Being in prison is like being on a cruise ship minus any amenities. You can watch all the nastiest viruses take hold and spread. When a cop, visitor, or inmate transferring in from a new prison brings in a new bug, it sweeps through the compound rapidly.
When I was in federal prison from 1993 to 2015, real-world viruses would hit us on the regular. Bird flu, swine flu, SARS, Ebola all hit during those years. I’ve seen quarantines, lockdowns, long lines at medical, all because of one new sickness or another.
I never came down with anything. But knowing how even the flu can ravage people in prison, I reached back inside for VICE to find out how prisoners are dealing with the threat of COVID-19, or the coronavirus.
“As of now, I don't see any precautions being taken by the [Bureau of Prisons],” said Plex, 47, who is serving at USP Coleman II in Wildwood, Florida. Plex and all the inmates who spoke to VICE are using first names and nicknames to protect their identities.
“It’s business as usual in here,” he added. “The guards have hand sanitizer, but we only have the regular soap we buy from the store. People are really nervous and scared, because once it hits, we're most likely gonna be left to fend for [ourselves]. Viruses spread in here like anywhere else. In some cases, it may be a little worse because we're packed in and the overseers don't care.”
In FCI Cumberland, a medium-security prison in Maryland, Jeremy said he thinks most people are oblivious to the danger.
“They make jokes about it. I personally am seeing people cough and sneeze a lot, and I am nervous,” he said. “The administration here isn't doing much of anything to hold back this potential problem. Hand sanitizer is not readily made available in common areas, we have to purchase our own hand sanitizer from the commissary. The only things that have been done officially to ward off a potential disaster is that administration has put out a flyer asking visitors who may be displaying CV-like symptoms not to come in. Other than that, nothing.”
The Bureau of Prisons sent a statement to Vice after publication of this story. A spokesperson said federal prisons were taking a "comprehensive management approach that includes screening, testing, appropriate treatment, prevention, education, and infection control measures."
Request for comment to the Bureau of Prisons Public Affairs office, as well as all the prisons mentioned in this story, went unanswered at the time of publication.
Supreme said he’s not seeing anything right now at USP Big Sandy in Kentucky. “It’s not here yet, but people are talking about them shutting down for two weeks to make sure it does not spread. I buy my own hand sanitizer and keep it wherever I’m at. They sell it in commissary.”
Shakim, who is serving at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio, said there hasn’t been a report of anyone affected yet, but he knows someone will bring it in sooner than later. Whether or not testing will be made available to identify such a thing remains an open question.
“Being in prison,” Shakim, 50, said, “the only way one can get it is from people bringing it in, so the ones that's coming in and out on a daily basis, which is most likely the correctional officers, prison staff, prison volunteers, and visitors who will bring it in to expose prisoners. Prison is in a very close setting so it will spread fast and everyone will be affected.”
Mansfield Correctional Institution has suspended all visiting. According to Shakim, the guards have placed hand sanitizer in all the common and work areas and medical staff has waived the copay for anyone regarding nurse sick calls for flu-like symptoms. Also prisoners are no longer shaking hands or giving fist pounds.
“Precautions are being put in place,” he said. “And they are giving us updates on the computer kiosk about the importance of washing our hands to keep the germs from spreading. They are encouraging inmates and staff to wash their hands constantly, use soap or sanitizer, lather up for 15-20 seconds, rinse under warm water, turn off the water using your arm or towel, do not touch your face with your hands, and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.”
Sly, who's serving at FCI Coleman in Florida, told VICE that he is not aware of anyone at his prison being affected by coronavirus yet, but “a lot” of them are getting the flu. “I do mean a lot, too. Almost 50 in one day, very unusual,” he said. “It’s still bad and getting worse. The administration cannot control what’s about to come. They haven’t given us anything to protect ourselves, nor do they care. Because we are prisoners and they do not care if we are sick or die or not, that is their attitude.”
When I was in the BOP I remember long lines at medical during flu outbreaks. Most of the time the staff would just tell you to go back to the unit and sleep it off. They would instruct you to buy over-the-counter medicines from the commissary. Sly reports the same type of thing is still going on at FCI Coleman.
“I have been incarcerated 30 years now and the administration does not care if we die from coronavirus,” he said. “When a prisoner complains, medical tells him ‘You’re OK, go back to your unit.’ The captain doesn’t care. The warden doesn’t care. There’s only a couple of staff on the compound that cares. A little means a lot right now being under such dire circumstances.”
In the New York prison system, it’s been reported that inmates are being forced to make sanitizer that they themselves are banned from using. “That’s crazy that New York inmates are making the sanitizer.” Popsie, who’s doing 35 years at FCI Cumberland, said. “It’s just another form of slavery.”
Andre, serving time in Maryland, said that prisoners where he is are taking their guidance from the news networks on TV and radio.
“There is no soap or sanitizer being given out, nor is any mandatory cleaning being implemented by the officials,” he said. “Maybe because there’s been no known cases or maybe because the people in charge don't care if prisoners catch the virus or not. Thus, no preventive measures are being done. This is sad, but as the old saying goes, ‘You’re in prison, not the Holiday Inn.’”