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The incarcerated: The pandemic’s invisible victims

No two ways about it. This has been a lousy year. In so many ways our lives have been upended, and more than 300,000 American families have been tinged with the sorrow of losing a loved one to an invisible and insidious virus.

We have all felt so helpless and frustrated by not knowing the end-date of this worldwide calamity.

Imagine then being locked up in one of the nearly 2,000 state and federal prisons with no independent way to protect yourself against COVID-19. Visitations are suspended so family members aren’t able to deliver masks or hand sanitizer. Besides, prisons have long banned any product containing alcohol, and inmates have never been allowed to cover their faces lest they be seen as trying to disguise themselves.

Prisoners spend their days dependent on the guards and prison staff, but those people are the most likely carriers transporting the virus into the facility.

“Obviously, we were catching it from the officers because we had no contact with anyone else,” one inmate wrote me from a federal maximum-security prison. This person added that their prison population was not tested for the virus until early September — nearly seven months after the nation went on alert.

I cannot tell you how many letters I’ve gotten from inmates or family members worried sick about the lack of medical attention, preventative supplies and the frightening increase of deadly COVID-19 cases behind bars.

Once prisons realized the magnitude of the pandemic, prisoners were ordered locked in their cells to minimize contact. Eventually deliveries of masks and hand sanitizers arrived, but by then the damage was done.

Yes, convicts are in prison for committing crimes. The guilty showed no mercy for their victims. But just as we wouldn’t trap a dog inside a burning building, shouldn’t we have compassion for those trapped inside a place where a deadly virus lives?

If empathy for the incarcerated is impossible, then be concerned about their plight because what spreads inside prison walls doesn’t stay there. It travels out to the surrounding communities – and beyond.

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative titled “Mass Incarceration, COVID-19 and Community Spread,” spells it out in stark terms.

“Over half a million COVID-19 cases this summer were directly linked to mass incarceration,” the report states. At the national level, the report’s author, Professor Gregory Hooks estimates, one in about eight of all new cases could be connected to a nearby prison facility.

The report didn’t just focus on state and federal prison populations. It also took into account those held in state and local jails, a majority of whom have not been convicted but remain there awaiting trial because they could not afford bail.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, it was abundantly clear that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in American prisons and jails would facilitate the rapid spread of the virus,” Professor Hooks concluded.

So, is it getting better inside prisons these days? No.

According to reporting from The Associated Press and The Marshall Report, the number of infected staff and inmates continues to increase every week. By Dec. 8, “new infections reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic” and now stand at just shy of 250,000 positive cases. The nationwide pandemic death toll among prison staff is 108. More than 1,650 prisoners have died.

Compassionate releases for non-violent prisoners or those nearing the end of their sentence have been few and far between when compared to the eligible inmate population. There have been remarkable exceptions for wealthy individuals with influential lawyers who win them a virus-related release. A glaring case in point: former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a convicted tax and bank fraudster sentenced to 7.5 years in prison but released after less than two years. Manafort now serves out his time in the safety of home confinement.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice just released findings recommending prisoners and corrections staff be moved to the top of the vaccination list, placed right behind health care workers and high-risk citizens such as the elderly in nursing homes. This will, of course, divert vaccines from the civilian population, but since prisons are super-spreader locations, it makes sense.; email to


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Albuquerque Journal seeks stories of our community's pandemic loss

If you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 and would like for the person to be included in an online memorial the Journal plans to publish, please email a high-resolution photo and a sentence about the person to Please email
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