Mass respondents shed light on COVID atrocities in new national survey
An ongoing survey by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School is the first of its kind to document conditions for prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Individuals Speak: Incarcerated During the COVID-19 Epidemic” (INSIDE) study, which launched in the fall, is structured to get responses from individuals who were released from prison or jail after the pandemic started in March 2020, and families and friends of those currently incarcerated.
The online survey is anonymous and has been shared by advocacy and criminal justice organizations; of the more than 317 responses nationally so far, more than 100 came from Massachusetts.
There are currently over 13,300 people behind bars in Massachusetts, split almost evenly between county jails and state prisons according to weekly government data. Outbreaks have flourished in over a dozen facilities, often returning over and over again. There are currently over 300 prisoners with coronavirus in prisons, with the latest spikes at NCCI-Gardner, which had 128 prisoners testing positive last week.
“We were hearing things that did not always align with what departments of corrections or other carceral systems were saying publicly about conditions,” said Dr. Monik Jiménez, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital epidemiologist and Harvard Medical School assistant professor. In Massachusetts, where inmates and county prisoners can be locked in their cells for 23.5 hours a day in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, that seemed particularly concerning to her.
“When we let carceral systems rely on punitive measures to mitigate disease, it has a lot of long-term consequences,” Jiménez said, adding that the survey takes note of decreases in access to behavioral health and medical services. For instance, in Massachusetts, if an individual reports flu-like symptoms, he or she is placed in quarantine, or completely isolated 79% of the time.
Two-thirds of all respondents answered on behalf of someone who was or is incarcerated at a state prison, with the remainder split between: 28% in a jail; 1% in a federal prison; 5% in juvenile corrections.
In the state data, over 90% of respondents were family members or friends of incarcerated individuals. Around 9% were formerly incarcerated. Asked if social distancing of 6 feet or more from others is possible, 75% of all respondents answered no; 14% didn’t know the answer, and another 11% said they or the incarcerated individual could properly social distance.
Nationally, more than 90% said they’re unable to socially distance.
More than half of respondents said that daily showers were not available. About a quarter said they were.
“It’s very common across the country for departments of correction to say that they’re giving people free soap to help with hygiene and frequent washing of hands,” Jiménez said. “What we see is that 51% nationwide are saying they’re getting free soap, but it’s not enough.”
In Massachusetts, the number was higher, with 60% of respondents saying that they or their imprisoned acquaintance didn’t have enough soap, or had soap, but not enough to stay constantly clean during a pandemic. A quarter didn’t know the answer to the question. Over a third of individuals surveyed said access to toilet paper was going well, although 43% said they couldn’t answer the question.
There were some positive insights, including that most Mass respondents (80%) felt like areas commonly used were being consistently disinfected, once or more times a day. Disinfection is typically carried out by inmates assigned to work duties. This was significantly better than the national rate of 40%
Jiménez and other researchers called data collections and transparency in jails “dismal,” and noted that the lag is blocking appropriate public health responses, including decarceration efforts.
Nationally, 55% of respondents said they’re being housed in a double room, and 28% said they bunk with two or more people. Only 15% had their own room.
Medical care needs floundered nationally, with 81% of those surveyed saying there is a longer wait for medical care during the pandemic, and 57% saying there is less access to mental health care. About 6% said there has been an increase in behavioral health services, while 88% said coronavirus testing is available if they wish to be tested.
Also in Mass, 12% of individuals said they’ve received more mental health care during the pandemic, but another 73% said they’ve received less care.
The long-term plan, according to researchers, is to examine the lived experience of conditions of confinement experienced by those incarcerated or detained during COVID-19 Prisons present exceptional circumstances that act like “petri dishes,” Jiménez said, because of the close quarters and restrained movement of prisoners.
The rapid spread of infection isn’t a new concept. In July, a JAMA Network Open study conducted by Jiménez and colleagues Tori Cowger and Lisa Simon showed that from April through the beginning of July, the infection rate among Massachusetts prisoners was five times the United states rate.
The situation is dire and has escalated in recent weeks, with four state prisoners succumbing to the virus. As of Friday, 19 DOC prisoners have died of COVID-19, a number that includes two men that weren’t in the states’ official count since they died within a day of being granted medical parole. Two county prisoners from Middleton House of Correction and a Norfolk County jail died last April and June.
Advocates have cited the consistent presence of the virus, and lack of space to social distance in the institutions as they continue battling the DOC in court to move some prisoners to home confinement.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Follow more prison reporting including multiple upcoming investigative features at binjonline.org.