By Dan Berger
The pandemic prison has utilized several of the worst features of incarceration as a foundational part of how the institution governs “public health” for its captives. And because prisons are never as removed from society as proponents like to think, these protocols redound far beyond the prison system itself.
The scale of COVID-19 in jails, prisons, and detention centers was expected. These institutions are defined by close quarters, poor health care, and, at least initially, little or no personal protective equipment. From the earliest days of the pandemic, anyone paying attention to jails, prisons, and detention centers knew that they would be vectors of community spread.
Abolitionists and other critics of mass incarceration joined incarcerated people in proclaiming that prison ran counter to public health. None felt the urgency as much as incarcerated and detained people, who responded to the chaos and uncertainty in the spring of 2020 with scores of protests and escape attempts.
Their actions were a logical response to institutional neglect: back when it was still possible to track COVID-19 through clustered outbreaks, carceral facilities outpaced other congregate settings — meatpacking plants and nursing homes — in rates of infection and death. Yet these were perhaps the most preventable infections. Programming was on pause and the virus could only enter a facility through outside staff.
As vaccines became available, prison officials initially debated whether incarcerated people should be prioritized for access. Ultimately, officials used vaccine access to justify “learning to live with COVID” as a society, but the restrictive emergency governance of carceral facilities has become a new normal. Although it includes a variety of carceral settings, for shorthand, consider it the pandemic prison. The pandemic prison shares much in common with its predecessor, the warehouse model of confinement that has defined America’s 50-year experiment in mass incarceration. How could it be otherwise? Absent mass decarceration, prison systems had to renovate existing infrastructure to comport to pandemic guidelines.
As I see it, the pandemic prison is characterized by at least three features: isolation, abandonment, and censorship. Prison systems turned to solitary confinement as the best way to provide social distancing in the pandemic’s first year. According to Solitary Watch and the Marshall Project, an estimated 300,000 people were held in solitary confinement in 2020 — a 500-percent increase from pre-pandemic numbers and equal to the overall number of people incarcerated in all of the United States in 1980. Extended solitary is widely considered a form of torture and can cause innumerable health problems. Anecdotal evidence confirms that fear of being placed in solitary led some incarcerated people to not report COVID-19 symptoms, thereby furthering its spread.
Alongside the physical isolation inside of prison is the organized abandonment of incarcerated people. Social and educational programs and personal visits were suspended at the start of the pandemic and have come back in piecemeal fashion — or not at all. The prison’s abiding interest in security can now include biosecurity as another reason to restrict or prohibit the lifelines that contact with people outside of prison provides to those incarcerated. Yet biosecurity has not resulted in an expansion of prison health care. The death toll at New York’s Rikers Island jail keeps climbing with no end in sight, while Stafford Creek prison in Washington undergoes not only a COVID outbreak but a tuberculosis one too. The state continues to transfer people between institutions — this is the second outbreak of TB in Washington prisons in eight months — and to quarantine people with either condition together in an unventilated gym.
The pandemic has also occasioned a censorious public-private partnership controlling incarcerated people’s correspondence and reading. Prison telecommunications companies like Securus and Smart Communications have seen record profits through expanded video visits, email access, and phone calls replacing in-person visits. These companies, who have faced repeated allegations of price gouging, require incarcerated people to buy electronic tablets in order to read books or even to access their own mail. These proprietary technologies and private subcontractors merely automate and privatize censorship of both books and mail. And technology is not the only form of censorship. Book bans are common and capricious; Michigan prisons recently prohibited foreign language dictionaries.
Isolation, abandonment, censorship — these defining (and, in some cases, growing) features of incarceration prior to 2020 have accelerated under the pandemic because they allow the prison’s pure purpose — punishment — to thrive. Notably, these conditions do little to slow the spread of communicable disease in confined spaces. The prison is still a site of viral spread. Yet the pandemic prison refashioned out of COVID is one in which the state has accelerated its repressive capacities that further atomize people struggling to survive. This structural disorganization overwhelmingly targets working-class people of color, a disproportionate number of whom are queer, trans, and/or disabled.
When I look back on the demands that incarcerated people and their loved ones and advocates raised in the spring of 2020, I find no mistakes: maximum and rapid decarceration, housing and healthcare for all are still the necessary foundations of public health. In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 laid bare that life in the United States was both precarious and unsustainable. The clear need for dramatic change led me to hope that the pandemic might yield a public health victory over incarceration. Instead, we got a prison approach to public health — durable enough to withstand urgency and morality, lawsuits and protests, with exaggerated forms of social control.
If, as Katherine Wu put it in The Atlantic, the Biden administration “killed America’s collective pandemic approach,” it did so in tandem with state and local officials who bolstered the mechanisms of state violence against the possibilities of communal care. The pandemic prison is a harbinger, not an aberration, of the society that creates and maintains it. In September 2021, when one in 500 Americans had died of COVID-19, Alabama governor Kay Ivey pledged $400 million of federal pandemic relief money to fund new prison construction. Seven months later, on May 17, 2022, the United States officially surpassed one million COVID deaths. That news followed a racist massacre in Buffalo and a press conference where President Biden, flanked by police chiefs, urged cities to spend remaining federal COVID relief money on police. Beyond the outrage of increasing funding to an institution that so recently provoked the largest protests in U.S. history, the move demonstrated a victory lap for the pandemic prison.
Dan Berger is professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell, curates the Washington Prison History Project, and is the author of the forthcoming book Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power Through One Family’s Journey.