% are in, like, actual solitary cells. Everyone else is in, you know, multiple people to a cell or they’re in dorm settings. They might live on bunk beds in a large room, they might live in cubicles, in like, a large warehouse, you know. And [in] all of these congregate living environments, it’s very impossible to socially distance yourself from anyone. 

Then there’s also just the basic issues of: prison healthcare is not good. Prisoners are generally more medically needy than the rest of the population, meaning that, you know, they’re coming in with more frequent high blood pressure, asthma, heart conditions, you know. Many of them are former smokers. This is a medically needy population. If they’ve done a lot of time, they’ve had those medical needs ignored often, in many systems, for years sometimes. And they’re old, they’re aging, our prison population is getting older. We gave out a lot of long sentences in the 90s and 2000’s, and now we have an old prison population. So they’re high risk. They can’t socially distance. They’re not allowed things like hand sanitizer in many prison systems, and it’s really inconsistent whether they have access to soap. 

On top of that, many prison systems have been slow to do some of the disease prevention measures that we know can be effective in the free world. So things like just reducing movement. You know, prison is prison. You think you can’t go anywhere, but they do transfer prisoners around from facility to facility just to reassign them, to bring them closer to home sometimes. There’s a lot of reasons, but, you know, thousands of prisoners are transported from facility to facility every day and it took prison systems a long time to slow that down. It took prison systems a long time to try to space people out in the mess halls. It took prison systems a long time, in some cases, to shut down things like school and programming, which are, you know, great, but problematic in this scenario. And there are still prison factories operating. 

SC: Yeah, so you mentioned, kind of, shutting down the prison, and I think terminology that people are not familiar with is a “lockdown.” In the situation of a lockdown, what happens to the facility? All the programs are shut down—where do the inmates go during that time? 

KB: We started seeing this earlier this month [April]. Around the beginning of the month, the federal prison system locked down all of its 122 facilities, and other states have done that as well; this looks very different depending on the security level of the facility. In a high-security facility where everyone is in cells, that means you’re in solitary confinement all the time, and that would typically mean like 23-23.5 hours a day, maybe the officers come let you shower every three days, maybe they just ignore you for a week—like, it really varies. Often, it means that you’re only being served sandwiches. I’ve had, you know, a federal prisoner saying that, you know, “Hey, we’re living on Bologna and peanut butter until this is done.” But, if you’re in a lower security facility, lockdown can look very different. It can mean that you’re confined to a dorm area, and I’ve heard, you know, situations where people are in dorms that are the kind that do not have cubicles, and are simply rows of bunk beds, and have not been allowed to leave their beds, and that’s a rarity, but that’s a special kind of mess up that I didn’t even really think about prior to this. I’ve lived in those settings, and it’s never really occurred to me what that would look like during a lockdown. 

SC: Right, right. Yeah, I think different prisons have different policies and different facilities in place, and I think specifically here in Ohio, what we’re seeing right now, is actually in Marion and Pickaway, which are two correctional facilities here in Ohio, we’re one of the largest clusters of confirmed cases of COVID-19. And here in Ohio, I think it’s really stark because 20 percent of the confirmed cases actually come from, you know, incarcerated people, and I think that’s a really stark number to think about. And maybe you can speak a little bit more to why we’re seeing suddenly these clusters pop up, and, you know, we’re seeing such high rates of incarcerated individuals being tested positive. 

KB: Well, I think that we’re actually seeing lower rates than is accurate, you know, because we’re not seeing the sort of widespread testing that you might hope in this kind of scenario. Because, remember, you’re testing one person in a dorm, or whatever, but realistically they’ve been interacting with the other 59 people in that dorm. You know, this is not like where you test someone in a free world, and you test them, and maybe it’s their family members, and that’s good enough. So if anything, one would hope that there would be even more testing, and the only reason you’re seeing that high number in Ohio is because they did test. And so many prisons are simply not? Because they don’t want to and they’re scared about what these results are gonna look like if you test everyone, you know. 

I mean, I’ve heard from a lot of incarcerated people who believe they’ve already had it, and just weren’t tested, which is true in the free world as well. But I would argue that knowing how many positives you have is probably even more important in prisons, because the risk of transmission is so much higher. And if you just let diseases fester in prisons and jails—like, I’ve had a lot of people, sort of, tweet at me, like you know, “They’re prisoners. We don’t care.” No, you should care, because they’ll give it to the guards, the guards will come back into the free world and it’ll keep spreading in communities, for one. For two, if they get sick enough that they can’t be cared for in the prison, then you have to take them to the local hospital, and they will need the same ICU beds and the same ventilators that everyone in the free world does. So, you know, it’s a drain on the same resources, and we worry about a drain on free world resources. Prisoners will be a drain on those resources as well if we let the diseases spread unchecked in there. 

SC: Right. So, you actually mentioned this point just now, which is—I think recently there’s been a lot of discussion. Specifically, it’s gone very political in terms of looking at public safety and looking at the health of an inmate. This idea that, you know, because there’s been kind of mass releases across the nation of different prisoners with certain charges, people are extremely concerned. And actually the biggest case, right, is the case in Florida in which—you know, it’s being shared all over social media—in which a released prisoner went and committed murder, unfortunately, right after he was released. So, a lot of people use these one-off stories as indicators, you know, “We should keep those individuals inside.” But, I think you mentioned it just now, it’s actually about public health and safety, and actually it’s not one or the other. Maybe you can talk more about—why are we seeing that challenge and how can we wrap our head around those different arguments? 

KB: Well, you know, I think it’s worth noting that, if we leave someone in prison, they can also end up killing people, and I don’t mean by murdering them. I mean, if they contribute to being in an environment where you can’t socially distance, and you spread more disease, they could end up infecting multiple people. The calculation of what public safety looks like is just different right now. And I think that’s a really hard thing for people to wrap their heads around, because you’re used to it being like, this person is a danger because he might kill someone, and that is not something that we should take lightly, but it really changes the calculation. Like, is it more dangerous that this person has some low-level violent history, or more dangerous that they might continue spreading a pandemic? I mean, these are difficult questions. But also, as per usual, as is true without a pandemic, like, there will be people, in even the best-case scenario, with the best assessments of risk—there will be people who will get out and commit crimes. It happens. You know, we try to have risk assessment systems that will minimize these things, and I’m not saying we should blow them off at all, but I’m just saying that we need to be careful to understand that one worst-case scenario anecdote does not—is not necessarily the thing that should drive policy change. You know, if we start seeing this happening broadly, that’s very different. 

SC: Yeah, maybe you can talk a little bit about how they determine who is released and who is not? 

KB: Well, that varies entirely by system and by, you know, what sort of release you’re talking about. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has compassionate release as an option. I mean, who knows how they decide that? Like, there’s criteria—there are, but the rules keep changing to the extent that I hesitate to go into them because they will be different by the time you air this. 

SC: Yeah, it’s interesting that there’re so many different facilities with different infrastructures, with different rules, with different policies in between states, and I think that makes it much more challenging. 

KB: In county jails—I mean, yeah, county jails are also totally different, and you know, when you’re talking about county jails, you’re talking about pretrial releases—like people [who] have not been convicted, like the situation in Florida that you referenced. You know, that was someone who had not been convicted on this other crime for which he was then released. And in that case, in the case of pre-trial detention, then the courts or sometimes the sheriffs can make these decisions about releasing people who, again, have not been convicted. So then you’re releasing them based on what risk they pose to the community or not. On the other end, you know, prison systems are releasing people who have already been convicted and served time. So you’re really making a decision as to sort of how much of that time was enough time. A lot of times this is up to the parole board to make these sorts of decisions. In jails, there are some people who are convicted in jails (I talked about pretrial detention), but there’re also people who are convicted and that’s for people who aren’t serving a lot of time. Like, usually a year or less will keep you in the county jail. Even after you’ve been convicted and sentenced—and in those cases, oftentimes it’s up to the sheriffs whether they release someone or not because sheriffs typically have the freedom to calculate good time, which is like, what percentage of your sentence do you have to serve, and what percentage can you get off for good behavior. So in theory, in many jurisdictions, the sheriffs could say, “Hey, we’re going to award an extra month of good time to everyone.” Texas’ jail population went down by ten thousand or so over March—in the month of March. I don’t even know what it is for April. And you know, that’s due to these rapid decarceration efforts. The Texas prison system, on the other hand, their population of 145,000 decreased by 0.2 or 0.02 percent, so you know, they’re all approaching it very differently. 

SC: Right. Yeah, now as a journalist yourself, how has this affected your work? Maybe looking even into independent oversight on facilities, and a lack of kind of checks and balances if you will, of you know, what they’re doing and the facilities, and not having anybody keeping an eye on them. 

KB: I mean, prisons are always opaque, even [in] the best case scenario when there’s not a pandemic, when, you know, you can get in to visit, when you have responsive staff. And then when you add a pandemic—they all shut down visitation mid-month last month, you know, which, of course, that is a clear public safety risk to have people unnecessarily coming in and out of these places during a pandemic. But, in addition to visitation, a lot of these independent oversight agencies, because the number of state systems, have some type of outside oversight, you know, an ombudsman and inspector general, something like that. Sometimes, there’s some independent nonprofits that do that work with—the Correctional Association of New York did some great work in New York—but a lot of these entities that do on-site visits as part of their oversight have not been able to get in. In some cases we’re outright told no. In some cases, [they] just made the decisionL “this [is] not a good safety decision,” which, you know, is fine for a week or two, but that becomes problematic now when you’re looking at an indefinite amount of time with zero oversight into any prison system. Official oversight mechanisms are not the only oversight that exists in these facilities. Teachers, visitors, outside civilian staffers, can all be really important oversight mechanisms, because these are the people who will see you on a day-to-day basis. If the guard punches you in the eye, or you know, lets six other inmates jump you and beat you up, it’s the teacher that sees the black eye. You know, I had this happen, because media plays an oversight role, too. I have one source who said that, you know, he had two of his finger sliced off because some officers slammed his hand into a grate, and, you know, everything else he’s ever said, it’s been true—he’s been a reliable source—like, I don’t discount this, but I can’t go visit him and see. I have no way of verifying this right now. So, you lose a lot of oversight during a pandemic like this, which is arguably a time when you need it the most. 

I mean, we’re not really going to know what goes on in some of these facilities, except for those where there are lots of contraband cell phones, which, you know, a sort of interesting aspect of there being a pandemic in 2020 in prisons is the prevalence of cellphones. I know these phones have been in prisons before, like, you know, you see people get in trouble for them, catch free-world charges, new convictions for having cell phones, but this is the thing that is making many prisoners who’ve taken the risk of having a cell phone decide to take the additional risk of reaching out to people outside their closest circle in the free world. You’re seeing people live-streaming on Facebook and Instagram, and I’ve had more people with cell phones contact me than I’ve ever had before. So it’s, on the one hand, incredibly lucky that there is any way to document what’s going on in there, and you know, on the other hand, it’s so telling that people have to risk being charged with a felony in order to explain what their conditions are like. 

SC: Yeah, yeah. And shifting gears, I know you briefly mentioned this in passing, but you were formerly incarcerated and I’m sure that, you know, stay-at-home, shelter-in-place has very different effects on an individual [like you]. You know, we talked about it in the last episode in certain situations where [people are] homeless, they can’t shelter in place. What is home to them? I think for yourself, as a formerly incarcerated individual, I’m sure that’s a different experience. Maybe you can talk a little bit more about that?

KB: Yeah, for me, I really panicked when [we were just] publicly discussing the idea of shelter-in-place orders. I mean, I understand that they’re necessary. I frankly don’t leave home that much other than for work, because I don’t really have a life. In some ways, it doesn’t really change my day-to-day that much other than that, you know, I’m not doing interviews in person now. But just the idea of being locked down, of being forced to not leave, just really incited this deep-seeded panic in me, you know. It sort of…I’ve been… You leave prison with so much trauma, and you know, just the thought of going back is terrifying to a lot of people who’ve been there. And, you know, I did some time in solitary confinement. Not much—I mean, it’s only, you know a few days here and there, but I did not handle it well. You know, some people handle it better than others. For me, I just—I panicked. I was sort of losing track of time, just [a] constant mess of anxiety, couldn’t really tell if it was day or night. I’d wake up and be not sure if I was still alive, like I was really dissociated and felt like I was losing touch with reality. And I got out of solitary and I’ve had nightmares about it ever since. I mean, that was a number of years ago now, but I didn’t really think anything in the free world could ever sort of put me back there, or make me feel that way or dissociate like that. But, you know, when we started talking about shelter-in-place orders, I had a couple weeks of pretty intense panic, and [was] just sort of losing track of where I was, and it was really terrifying and I very much felt like I was losing my mind. I have talked to some of the people I did time with, and that’s been really helpful—just sort of talking to other people who’ve been through this, and are feeling this way, and feeling like, you know, I’m not crazy. It’s just a particularly strong reaction to a traumatic experience that is unfortunately not that unique, I guess.

SC: Yeah. How have you been able to cope or come out of that, specifically? Or is that still an ongoing battle? 

KB: I’d say that’s an ongoing battle. I mean, I definitely—I went into prison with—I’d been doing drugs for nine years. I was in college,  I was outwardly, by many metrics a productive person, but, you know, I was doing drugs. I lived on the streets some when I was 17. I did sex work. I was in all the sort of dangerous and terrible situations that happen if you are a small, young woman doing drugs for nine years. So I went into prison with a certain amount of trauma, and a certain amount of mental health issues, and prison doesn’t make those better, obviously. And I’m not saying this is some sort of like, “Poor me, prison’s so traumatizing.” I mean, these are just the facts. It is the sort of environment that is apt to create more trauma. And you know, there are some prison systems that are working to address that and be, you know, have trauma-responsive corrections, but you know, I went in damaged, and came out, in many ways, not improved. I did, just by dint of not doing drugs and sort of maturing, obviously, I did come to a much better place than I was ten years ago, but you know, the side effects of prison, I think, are something that everyone who’s done time grapples with. 

SC: Yeah, yeah. You came out and you graduated from Cornell, and you received your degree. Through your time out now back into the community, what has helped you? 

KB: I mean, I think a lot of it for me was finding something else that—finding some purpose, finding something else that could sort of fill the void in my life where heroin had been. Stepping back, growing up I’d been a competitive figure skater, and that was sort of my whole life and everything I did, and my whole identity basically. And then when my skating career fell apart, I fell apart and, you know, ended up sort of falling into doing drugs, and then that became the thing that I was passionate about, basically for a decade. And then, when I got out of prison, I needed to find out who I was without skating or drugs, and what would, you know, what would drive me and what would be the thing that could fill that void? And for me it ended up being reporting, and particularly reporting on something that is so close to my heart, that I understand—and I understand the people I’m writing about. I’ve been there, [I] understand a lot of the different pieces in this system. And, you know, the correctional systems in this country are broken for almost everyone involved, like it’s not just like these are broken if you’re a prisoner. Things are not good for officers, or families, or pretty much anyone involved. And you know, being able to write about that and explain that to people who are not touched by these systems directly was something that I found I could be very passionate about, and you know really deeply immerse myself in. And that’s made a huge difference. It also just feels good to take something that was sort of almost ten years of just—of missteps and mistakes and be able to try to have something positive for the community come out of it. 

SC: Yeah, has that been kind of a redemptive experience—experiences that are probably close to your heart right now? Has that been very helpful for you? 

KB: Yeah, I think it’s some amount of catharsis and some amount of redemption. And it also helps me daily on a personal level. Like, you know, I can be having a terrible day just mentally for whatever reason, I mean, because the world’s on fire, whatever, you know. When we’re freaked out, we could all be having bad days for a number of reasons, but you know, sometimes I’ll get a letter or an email or a text from someone in prison telling me that I’ve changed their life or that I inspire them. One person who was incarcerated told me about how he’s got a dream board on his wall, and it’s sort of all the things that inspire him and what he wants to do when he gets out, and one of them was a copy of an article I wrote. And, you know, it’s a little thing, but that sort of helps me make it through the day, cause it’s like, “Okay, I can’t—I can’t give up myself. I can’t sort of let myself fall into any of the places I’ve been, because like now there are other people who care and are counting on me, and are counting on the work that I do.” That sounds really cheesy, I know. 

SC: I think it’s truthful. It’s truthful. Yeah, it’s honest.

KB: Yes, I get cheesy when I’ve only had four hours of sleep. 

[Samuel and Keri laugh]

SC: Well, I guess, you know, my last question after—I think we talked a little bit about the prison population and their experiences, but also your own experience coming out [of prison], and there are a lot of individuals that are returning into our society and that probably are struggling right now in terms of re-entry. So I think there’s that aspect, but there’s also the aspect of those individuals that are in the criminal justice system that are working, whether they’re sheriffs, they’re correctional officers—there are a lot of people within that system. And I think all across the board right now, we’re experiencing something unprecedented and new. What do you hope to see after all this?

KB: So you know, I’ve been asked this question in a few ways, a few times in the course of this [pandemic]. And I had been providing some level of answer, but today and this week, I don’t know, I’m kind of like—I’m starting to feel like it’s too soon to even go there. It seemed like things were going to end, but now we’re talking about [that] this will be off and on for two years. I think it’s gonna last longer and be worse in prisons. Every time an outbreak ends in the free world, I think it’ll continue circulating in prisons a little longer. I mean, I don’t know—I have so many fears for what the next  few months or two years look like in prisons. I mean, does this mean two years of lock downs and potentially riots? You can’t lock down people for two years and not have riots. I mean, for the officers, I would be terrified to be an officer right now. Like, that must be terrifying. You have to decide, do you want a paycheck or do you want to risk your life every day? And you’re not risking your life for a decent paycheck in many situations. Like, some of these people are being paid close to minimum wage in some of these private prison companies, and not a lot more than that even in some of the state facilities. And some of them do pay more. Some states pay a decent salary—it just varies by state. But I don’t know, I feel like right now it just seems like it’s almost too early to think about what the world or criminal justice looks like after this. I’m really worried about what it looks like during this and how long this lasts and at what point  the rest of society just becomes fatigued with it and doesn’t want to care anymore. So I think we’ve got a long road ahead of us. 

SC: Yeah. I think that amount of uncertainty is certainly something that we’re all trying to grapple with right now in our communities, no matter where we are. But I really appreciate today’s conversation with you, talking more about prisons. I think it definitely sheds more light on the current situation, and perhaps we can have more empathy [for] what is going on, and as you said, they’re part of our society, too. They’re sharing our hospitals. They’re sharing a lot of the resources. And maybe to think a little bit more about what they’re going through during this time. Well, thank you so much for joining us here, Keri.

KB: Thanks for having me. 

SC: Well, thanks for joining us in today’s episode of the Midpoint. For some of us, our everyday lives have little to do with the criminal justice system. We may feel that prisons and jails are isolated and disconnected, but today’s conversation showed that public health encompasses and is impacted by every sector, and that includes the prison system. If you enjoyed the conversation today, drop us a like, a share or a comment, and don’t forget to join us for next week’s conversation. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy and stay human. I’ll see you soon.


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