Temperature Check: COVID-19 Behind Bars

A responsive 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.

Subscribe for updates

Volume 13.0 Table of Contents

Introduction To Volume 13.0:
The Closing Issue

At least 398,627 incarcerated men, women, and children infected.

Over 2,700 dead.

Though these numbers paint one devastating picture of the past 17 months, COVID’s impact behind bars endures beyond statistics. Fragments of the virus’s ruin live in the letters family members wrote when visitations ended; in thousands of compassionate release applications denied; in news articles, poems, and drawings from those on the inside detailing desperation for fresh air and human contact, toilet paper, and empathy. Fragments of ruin in empty promises of decarceration; in lockdowns and isolation, the psychological consequences of which will not be fully known for decades.

Fragments of ruin that threaded through the dispatches and interviews of this Temperature Check series. Closing our year-and-a-half rapid response newsletter, in this final issue, we check up on the people, organizations, and advocacy efforts featured in Temperature Check’s previous 12 installments. What changes have been brought about during this period of acute disaster? And what work still needs to be done? We hope that this issue serves not only as a reflection on the past 17 months, but also as a springboard for rebuilding a post-COVID world that embodies our values.

The much-desired return to a post-pandemic “normal” is now rattled by a new layer of consciousness about the many forms of injustice and inhumanity within the United States’ legal system. The notion of public safety, for example, has been blown open by the eruption of carceral facilities as viral hotspots. As COVID spread through jails, prisons, and detention centers, those on the outside wondered, should we include the health and well-being of incarcerated individuals in our definition of “public safety”? Do we have an ethical obligation to protect the most vulnerable, even if it means releasing them from prison and challenging our beliefs—be they grounded in data or not—about the threat of decarceration to public safety?

Though decarceration efforts were sorely lacking—of the 31,000 federally incarcerated individuals who sought compassionate release, for example, only 36 were approved by the Federal Bureau of Prisons—25,244 people have been released from prison to home confinement since the onset of the pandemic. Though sensationalized in the news media, in truth, only three individuals were on record for committing new crimes, one of which was violent.

These statistics pose a direct challenge to the fundamental assertion of the American prison system; they indicate that public safety and incarceration are not one and the same, and that releasing incarcerated people does not in itself pose a threat to the outside community.

Yet now, over 4,500 of the 25,000+ individuals released to home confinement—many of whom settled down, rebuilt ties with children and parents and spouses, found a new job or a house, received necessary medical treatment that they lacked in prison—are at risk of returning to prison. On January 15, 2021, the Trump administration issued a memo saying that those whose sentences lasted beyond the “pandemic emergency period” would have to go back. Despite his campaign promises to reduce the legal system’s footprint and recent urging from lawmakers and advocates across the political spectrum, President Biden and his legal team have maintained the ruling. Once the official state of emergency ends, there are two ways to prevent these individuals from returning to prison if the ruling holds: Congress could enact a law to expand the Justice Department’s power, allowing them to remain under home confinement; or Biden could use his clemency powers to commute the sentences.

Biden’s decision presents a critical junction, a nexus where incarceration’s status quo meets the possibility of reform. The opportunity at hand, informed by the past 17 months, is to create a new normal that elevates empathy and restoration, to choose an alternative to incarceration that strives for the safety of us all.

As we move beyond the pandemic, and beyond Temperature Check, we urge you to look to the injustices that the pandemic has uncovered about life behind bars—the inadequacy of prison health care, the failure of compassionate release, the challenges of an aging carceral population, and many more—as fuel for continued change.

Thank you for spending these 13 issues with us.

In gratitude,

Frances Keohane, 2020-2021 Fellow

PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Team

Caits Meissner, Director
Robert Pollock, Manager
Mery Concepción, Volunteer Coordinator
Frances Keohane, 2020-2021 Fellow
Mahima Akula, Summer 2021 Intern
Mely Kornfeld, Summer 2021 Intern
Seraphina Halpern, Summer 2021 Intern

Freedom Constellations is an interactive public art project that imagines a world where all youth have what they need to thrive and stay free. The banners, which can be seen from miles away, include an interactive augmented reality experience that illustrates a world where all youth are free in the clouds above city hall. The animation illustrates a collective poem co-created by youth organizers from RISE for Youth and Performing Statistics in Richmond, as well as dozens of youth organizers from across the country. View the full animation here. Photos by Mark Strandquist

Temperature Check An update on the state of vaccines in prisons

At the time we published Temperature Check Vol. 11, only 39 states included prisons in their vaccine rollout plan and only nine included them in phase 1. Now, as vaccines are widespread with abundant supply, only 49.3 percent of the United States is fully vaccinated. Public health officials are continuing to encourage people to get vaccinated as the delta variant surges around the globe—but what does this mean for incarcerated people, who have proven to be one of the most vulnerable groups to COVID-19?

  • As of May 2021, 17 state prisons and the Federal Bureau of Prisons had vaccinated less than half of their prison populations, and as of April, 20 different states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons claimed that less than half of correctional staff had received their first dose. In Utah, South Carolina, and Alabama, less than 20 percent of the prison population has received their first shot—an undeniable repercussion from the fact that prisons and jails were not considered high-risk or prioritized for the vaccine. Some states have had more success, such as Rhode Island, where correctional staff went from cell to cell and asked residents if they wanted to get vaccinated; 73 percent of the incarcerated population is now vaccinated in Rhode Island.
  • Multiple studies and surveys conducted by the CDC have demonstrated vaccine hesitancy among incarcerated people. As Belly of the Beast—a new and powerful film about forced sterilization in California women’s prisons—shows, the mistrust in prison medical services is rooted in real histories of abuse. Adding fuel to residents’ fear is the lack of accessible, accurate information they have about vaccines, and the growing number of correctional officers who are declining the vaccine.
  • In Florida, an unofficial Facebook poll taken by correctional officers resulted in the majority of officers replying “hell no” to getting vaccinated. Unvaccinated prison staff pose a serious threat to residents, especially if incarcerated people are also not vaccinated. To learn more about the complicated relationship between incarcerated people and medical practitioners, the lack of information of vaccines, and why correctional officers refusing vaccinations is so dangerous, watch this episode of “Inside Story,” a new video series created by The Marshall Project for incarcerated people, and people on the outside, across the country.

These three pieces are from a larger series curated by Mahogany L. Browne, representing the new organization she helms as executive director, JustMedia, an open access, lens-based archive designed to assist and support advocacy efforts for systemic change through the art of storytelling. These works were also featured at Lincoln Center, as part of Browne’s groundbreaking role as poet-in-residence until the end of August 2021.

Where are they now?

Join us in celebrating some of the most exciting and life-shifting developments in the lives of our featured writers and guests:

Man sitting on a bunk bed in a prison cell holding pieces of paper in his hands; above him, a black bird perched on the bars of the window

Omari Booker, 2020 Civil Rights Corp artist-in-residence, created “This Black Bird” during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020. The piece is an 8×8 foot self-portrait from his cell in 2012.

Where are we now?

What did the advocacy efforts we featured across Temperature Check accomplish, and where can your support still make a difference?


  • In Temperature Check Vol. 6, we spoke with Gloria J. Browne-Marshall about the racialized history of mass incarceration and the consequences of the 13th Amendment. This Juneteenth, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and U.S. Representative Nikema Williams (D-GA) proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would prohibit the use of slavery as punishment for a crime, undoing the loophole created by the 13th Amendment.
  • The Less is More campaign: Community Supervision Revocation Reform Act (S.1144A / A.5576A), which we featured in Temperature Check Vol. 8 and which will restrict the use of reincarceration for technical violations of parole, was passed by the New York State Senate and Assembly in June 2021 and awaits signature into law. Contact Governor Andrew Cuomo to urge his action now!
  • In Temperature Check Vol. 9, we covered felony disenfranchisement laws and the harms of prison gerrymandering. When the issue was published, only two states—Maine and Vermont—allowed incarcerated citizens to vote. Now, a nationwide movement has spurred many states to revisit their felony disenfranchisement laws. In the past five years, 13 states have overturned laws that prohibited people with felony convictions from voting. However, legal mechanisms do little to reflect realities; most people with felonies are unaware that they can now vote. Check your state’s ongoing efforts to restore voting rights through The Marshall Project and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Recent wins include:
  • In Temperature Check Vol. 10, Dunasha Payne and Ebony Underwood discussed the countless barriers that inhibit family relationships through the bars. In June, Connecticut became the first state to provide free phone calls to incarcerated people and their loved ones. Massachusetts may be the second—learn more about two recently introduced bills and lobby your representatives here and here. Federally, you can support the Martha Wright Act to limit the fees imposed on prison phone calls.
  • In Temperature Check Vol. 10, Dunasha Payne also spoke about mothering while in prison. A congressional bill to improve health care for pregnant people and babies in custody passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last October. Contact your senator now to push it forward!
  • Throughout the Temperature Check series, many people—incarcerated writers, family members, criminal justice experts—spoke about the harms of isolation in prison as it exists during and before the pandemic (the latter most often being in cases of solitary confinement). On April 1, Governor Cuomo signed into law the HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which restricts the prevalence and extent of solitary confinement in New York State correctional facilities.


This selection of images are from the Time Saved vs. Time Served project. The original project, visioned by Tyra Patterson, who also serves as community outreach strategies specialist at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, specifically highlights the uniforms women are forced to wear as a symbol for the many dehumanizing and unnecessary restrictions placed on women who are incarcerated. The multiple artists are all women who are directly impacted by incarceration. Patterson also shared her own piece as a reminder that “no matter where you are or no matter what you believe in, to always have hope, to bloom from the ashes, and always continue to shine.”