This Is What It's Like to Be in Prison During Coronavirus

“We’re sitting ducks,” a man serving a life sentence in California told VICE news.
April 2, 2020, 8:03pm

Coronavirus is spreading in the U.S. state and federal prison system, and inmates and their families say corrections facilities aren’t taking enough precautions.

VICE News spoke to an incarcerated man serving a life sentence inside one of California’s facilities. He asked us to withhold his name because he has a contraband cell phone and is afraid of repercussions.

In that state, at least 27 workers within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system had tested positive for COVID-19 as of this week.


The inmate is afraid the virus will spread in prison, partly because it is nearly impossible to follow CDC guidelines of socially isolating.

“All it takes is for one person to come into this environment that’s affected, and then boom! You’ve got a crisis on your hands,” he said. “My biggest concern is it’s not so much getting it from the prisoners, it’s getting it from the correctional staff.”

The inmate said correctional officers are being screened each day for fevers, but questioned how effective that is.

“This is not one of those things where you can just simply ask if someone had symptoms and cleared you to come into work, into a densely populated area,” he said. “The moment when the officers walk in here and pass that infection, you’re going to see the breakout in the entire building.”

The inmate believes that a outbreak in a prison would be disastrous. “Prison is probably one of the most vulnerable places in our society right now because I don’t know what, if anything, they could really do. And even in locking us down, we still have to have a certain level of interaction with other people, with our food preparation, with our showers,” he said.

According to the California correction department’s website, inmates are being provided with disinfectant and extra soap. But the prisoner VICE News spoke to says he’s unable to get household cleaners, and he was recently told his prison was out of disinfectant. He said the extra soap isn’t enough to wash their hands as often as the CDC recommends.

“We’re sitting ducks,” he said.

A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson would not respond to the inmate's claims without knowing what facility he is in, and that is being kept anonymous at the prisoner’s request. General questions regarding the state prison’s overall response to COVID-19 weren’t responded to.

Cover: A stock photo of a prisoner's hands inside a punishment cell wing at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

Edited by Nelson Ryland.