New Essie Justice Group survey exposes dangerous prison and jail conditions during COVID-19

Survey data collected from people with incarcerated loved ones confirms some of our worst fears about the treatment of people behind bars during the pandemic.

by Wanda Bertram, September 17, 2020

A new report from Essie Justice Group is exposing the failure of prisons and jails to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19, using survey data from more than 700 people who had loved ones incarcerated in May and June. We helped Essie analyze the survey data and produce their groundbreaking report, Lives on the Line. The report sheds light on aspects of life during the pandemic that cannot be understood through government data alone — such as incarcerated people’s day-to-day experiences and their degree of vulnerability to the coronavirus.

Key takeaways from Lives on the Line include:

  • Incarcerated people are even more vulnerable to the coronavirus than existing government data have shown. We’ve used government data to show that many chronic illnesses are more common among incarcerated people, increasing their risk of dying from COVID-19. But Lives on the Line puts a finer point on the problem. 52% of respondents to Essie’s survey reported that their loved one has an underlying medical condition that the Center for Disease Control has identified as “high-risk” for serious complications from COVID-19.
  • Prisons and jails are supplying only meager amounts of hygiene supplies, if any. We’ve previously shown how even in normal times, prisons and jails fail to provide sufficient hygiene supplies, forcing incarcerated people and their families to make up the difference by shopping at the commissary. Essie’s survey shows that this dangerous trend has continued during COVID-19: Only 7% of survey respondents said they believed their loved one could access enough soap, disinfectant, and hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the virus. What’s more, many survey respondents explained that “although their finances were tight, they were the ones sending their loved ones basic sanitation supplies through private vendors.”
  • Many facilities are neglecting to provide medical care. 30% of respondents to Essie’s survey said that their loved one did not have any access to critical services like doctor’s visits, mental health care, and medicine. Respondents described their loved ones feeling frustrated and neglected. One respondent testified that nurses in their facility are not giving diabetic residents their insulin shots, “refusing to touch the [incarcerated people] even with gloves on.”
  • Incarceration during COVID-19 has subjected incarcerated people to extreme isolation. 50% of survey respondents reported that their loved one had experienced lockdowns (which typically limit access to phones and common areas) at some point during the pandemic. 12% reported that their loved one had been placed in isolation or solitary confinement, which has been described as “tantamount to torture.” Prisons and jails’ liberal use of lockdowns and solitary confinement is isolating people and eroding family ties: 11.7% of respondents to Essie’s survey said that they had not been able to contact their loved one at all during the pandemic.
  • Many people are still incarcerated during the pandemic despite having safe homes to return to. Some states (like Virginia and Pennsylvania) have made consideration for release dependent on whether someone has a viable “home plan.” But 92% of survey respondents said that their loved one has a home to go to if they are let out, suggesting that many incarcerated people with homes to go to are facing unnecessary obstacles to being considered for release.

The limitations of publicly-available criminal justice data have constrained attempts to understand how prisons and jails are responding to the pandemic. But the voices of people with incarcerated loved ones are filling critical information gaps. Essie’s survey data confirms some of our worst fears about the unwillingness of prisons and jails to protect their residents, even through basic measures like providing adequate supplies of soap. Lives on the Line adds important context to the story of how criminal justice decisionmakers allowed their facilities to become hotbeds of COVID-19, and how these facilities have offloaded the burden of caring for incarcerated people onto struggling family members.

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