Life locked up
America's prisons were in a poor state before COVID-19. Now they are worse.
The inmates at Logan Correctional Centre, a women’s prison in rural Illinois, have to endure a lot.
The kitchens are infested with cockroaches.
The ceilings are crumbling.
Many of the buildings are full of black mould.
The showers and toilets often break down, and the plumbing occasionally backs up, pumping sewage onto the floors.
According to Lauren Stumblingbear, a 36-year-old former inmate who was released last July after serving nearly a decade for taking part in an armed robbery, perhaps craziest of all were the raccoons.
The critters were living in the housing unit of the prison, she says.
"They would come down through holes in the ceiling. "
From March of 2020, however, even the raccoons seemed mild compared with what prisoners had to cope with.
When covid-19 arrived, they were confined to their cells.
For the first two weeks they could not shower or make phone calls.
They could not use the commissary, because it was run by prisoners who were no longer allowed to move around, and had to eat sandwiches brought to their cells.
“We sat there for months just not doing anything,” says Ms Stumblingbear.
Covid ripped through the prison anyway.
Two years later, the latest lockdown has only just been lifted.
Conditions in America’s prisons were terrible even before the pandemic.
Like Logan, many have been dilapidated, overcrowded and understaffed for decades.
A federal investigation of Alabama prisons in 2019 exposed rape, murder and drug trafficking.
Guards not only failed to prevent it but were sometimes implicated.
The pandemic has pushed the system close to collapse.
“Inhumane conditions prevail in prisons and jails in the United States at all levels of government, federal, state and local,” says Jon Ossoff, a Democratic senator from Georgia, who launched a working group on conditions in federal prisons in February.
Even as the virus recedes, chronic staff shortages suggest conditions may not improve much.
According to data from the Department of Justice, in 2018 the number of deaths in state prisons hit the highest level since recording started in 2001.
Though illness accounted for the vast majority, homicides and suicides also set records.
Preliminary data for 2020 show deaths in state and federal prisons increased by 46% over 2019—unsurprisingly, given how fast covid spread inside.
Violence may well have increased too, but it is hard to tell, because state departments of corrections often do not release information about it (local jails, which are usually reserved for suspects awaiting trial, are even worse).
So evidence is patchy.
A single jail in St Louis had four riots last year, as prisoners protested about delays to their court hearings.
One silver lining is that fewer people are in prison.
Data collated by the Prison Policy Initiative, a think-tank, showed that the total number of people in state and federal prisons fell by around 14% from January 2020 to December 2021, to the lowest level in decades.
That does not necessarily mean that the total number of people locked up has fallen by as much, however, since many have ended up serving their sentences in local jails instead, as prison authorities did not want to admit potentially infected people.