Locked up: No masks, sanitizer as virus spreads behind bars

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News

Sometimes they learn about it from jail staff members, who have weighed orders to remain silent with their own concerns about the health of inmates and staff, the men say. Others make assumptions after vague memos about COVID-19 infections are posted in their units and a guard, cook or someone in their unit suddenly disappears after showing flu-like symptoms.

Health experts say prisons and jails are considered a potential epicenter for America's coronavirus pandemic.

However, protocols on paper for dealing with infectious diseases behind bars do not always translate into reality. Even the simplest guidelines like hand washing and social distancing are often impossible to follow inside. Some men also said they had neither soap or toilet paper.

So far, most of the confirmed cases in prisons and jails across America have been correctional officers, staff and civilian employees. Sometimes, incarcerated men known to have come into contact with infected people are sent to segregation or to their cells – whether they have a bunk mate or not.

But more often, it’s just business as usual. Several men told the AP they are trying their best to take care of themselves, washing their hands as much as possible and wiping down surfaces. Without masks, some people improvise by covering the receiver of communal phones with a sock or wearing gloves used for sports to try to keep from picking up germs.

Elijah Prioleau, who is locked up at Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin on a three-year revocation after serving 16 years in the state’s prisons, said sick people are not being tested.

Instead, he said they are sent to another part of the jail, even though there are still healthy prisoners housed there. If someone who is sick refuses to be moved out of fear that they may infect others there, he said the only alternative is segregation, or solitary confinement – a place no one wants to go.

“As far as the quarantine goes, it’s a joke,” Prioleau said on a call with the nonprofit Forum For Understanding Prisons posted on Facebook Live. “They putting you in seg. They’re throwing you in the hole and quarantining you if you refuse to go over there.”

He added that the men are also not being given enough cleaning supplies, and that guards and prisoners do not have any protective gear so some are forced to improvise.

“I got on handball gloves right now holding the phone,” Prioleau said, adding many men were coughing and sneezing in his tier.

Visits from friends, relatives and, in most cases, lawyers have all but stopped, making it harder to get information in and out. Though some prisoners have access to phones, and at times now a few free calls, many say they are more isolated than ever.

“Guys are just idle, waiting for the next shoe to drop,” said Rickey Fu-Quan McGee, 42, who’s serving a life sentence at MCI-Norfolk, a prison in Massachusetts. With so many men suffering from mental health issues, he said he’s concerned about their well-being. “No one’s coming around asking guys how they’re dealing with it. … This can be a very volatile environment, but you have a lot of seasoned guys walking around checking on everyone, making sure everyone’s good.”

In states, such as Minnesota, with no confirmed cases inside prisons, everyone is nervous and doing their best to protect themselves.

“The same rules that apply out there should apply here,” said Antonio Williams, who is serving time at the state’s Rush City Correctional Facility, about an hour north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

He said he and others are paying careful attention to the guidelines issued in the outside world, even though they are all but impossible to follow inside.

“Meeting between 10 or more people should be restricted, right?” Williams said. “They force us to the chow hall. Literally elbow to elbow. If it comes here, it’s gonna spread like wildfire.”