A friend of mine works as a psychotherapist in a northern California prison. Three weeks ago, he and I were talking about coronavirus in prisons as we stood watching our children run around in the schoolyard. He said, “When this thing hits, these guys are toast. The old guys and the sick guys, they’re just going to die. And they know it.” The men I know who have been in prison agree with him. Those incarcerated in our jails, prisons, and immigration detention centers don’t have the privilege of “social distancing.” They are poised to sicken and die in mass numbers. In fact, like the beatings that happen in prisons, it’s an open secret: we all know it. The only people who seem entirely unaware of the pending widespread death from COVID-19 behind carceral walls are the officials who administer these institutions. They have been offering regular commentary on how well prepared the jails and prisons are, using words that are chillingly bureaucratic. Amid these strangely robotic statements from high officials, we have a clarion call for more action to save the lives of those in our jails and prisons, a call coming from an unlikely collection of voices—across mainstream media, from incarcerated men and women to those prison staff who actually interact with them, from defense attorneys who represent inmates to the prosecuting attorneys who put people behind bars.
The situation is dire. In response to the virus, all state and federal prisons have suspended visits. And many prison administrators are withholding information about the coronavirus to quell fears among the inmates. Such complete isolation from the outside world alongside secrets about the death that everyone knows is coming are what led to the prison riots in Italy earlier in the month.
Being on the wrong side of the state makes for a world filled with unknown dangers beyond one’s control. If we are interested as social theorists in the effects of power, one question we might add to measuring racial, gendered, sexed, religious, and classed exclusion is simply: do you believe the police are here to protect you and yours? The answer to this question marks a divide that structures possibilities and violence in daily life. For those in our jails and prisons and detention facilities, the answer is already clear—the state is both their punisher and the only means to have their needs met. All of the engineered problems that are plaguing America’s response to COVID-19—lack of ventilators, lack of testing, understaffed medical facilities—are worse in the carceral system. Our inaction today, for many, will turn our agreement to imprison them into death sentences. Some of us who are not particularly vulnerable to dying from this condition have felt powerless to help, beyond trying to follow social distancing practices to slow the spread. One contribution we can make is to join organizations like the ACLU in urging Trump, Governors, and Congress to make us of the Department of Justice’s system of “compassionate release” to decarcerate particular populations.
Ian Whitmarsh is Associate Professor and Director of the Medical Anthropology Ph.D. Program at University of California San Francisco. His work explores structural, religious, and psychoanalytic logics in science and medicine across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. He has researched and written on how these trajectories relate to racialization, secularity and religious exclusion, and criminality.