A woman holds a sign calling for an end to death by incarceration during a rally in the Pa. Capitol rotunda on 10/23/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)
By Patricia Vickers
Every time several days go by and I haven’t heard from my son I feel terrified. I can’t help but think of the horror stories I hear from my friends who also have incarcerated loved ones, which are happening with alarming frequency.
I think of my friend who hadn’t heard from her brother in two weeks. Every time she called the prison they gave her the run-around, telling her to call this person and call that person, or saying “I can’t give you that information.” After two weeks of calling, she was told that her brother had COVID-19 and was at a hospital on a ventilator. She was his only living relative, and his power-of-attorney. He had been on a ventilator for two weeks before she found out. A few days later her brother died.
COVID-19 is scary for all of us. More than 490,000 people in the U.S. have died. For those of us with loved ones in prison, it is absolutely terrifying. This is a crisis that requires immediate action. But Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections are acting like they couldn’t care less.
Prisons have never been safe places. Human and civil rights violations are rampant, health care is inadequate and difficult to access, and the trauma of confinement itself takes a toll on the physical and mental health of those who are incarcerated.
During a pandemic, prisons are deadly. The nature of confinement makes it almost impossible for people to practice social distancing, and inadequate health care and limited sanitation supplies help COVID-19 spread.
I received a letter from someone who is incarcerated in Pennsylvania, who has already survived a COVID-19 infection. Like everyone in prison, the only way he could have gotten the virus was from prison staff — who consistently refuse to properly wear masks — bringing it in from the outside.
“Remember in 2018, when the PA DOC responded to the drug hoax, which led to a month-long lockdown and several restrictions on mail and visits?” he writes. “Staff weren’t even allowed to enter the housing units without being fully garbed in hazmat suits. This was done in an attempt to ‘protect’ staff from being ‘poisoned’ by drugs that were allegedly coming in through the mail.”
He’s referring to the events of a year ago, when several prison staff got sick, allegedly from contact with drugs coming in through the mailroom. In response, the Department of Corrections stopped allowing prisoners to receive any original mail and instituted a series of punitive policies restricting communication — even though further investigation by journalists revealed that the entire incident was largely fabricated.
But now, when faced with an actual deadly virus, the DOC seems indifferent — and especially cruel.
I talked to another mother, whose son is at SCI Smithfield. Right now, at the height of this pandemic surge, the DOC is turning the prison into a central reception facility, which means hundreds of prisoners are being transferred between Smithfield and other prisons. They claim they are doing rigorous testing, but based on what we’ve seen so far that seems highly unlikely — especially because the state is refusing to mandate testing for guards.
Incarcerated people are contracting COVID-19 at more than five times the national average. People in prison are twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than those on the outside. In the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, over 100 people have died from the virus.
Behind every one of those numbers is not just a human being, but an entire community of people who loved them and are mourning their loss. And thousands more who — like me — are living in fear that our loved ones could be hospitalized, could even be dying, and we wouldn’t even know.
The vaccine is on the way. But with an uneven rollout it could be months before people in prison get the vaccine. How many people will die while they wait?
This tragedy isn’t inevitable. While we can’t make COVID-19 go away with the strike of a pen, we can significantly minimize the risks. The Department of Corrections, the Wolf Administration, and the General Assembly all have the power to save lives.
Wolf can use his reprieve power to immediately release elderly people, people who are medically vulnerable, and people nearing the end of their sentence.
The Pennsylvania Legislature can pass legislation making many people eligible for parole, as well as legislation allowing people to earn time off of their sentences.
The Department of Corrections can immediately implement and enforce basic public health measures, including proper mask use and mandatory testing for staff and increased access to masks, COVID-19 testing, and sanitation supplies for incarcerated people.
History will look back on this time and ask not about political expediency, but about who took bold actions to save lives. It is time that our leaders take note, and take action to bring our loved ones home.
Patricia Vickers is a member of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI), a grassroots group of incarcerated people, their families, and allies working to end life without parole in Pennsylvania.
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