The Pandemic’s Invisible Victims

No two ways about it. This has been a lousy year. In so many ways our lives have been upended and in more than 300,000 American families tinged with the sorrow of losing a loved one to an invisible and insidious virus.

We have all felt so helpless and frustrated by not knowing the end-date of this worldwide calamity.

Imagine then being locked up in one of the more than 3,700 state and federal prisons with no independent way to protect yourself against COVID-19. Visitations are  suspended so family members aren’t able to deliver masks or hand sanitizer. Besides, prisons have long banned any product containing alcohol and inmates have never been allowed to cover their faces lest they be seen as trying to disguise themselves.

Prisoners spend their days dependent on the guards and prison staff, but those people are the most likely carriers transporting the virus into the facility.

“Obviously, we were catching it from the officers because we had no contact with anyone else,” one inmate wrote me from a federal maximum-security prison. This person added that their prison population was not tested for the virus until early September – nearly seven months after the nation went on alert.

But For Inmates Social Distancing & Masks Can Be Impossible –

I cannot tell you how many letters I’ve gotten from inmates or family members worried sick about the lack of medical attention, preventative supplies and the frightening increase of deadly Covid-19 cases behind bars.  

Once prisons realized the magnitude of the pandemic prisoners were ordered locked in their cells to minimize contact. Eventually deliveries of masks and hand sanitizers arrived but by then the damage was done.

Yes, convicts are in prison for committing crimes. The guilty showed no mercy for their victims. But just as we wouldn’t trap a dog inside a burning building shouldn’t we have compassion for those trapped inside a place where a deadly virus lives?  

If empathy for the incarcerated is impossible then be concerned about their plight because what spreads inside prison walls doesn’t stay there. It travels out to the surrounding communities – and beyond.

Wikimedia commons free photo
People Can Be Contained, Not So the Covid-19 Virus – Its Rampant

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative titled, Mass Incarceration, COVID-19 and Community Spread, spells it out in stark terms.  

“Over half a million COVID-19 cases this summer were directly linked to mass incarceration,” the report states. At the national level, the report’s author, Professor Gregory Hooks estimates, one in about 8 of all new cases could be connected to a nearby prison facility.

The report didn’t just focus on state and federal prison populations. It also took into account those held in state and local jails, a majority of whom have not been convicted but remain there awaiting trial because they could not afford bail.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus,” Professor Gregory Hooks concluded.

So, is it getting better inside prisons these days? No.

PPI’s Report Links Prisons/Jails to Serious Spread of Covid-19

According to reporting from the Associated Press and The Marshall Report the number of infected staff and inmates continues to increase every week. By December 8, “new infections reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic,” and now stand at just shy of 250,000 positive cases. The nationwide pandemic death toll among prison staff is 108. More than 1,650 prisoners have died.   

Compassionate releases for non-violent prisoners or those nearing the end of their sentence have been few and far between when compared to the eligible inmate population. There have been remarkable exceptions for wealthy individuals with influential lawyers who win them a virus-related release. A glaring case in point: former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a convicted tax and bank fraudster sentenced to 7.5 years in prison but released after less than two years. Manafort now serves out his time in the safety of home confinement.      

The National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice just released findings  recommending prisoners and corrections staff be moved to the top of the vaccination list, placed right behind healthcare workers and high-risk citizens such as the elderly in nursing homes. This will, of course, divert vaccines from the civilian population but since prisons are super-spreader locations it makes sense.




  1. Diane Dimond on December 21, 2020 at 10:44 am

    Riley Wright writes:

    So you think the lives of convicted criminals are more important than our senior citizens. That is crazy! Their life choices put them in prison. A senior citizen’s only crime is getting old. They should not be sacrificed for that as you suggest.

    Riley Wright

    • Diane Dimond on December 21, 2020 at 10:45 am

      Diane replies to Riley:

      Where in the world did you get that impression?

      No where in that column did I even hint that a prisoner should get a vaccination before an elderly person. I simply said since prisons are a provable hotspot they ought not be put at the bottom of the vaccination list. And, it should be noted, the elder population in prisons is considerable due to the past practice of handing down tough, long sentences.

      Please read the column again.

      • Diane Dimond on December 21, 2020 at 10:47 am

        Riley replies to Diane:

        I read your op/ed again and I stand by my comments.

        You implied that the elderly in nursing homes should get the vaccine before criminals, but that is only a small portion of senior citizens in this country. If you intended to include all senior citizens you should have said so. I can only assume that was not your intent.

        • Diane Dimond on December 21, 2020 at 10:48 am

          Diane comments:

          You know what they say about people who ASS-U-ME things.

  2. Diane Dimond on December 21, 2020 at 11:06 am

    Carla Ginn writes:

    Yes! What’s also concerning, States are letting people out of prisons because of Covid.

    • Diane Dimond on December 21, 2020 at 11:07 am

      Diane replies to Carla:

      But, prison officials say they are releasing only those at the very end of their sentences – or non-violent inmates. Those who are NOT infected by Covid-19. Hope they are right.

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