The PEN Pod: Incarceration Amid COVID-19 with Beth Shelburne
In today’s episode of The PEN Pod, we spoke with ACLU of Alabama investigative reporter and 2018–2019 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow Beth Shelburne. Beth has been closely following and covering what health conditions are like for incarcerated people during the pandemic. We spoke with her about the conditions in these facilities, the overall lack of transparency with the prison system, and possible positive outcomes that could come out of this public health crisis.
What are some of the concerns you’re having about prison and jail conditions and the spread of the coronavirus?
I am in Birmingham, so I cover Alabama prisons on a regular basis. But these are issues in all prisons and jails around the country right now. It’s impossible to practice social distancing, but particularly in jails and prisons that are overcrowded. Alabama’s prison system is the most overcrowded in the nation. It’s operating at 170 percent of its design capacity, so you’ve got people living literally cheek to jowl. There’s maybe a foot between bunks, and these folks live in open dorms where you’ve got double bunk beds that are as far as the eye can see. So it’s impossible to practice social distancing. These facilities are really failing to provide adequate access to hand-washing, which is the most basic preventative measure that people can take. Many jails and prisons have no soap available. Their plumbing is plagued with no hot water, or sinks that just absolutely don’t work. Most of them do not provide paper towels, which is the best way to dry off your hands because there’s no contamination.
Another concern is when people start to get sick, like we’re seeing on Rikers Island and some of the other facilities that are reporting an outbreak. How do you quarantine people when these facilities are so overcrowded? There’s no extra space. How quickly are they going to be able to get people to the hospital and put on a ventilator? Those are questions that I think every correctional facility should be working to answer. The bottom line is we have too many people in our jails and prisons for far too long, and that makes all of these other issues so much worse now.
“The bottom line is we have too many people in our jails and prisons for far too long, and that makes all of these other issues so much worse now.”
You’ve pointed out on Twitter that overcrowding and unsanitary conditions are not new phenomena.
No, these have been problems for decades. They’re legacy problems throughout our system of mass incarceration. And a lot of these facilities have contagions all the time that spread like wildfire. Alabama prisons have outbreaks of scabies and lice commonly. There was a TB outbreak here once that lasted five years. We’re all reckoning with the reality that our prisons and jails are failing to deliver even basic health services, and we’ve normalized this substandard level of care. There’s a different business model for healthcare behind bars. And it’s really not about taking care of people.
Now that we are seeing outbreaks in correctional facilities, how is this impacting your ability to do your job and get the information that you need?
I think it’s more important than ever for journalists and writers, and even everyday citizens, to listen to incarcerated people. I encourage anyone who does this kind of work to do their best to elevate those voices, because they are literally the most vulnerable in this pandemic. I think a lack of transparency is always a problem in trying to write about or cover incarceration, but it’s even worse in an ongoing health crisis. For example, Alabama’s Department of Corrections announced its first positive case of coronavirus about 10 days ago, but they would not release which facility this employee worked in. And that’s a black box of information which really causes a lot of panic, confusion, and worry, not just for incarcerated people, but for the thousands of people that work in these facilities.
Our prison system hasn’t made a public statement about coronavirus in over 10 days, and that is just unacceptable when they are charged with caring for 22,000 people that are in their facilities. So I think the lack of transparency is going to be an ongoing issue in this. But really the best practices, according to correctional health experts, are that correctional facilities should be following the same guidelines that community-based healthcare is following, and that is communicating as much information as soon as possible to as many people as possible. I think anyone who is incarcerated right now deserves that, their loved ones deserve that, and the public around these facilities deserves that, too.
“I think it’s more important than ever for journalists and writers, and even everyday citizens, to listen to incarcerated people. I encourage anyone who does this kind of work to do their best to elevate those voices, because they are literally the most vulnerable in this pandemic.”
Is there any optimism here that, with a public health outbreak and these kinds of information lockdowns, could we see that break down as a result of this crisis?
I hope so. And that would be a really good and positive outcome that could come out of this. I think that everyone who works in this space is bracing for the worst, which is yet to come. We are probably going to have thousands of unnecessary deaths because there are tens of thousands of people that are behind bars right now that don’t have to be there. They’re being held because they can’t pay bail, pre-trial, for a failure to appear in our jails or our prisons. There are draconian laws that have them locked up for far too long. So perhaps when we come out of this, these are all things that can be illuminated by this, and that would be a positive thing.
Here in New York City, for instance, people are being released from the Rikers Island facility, and of course, it begs the question of if you don’t think these individuals are a public safety risk now, why were they being detained in the first place?
Exactly. It’s really blowing a hole in a lot of the arguments that tough-on-crime people will make about keeping people locked up.
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