Barbed wire in front of blue sky.

The Struggle to Survive in the Pandemic Prison

By Jamal Spencer and Monik C. Jiménez

Prisons, jails, and other carceral facilities have been core sites of the COVID-19 pandemic, from initial outbreaks in Chinese prisons to some of the largest outbreaks in the U.S. The uniquely dangerous physical conditions within carceral facilities (i.e., overcrowding, poor ventilation, and lack of sanitation); a high prevalence of chronic diseases among incarcerated people; and high levels of physical movement through facilities, resulted in environmental conditions ripe for uncontrolled SARS-CoV-2 transmission.

As early as June 2020, the mortality rate from COVID-19 among incarcerated people was three times higher than the general population and the infection rate five times higher. Yet, despite these inequities, the human toll of COVID-19 among incarcerated people has remained behind the walls and in the shadows. Without intentionally centering the voices of those who have lived in the most extreme conditions of social and physical marginalization, we fail to understand the full toll of the pandemic and impair our ability to respond humanely to future crises. 

My name is Jamal Spencer and I am a community leader and restorative justice circle keeper. I grew up in a world where I learned to mimic what I heard, and I did what I believed was necessary to be accepted by my peers, especially the men I idolized. This led to a pattern of so much pain and the all-too-common thread of abuse. School and home life lost their interest, and, in my immaturity, I made choices to achieve the goals I thought I wanted. I didn’t have a mirror or the social supports to reflect on where I wanted to go or even understand the full scope of possibility. Eventually, the street life would cause me to spiral out of control and sent me straight to prison at 18 years old.A man (Jamal Spencer) stands next to a rock.

But, I had so much more to learn about myself and my priorities. It was in prison, serving a life sentence, that I would develop my love for community engagement and political mobilization. I worked to hone my skill set and create a new narrative through healing, listening, and holding space to honor the lived experience of those who have harmed and those who have been harmed. I grew into the leader I had always wanted to be.

The COVID-19 pandemic began while I was incarcerated at Massachusetts Correctional Institution – Norfolk. While there, I served on the African American Coalition Committee, an organization led by incarcerated men to create positive social and political change focused on supporting the needs of Black communities. As the Community Outreach Director, I was busy planning the “No Place Like Home” event — a community event to address toxic masculinity, mental health, supporting healthy relationships, and community. Suddenly everything halted. While the rest of the world was thrown in to “social isolation” by working from home and avoiding public spaces, we were trapped.

Rather than decarcerate, test routinely, and apply U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, we were told to sleep head-to-feet to lower our exposure and were placed on “lockdown,” where we were locked in our cells for nearly 24 hours a day. Depending on the unit, men were in two, four, or eight-person cells.

Lockdown changed the atmosphere. The mental health strain of increased isolation, inconsistent opportunities to speak to family, only sporadic access to showers, and a lack of programming pushed many over the edge. Fights ensued over accessing phone calls. Our meals consisted of the same bagged lunches, day in and day out, and food deliveries to the unit often had rodent droppings or had been gnawed on. Drug use increased, despite termination of visitation. But the impact of these stressors and the acute need for comprehensive mental health care were brushed away — their solution, a packet of crossword puzzles. Moreover, our ability to petition to address our needs, which in the past had occurred during staff access hour, was revoked.

Understaffing of the facility essentially led to a shut down. In fact, dangerous situations unfolded because such few staff were available and, ironically, those that were around were scared to be on the unit. We didn’t need a research study to tell us who was bringing COVID-19 in the facilities — the staff were the only ones coming in and out — they were infecting us. The filth of the facility only worsened and even though we wanted and pleaded to clean on our own, we weren’t given supplies. We started finding needles, which had been used in routine health care procedures, left around the unit. Since staffing was so low, the “red bucket” (biohazard containers) for “dirty” needles was incompetently left behind by health care staff multiple times, rather than being properly disposed of. This oversight created a health hazard for everyone on the unit, from inadvertent needlesticks, to the possibility for people to reuse the dirty needles left behind.

If you got COVID-19, you might consider yourself lucky. Since having had a prior infection was a requirement for working and making your daily wage of $0.25 to $1.00 per hour, some men actually tried to get infected. But, those acts of survival to escape isolation came at a price. If you were found to be positive, you were placed in solitary confinement or an infected dorm, and if anyone was sick, an entire unit was shut down. And all the while, symptoms were often ignored by staff.

I wish I was embellishing, but rather than forget, my call to action upon my release in September 2021 was to use my freedom to provide a voice for my brothers on the inside. Over the past 30 years, my service to community healing has occurred behind the wall. Now, as a returning community member, I work to lift up our knowledge, our talent, and our answers. COVID-19 is just one pandemic of more to come. Decarceration is a viable public health tool, and the intentional inclusion of directly impacted people can help us avoid future violations of human rights and the unnecessary loss of life and human capital.

To my brothers and sisters on the inside, you are not forgotten, you are not invisible, you are not voiceless.

Jamal Spencer is an activist with the Deeper than Water Coalition.

Monik C. Jiménez is an Associate Epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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