By Elizabeth Thompson

From the Alpha variant to Delta to Omicron, the COVID-19 virus is changing, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Incarcerated people and their families wonder what the future of COVID means for them.

Incarcerated people have been acutely impacted by the highs and lows of the pandemic. Not only must they cope with the fear of getting ill and dying, or suffering from long-term COVID symptoms, but the pandemic has meant periodically losing much of the few freedoms they still have, such as outdoor recreation time and family calls and visits.  

For incarcerated people, frequent lockdowns have meant more time in a cell, sometimes with other people, some of whom are sick, sometimes all alone, often for 23 hours a day. 

Researchers argue that these experiences are adding to the trauma that already exists from spending time behind bars. 

To prevent widespread illness and additional trauma, advocates for incarcerated people have called for decarceration. This means reforms that would limit the number of people sent to jails and prisons in the first place and reforms that would allow certain people to exit prisons early. 

As it becomes clearer that quick fixes will continue to be Band-Aids on the larger problem, advocates press for long-term solutions.

COVID and incarceration

The United States prison system is not built for a pandemic.

Communal living conditions in the prison system make it impossible for individual incarcerated people to have autonomy over their own safety — especially against an airborne virus, said Ben Finholt, director the Just Sentencing Project at Duke Law’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice

“In addition to everyone being on top of each other, there are too many of them in the space allotted,” Finholt said. “The prisons generally have one sort of air circulation system that is common to the whole prison. And so if you get a lot of virus in the air, it’s just going to be in the air everywhere in the prison.”

Additionally, staff move in and out of the prison, making the prison far from a closed bubble.

“Prisons are ongoing, constant mass gatherings,” Finholt said.

One study using mortality records from the Florida State Department of Corrections found that COVID-19 led to a four-year decline in life expectancy in Florida’s prison population.

The North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) has reported that 57 incarcerated people have died of COVID in North Carolina’s prisons. It is possible that more people have died of COVID, but their deaths have not been properly reported, a North Carolina Health News/ VICE News investigation showed.

Of the three deaths identified in the report, “two of those cases from a year ago have been included as offender COVID-19-related deaths on the DPS website since early March of 2021,” DPS spokesperson John Bull said. “That leaves one case over the last two years of this pandemic in which the medical examiner listed COVID-19 as a cause of an offender’s death and which DPS and DHHS jointly disagree with the medical examiner’s conclusion in that case.”

DPS spokesperson Brad Deen said that as the Omicron variant surges across North Carolina’s prisons, most cases “are asymptomatic or manifest mild symptoms in the vaccinated, and that unvaccinated offenders with underlying medical issues are the most at risk of this variant.”

Incarcerated people who died of COVID are not the only casualty. Three incarcerated people have died by suicide just this calendar year, according to DPS press releases.

COVID has been and continues to be a problem for incarcerated people, even as the world tries to move on, said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, which researches the harms of mass incarcerations. 

Public officials who have declared COVID endemic are “basically admitting that prisons are going to be more dangerous in terms of health risks than they’ve been before,” Bertram said.

The way prisons have handled COVID thus far is likely to have a lasting effect on incarcerated people. Some people who contracted COVID while they were incarcerated will experience long COVID, but even if they didn’t get sick, the pandemic “absolutely makes it worse in terms of just the trauma of prison,” Finholt said.

Addressing the dangers of COVID through decarceration

As COVID-19 continues to evolve, so will DPS, Deen said.

“DPS will continue to be adaptable and resilient and will continue to follow the science and do what is possible to prevent COVID-19 from getting into the facilities, to help prevent it from spreading to other facilities and to confine it within a facility if it does get in,” Deen said.

To combat deaths in state prisons, some advocates have called for large-scale decarceration, which would reduce the prison population and create more space.

It has been almost a year since 3,500 incarcerated people were released early from state prisons following a legal settlement between a number of advocacy groups and the state (NAACP v. Cooper) that aimed to decrease the harms of COVID against vulnerable incarcerated people.

C. Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of North Carolina, says it wasn’t enough.

“Obviously the problem has not been solved,” Bowes said.

The ACLU of North Carolina is part of a coalition of North Carolinians who have called on the state to address the COVID-19 crisis behind bars through the Vigil for Freedom and Racial Justice, a month-long demonstration outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion.

Bertram said now is the time for governments to pursue criminal justice reforms that make sentencing reforms retroactive. She also believes states need “any kind of plan” to release older incarcerated people and incarcerated people who are immune-compromised, especially if they are getting close to the end of their sentence.

Despite the Omicron variant’s toll on the prison system, Deen said DPS is not considering sending prisoners home through Extending the Limits of Confinement, an initiative started in 2020 to send some incarcerated people home who were at increased risk of dying from COVID.

“The Department wound down the ELC initiative in late 2021, and there are no plans to reactivate it at this time,” Deen said.

Finholt said if the pandemic continues to pose a public safety threat to the prisons, officials will have two options to make them safer: mass decarceration or vastly increasing funds to prisons to properly staff them.

The state budget that Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law in November includes a provision that sets aside $3 million to make the adult corrections of DPS a standalone department by 2023.

One proponent for prison reform, Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, told the Daily Advance this move will give the state’s prisons a “seat at the table.”

Advocates for incarcerated fear it might be too little too late.

Impact upon reentry

Almost all incarcerated people in North Carolina will return to society. About 98 percent of people who are incarcerated in North Carolina will be released in the future

However, many Americans tend to ignore the health of incarcerated people.

“They just stop at ‘they’re criminals and whatever they get, they deserve,’” Bowes said.

As the pandemic caused lockdowns and shut down visitation to prisons periodically, that means communication from inside prison to the outside world has also suffered. 

“I think the problem with the way we use incarceration is that it disappears people,” Finholt said. 

“In turn, disappearing people makes it so that the problems those people face are not visible.”

But those people will return and when they do, they are likely to have more health problems than they entered prison with, said Eric Reinhart, resident physician in the Physician Scientist Training Program at Northwestern University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. 

More people will be reentering society with long COVID, Reinhart said, and many people will be reentering traumatized from the conditions they’ve lived with.

“I think there is a multi-generational burden of care that we are producing now by subjecting people to horrific conditions in U.S. jails and prisons during the pandemic,” Reinhart said, “before as well, and especially now during the pandemic.” 

There are things that states can do to make reentry more successful, Bertram said.

Researchers at the Prison Policy Initiative found that simply facilitating contact between incarcerated people and their family and friends on the outside world could improve the mental health of incarcerated people and reduce recidivism.

“It’s one of the cheapest ‘programs’ that you can have,” Bertram said.

This article was updated to include a response from DPS’s spokesperson clarifying the number of incarcerated people who have died from COVID-19.

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Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...

2 replies on “Breaking Point: What is the future of COVID and incarceration?”

  1. Thanks yet again, Elizabeth, for giving a voice to the voiceless. It is much appreciated by the individuals we serve, their friends and their families and we, their health care providers.

  2. Thank you for addressing these issues of cruel and unusual lockdowns and lack of visitation that is causing incarcerated individuals who already deal with mental health issues to escalate. My loved one is at the point of despair. He hasn’t been outside in weeks and is locked down 22 hours a day.

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