Works of Justice: Temperature Check, COVID-19 Behind Bars, Vol. One
A new rapid response series from PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, featuring original creative reportage by incarcerated writers, accompanied by podcast interviews with criminal justice reform experts on the pandemic’s impact in United States’ prisons.
Volume 1. Table of Contents
Our nation’s overflowing prisons and jails are a hotbed of public health and human rights violations on any regular day. While the world shutters in the hopes of keeping our communities safe, incarcerated people remain among our most vulnerable and devalued.
The pandemic has challenged any lingering notion that our humanity can be extricated from those locked away—pushing beyond the realm of morality, mass incarceration has urgent and inarguable implications for us all. Though presumably a grossly inaccurate number due to lack of testing, hundreds of incarcerated people, as well as correctional staff, have been officially diagnosed with Coronavirus in local, state and federal correctional facilities across the United States.
In response, unprecedented releases are occurring. In New York City, the pandemic’s epicenter, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that 650 incarcerated people were released from the city’s most prominent jail, Rikers Island. There are now over 50 known cases in the jail. Thousands more are slated for possible release. Los Angeles has undertaken the largest release effort in the U.S., reducing the city jail population by nearly 10 percent, and granting early release to 3,500 in the state prison system.
But advocates—some of them unlikely—are pushing for more, wary to celebrate urgent and humane responses that still manage to deepen mass incarceration’s stronghold through alternative methods, underscore the system’s entrenched racism, and evade long term reform or abolition agendas.
On Thursday March 26, 2020, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that the federal Bureau of Prisons has been ordered to expand their “use of home confinement for inmates in appropriate cases,” meaning more incarcerated people will be conditionally released. However, a Marshall Project report found that his plan may favor white prisoners as, “only 7 percent of black men would be deemed low-risk enough to get out using the federal prison system’s risk assessment tool.”
When thinking about how to address this complex and urgent moment in history, we looked to our own unique resources: commissioning the direct voices of currently incarcerated writers and artists to report on their own experiences, and calling on our network of advocates to provide information rooted in action. While our social networks burst with content, we aim for this newsletter to be digestible: brief pieces, short podcasts, quick links. In the spirit of mutual aid, our featured writers have also provided a creative prompt for you.
Stay safe, stay grounded, stay healthy, and stay tuned by signing up for our newsletter to be alerted when a new issue is released.
The PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Team
Caits Meissner, Program Director
Robert Pollock, Program Manager
Kate Cammell, Spring 2020 Program Intern
Elizabeth Fiore, Spring 2020 Program Intern
Dispatches from Inside
For Temperature Check, we’re commissioning currently incarcerated writers to share the direct impact of COVID-19 in prison through creative reportage.
Our first dispatch comes from Derek Trumbo, a multi-time PEN America Prison Writing Award winner, dramatist, and part-time mentor to all those who seek purpose in imprisonment. He resides at Northpoint Training Center, Burgin, Kentucky. We liked the title of his piece so much, we titled the entire project after it!
Scroll to the end to find an original prompt from the author, offering an entry point into your own creative practice during this challenging time.
By Derek Trumbo
One had visits from friends and family, religious services, programs and distractions. Normalcy. A desire to be a part of something. Even in prison. Barely two feet away, one’s neighbor shared bad breath, germs and proximity. Poor hygiene. Get sick, pay the $3.00 co-pay, get an appointment, wait a week to see the nurse practitioner.
“Buy you some aspirin, cough syrup, bandaids off inmate canteen. Have a nice day. Next!”
“All visits, religious services, programs and distractions will be temporarily suspended for the foreseeable future.”
News trickles in. New cases where our families live, work, exist without us.
“All inmates statewide will receive one free call and two emails a week until this passes.”
Our social distancing took effect with the jury’s verdict. Years passed. Phone numbers changed. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt, shame, and time to reflect. Shelter in place. Isolate.
“All personnel will be screened for your safety.”
Two feet away, a sneeze. The prison allotts five rolls of toilet paper a month. My neighbor coughs up into his, and puts it back in his pocket. Conserve. Reuse. Hoard. Fifty others share a space the size of a small basketball court.
Pray. Wash your hands. Seek normalcy. How are you today?: An interrogation. Get well soon: A command. A tenet. A plea.
Meanwhile, the outside world offers little in the way of hope.
“Those poor families in Italy. They don’t even notify them,” says the Corrections Officer, twisting her wedding band. “They just set a flag outside for someone to collect the bodies. It’s so scary, so wild, out there now.”
Her smile falters.
Out of necessity we get by. We endure. We envision possibilities for better days where there are seemingly none. My bunkie’s daughter’s teacher tested positive. His cancer survivor mother is raising his daughter. He’s irritable. It’s understandable. The whole world’s a hot spot.
My daughter recently turned eighteen. I wasn’t there. It’s been fifteen years since my incarceration. I’ve never been there.
Several officers are turned away, Fevers. Colds. Symptoms. For our protection. My neighbor now coughs without covering his mouth. Sneezes in the open. Refuses to wash his hands. He won’t go to medical. That $3.00 co-pay. He touches everything. He doesn’t fear COVID-19. He’s survived prison this long.
“Keep an eye on your neighbor,” says the CO. “He doesn’t look too good.”
I follow the man, wiping everything down with germicidal. The prison does not offer disinfectant. Hand sanitizer isn’t available. People would drink it. CNN documents the spread. The local news says COVID-19 is all around us. The mail continues to run. There are very few letters. The Governor allows one free phone call a week. I have no one to call.
Craft Your Own Rapid Response
Try this creative prompt from Derek Trumbo:
Craft a 500 word creative writing piece, essay, or poem to express frustration with someone who has literally driven you crazy during the pandemic so far—someone who stole your hand sanitizer, hoarded all of the toilet paper, said the wrong thing, insisted on going outside. . .
But here’s the twist: Consider how, in these times of emotional/physical uncertainty, you might build your own support group on the written page. Can you express your needs, also while taking the other person’s feelings into account? Can you use humor to bring a smile to someone’s face while you admit your annoyance?
Think of all of the ways we find ourselves distanced in this moment, and seek to bring that person closer, moving through frustration to connection, using creativity.
You can write to Derek via JPay or via the post at Derek Trumbo #201410, Northpoint Training Center, P.O. Box 479, Burgin KY 40310.
Works of Justice Podcast Interview: Miriam Krinsky and Scarlet Neath of Fair and Just Prosecution
On Friday March 27, 2020, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program intern Kate Cammell had a chance to speak with Fair and Just Prosecution’s Executive Director Miriam Krinsky and Research and Policy Associate Scarlet Neath about their recent statement—along with thirty other elected prosecutors—addressing the rights and needs of those in custody during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Featured Work From the PEN America Prison and Justice Community on COVID-19
From 2019-2020 Writing For Justice Fellow Justine van der Leun: “The Incarcerated Person Who Knows How Bad It Could Get,” published on Medium, and collaborated with PEN America Prison Writing Contest winner Joe Vanderford on a piece in The Guardian.
From 2019-2020 Writing For Justice Fellow Arthur Longworth: “What Coronavirus Quarantine Looks Like in Prison” on The Marshall Project.
From Jose Saldana, Komrade Z*, and 2018-2019 Writing For Justice Fellow Nadja Eisenburg-Guyot: “Release People From Jail to Prevent a Coronavirus Catastrophe Behind Bars” on Shadow Proof.
From PEN America Prison Writing Contest multi-year winner John J. Lennon: “The Day the Coronavirus Came to Prison” in Esquire.
Advocacy, Action and Resource Round-Up
Our friends at the Minnesota Prison Writers Workshop, whose participants boast many awards in the PEN Prison Writing Contest, are engaging a book drive that supports local bookstores, as well as the incarcerated writers who are not currently in classes due to the pandemic. Learn more how to support about their efforts here.
Crystal Yeung, Poetry Chair of our PEN America Prison Writing Committee is collecting donations for the Down & Dirty Soap Drive during this COVID-19 crisis, which covers expenses in purchasing and mailing soap, feminine hygiene, and cleaning supplies to keep our friends in prison healthy. Learn more about how to support the efforts here.
Links to other advocacy efforts and resources regarding COVID-19 in prisons can be found at The Justice Collaborative’s growing database.
The Marshall Project has been keeping tabs on state responses to the pandemic in prison through this easy to read tracker, and offer round ups of journalism on the pandemic through their mailing list.