IndyTeens: The Pandemic Within the Prison

1995 banner depicting Mumia Abu-Jamal by American muralist Mike Alewitz. Text reads: “Remember, we are in here for you. You are out there for us.” By Richard Coit on WikiMedia Commons

By Sira Basse, age 15

The coronavirus is still a threat to the health of people worldwide. Every nation has chosen their own path in how to deal with this pandemic. Even during the times of heavy quarantine and the most precautions being taken, people of lower economic status were disproportionately affected by the virus. And many incarcerated people faced their own pandemic behind bars. 

Inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago put up signs begging for help and asking to be saved back in April. The signs read “Don’t let us die” and “Save us.” These images were obviously very unsettling to many and brought attention to the inhumane treatment of incarcerated people during this crisis. But nothing was done. The inmates held their own protests in an effort to release low-risk detainees as the cases continued to rapidly increase, but they were denied. The Chicago Sheriff’s Office stated, “Any detainee who is symptomatic for the virus is immediately removed from the tier where he or she is housed and taken to receive medical attention by Cermak Health Services staff.” According to WGN9 in April, “304 detainees and 174 correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19. Two detainees have died as a result of the virus.” Being in a small enclosed space with many people, where the virus is known to spread the most, was dangerous and led to more confirmed cases. 

Not every prison around the country has chosen to deal with the spread of the virus this way. At the start of this pandemic, the virus was a large problem in California. According to NPR, on July 10, there were almost 6,000 recorded cases among inmates in the state and over 1,000 staff workers infected. The state of California decided to release up to 8,000 inmates, based on the severity of their sentence and negative test results, to be able to practice better social distancing within the prisons. They planned to complete this by the end of August. What pushed them to make this drastic change was the outbreak in San Quentin State Prison. There had been no reported cases in San Quentin before a transfer of around 100 inmates from prisons around California. As of early August, they had over 1,500 cases in the prison and have put everyone at risk.

In an interview with IndyKids, Mumia Abu-Jamal, acclaimed journalist and political prisoner in Pennsylvania, provided a firsthand account of his experiences during this pandemic. Abu-Jamal explained how there are social distancing rules in place that were being followed by the inmates and that everyone was required to wear a mask as soon as they left their cell. He went on to say, “We’re told by administrators that there are no cases of COVID-19 in this prison, but we’ve learned that there are cases in prisons nearby.” According to Abu-Jamal, in his view, the inmates are being purposely kept out of the loop and are not being tested or told if anyone is being tested to make it seem like there are no cases where he is. “How would you know if there are no cases unless you test it?” he said.

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