We were all sick at the same time last year. It started with sore throats and runny noses, and then came the body aches and congestion. The sickness spread rapidly and unavoidably through the cell block of prisoners. Infected people took to their beds, drank tea, took their Tylenol, and stayed away from authority figures. Not a single prisoner was going to ask for help or alert the authorities to the illness. The coronavirus was on our minds. However, it wasn’t COVID-19 that we feared, but the response by prison authorities. For precisely this reason, we kept silent.
Prisons are not built with the intention of caring for those in ward; they are designed not to be care facilities but, rather, punitive ones. Punitive and incapacitating ideologies are as antithetical to care as they are to rehabilitation. In fact, care is requisite for rehabilitation in the same way care should be requisite for health concerns like the coronavirus. But our prisons have spent decades committed to punishment and incapacitation, and care has long been exorcized from the playbook.
As a result, prison officials have grown adept at using the only tool they are familiar with: the hammer. As the old cliché goes, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In this way, COVID looks like contraband to prison officials, and prisons know how to deal with contraband: They search it out and punish those found in possession of it.
The result is obvious: Prisoners will attempt to hide COVID from prison administrators as long as there is a punitive response attached to COVID-positive cases, making the disease even more dangerous. COVID is not treated as an illness in prison. It is not first a medical condition that requires or receives medical attention. Rather, because it is treated like any other form of contraband, prisoners hide it as best we can. We have grown adept at keeping our COVID cases out of the reach of authorities.
Like other forms of serious contraband, such as cellphones and large quantities of narcotics, COVID enters prisons primarily by way of the guards and staff working these institutions. Like other forms of serious contraband, more efforts are exerted to catch prisoners with COVID than the guards who bring it in, and prisoners are the ones who pay the price when they are found holding the bag.
In prison facilities, searches are a part of life. Over the past few years, these searches have expanded to include hunts for COVID cases. When entering or leaving the prison—going to visits, to special events, to religious ceremonies, and on medical trips—prisoners are strip-searched and tested. Wherever security measures are deployed toward the discovery of contraband, COVID tests are now conducted alongside them.
If high-level contraband like weapons or cellphones are found, the prison goes on lockdown. Pre-COVID, these types of lockdowns were rare, but when they happened, prisoners knew that every inch of the institution would be searched. Guards would round up close associates of any prisoner found with such contraband and place them all in solitary confinement while under investigation. Teams of guards would assemble in specialized gear with helmets, armor, and face shields. (We call them goon squads.) Prisoners would be forced to line up or wait in their cells until authorities descended upon their person and belongings. Further contraband discovered during these searches resulted in the quick removal of the prisoner from the general population and their immediate placement in solitary confinement.
This is exactly what it looks like now when COVID is discovered inside prisons.
The initial case is taken to “medical isolation,” and the prison is placed on lockdown, or “quarantine.” Next, guards come and quickly take the prisoner’s friends and close associates to medical isolation for investigation as part of “contact tracing.” Guards then assemble in specialized gear: blue gowns, N95 masks, and face shields. Prisoners are forced to line up or wait in their cells until authorities descend. Nasal cavity searches are conducted under force as prisoners are individually made to shove cotton swabs into their noses and place the swab in a plastic tube. Those who test positive are dragged off to medical isolation along with any who dare refuse the test.
Naming the quarantine “medical isolation” is a rhetorical trick, like calling punching someone in the nose an “extralegal kinetic action.” The reality is that it bears no physical difference from punitive isolation sanctioned for disciplinary reasons. It holds all the hallmarks of other punitive placements, including loss of communication with family, limited access to food, loss of recreation, and loss of amenities. It is, for all intents and purposes, solitary confinement.
The inhumane, torturous conditions of solitary are where a carceral system designed to inflict harm and incapacitate excels. Throwing a human being into a cold concrete box with no human contact, a light that stays on 24/7, minimal food, sparse access to showers, and restricted communication with other human beings is something modern prison does well. A fear of solitary confinement works in the psyche of prisoners and serves prison administrators as a deterrent toward aberrant behavior. Risk-averse prisoners normally go out of their way to avoid solitary, and the only way to avoid solitary placement from COVID after the guards’ discovery of an outbreak is to test negative.
It is because of this aversion that prisoners wishing to avoid solitary confinement for COVID have resorted to extreme measures to avoid testing positive. Antiseptic liquids, sanitizer, bleach, creams, and waxes are all commonly applied to the nasal cavities of prisoners wishing to subvert COVID tests. Varying methods of subverting the test are championed by different prisoners, and black-market economies have sprung up for prisoners to access test-subversion supplies.
None of this would be necessary if the response by prisons toward COVID-positive prisoners were different. Attempts to mitigate the spread of COVID through punitive actions is a failed policy that has given rise to survival instincts and behaviors amongst the prison population that, in the end, only exacerbate the spread of COVID within these walls and fences.
This is an unforced error by prison administrators. Prisoners have made pleas to their captors detailing the reasons why they are reticent to comply while promising that more humane conditions during medical isolation would elicit cooperation. We are ignored and even laughed at.
Prison administrators would likely tell the public that their hands are tied, that they do not have the capacity to make medical isolation different from solitary confinement. This is a lie. They have the ability to make a cell in medical isolation as amenable as a cell in general population. They could accommodate prisoners’ access to communication and amenities, but they simply do not have the desire. It goes against the nature of these institutions and the ideologies of the people who run them to act in a way that resembles care.
Prison administrators would also likely tell the public that medical isolation is not solitary and that it is better in medical isolation than in solitary confinement. This too is a lie. One need look no further to refute this than the resistance to testing prevalent in prison populations. In fact, many prisoners, given the choice, would prefer disciplinary placement over medical isolation, as this type of placement almost always comes with a single-man cell, while medical isolation cells mostly feature two or three prisoners in a cell under the same isolation conditions.
Prison administrators would also likely tell the public that what they are doing is not punitive placement. This is also a lie. If medical isolation were not a punitive recourse, then guards and medical personnel would not use the threat of it as a leverage point to coerce prisoners to take COVID tests. The very first thing any prisoner hears at the slightest hint of refusing to do the swab is “Do it or you will go to isolation anyway.”
It is past time that prisons join society in their COVID responses. We are all living with this virus, and it is no longer novel. There is no amount of masking, social distancing, or isolation that will prevent the outbreak of the next COVID variant, especially in tightknit quarters like prisons. Living with the virus presents enough challenges. We no longer have the wherewithal to continue entertaining draconian policies that harm us further in the name of our protection.
Here is my plea to prison administrators: When sickness comes, help those who ask for medical attention, and let the rest of us live our lives. When sickness comes, if there are prisoners who are afraid, give them personal protective equipment and let them go to isolation for their own protection if they request it. And I beg of you: Please stop searching my nose for your contraband.