Sheena King is relieved to remove her mask, though she wonders if it’s too soon.
The 49-year-old is imprisoned at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, one of Pennsylvania’s two women’s prisons. On February 28, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that counties could lift mask requirements if Covid hospitalizations and new cases were low, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf lifted masking requirements for state employees. Its Department of Corrections followed suit for both staff and incarcerated people. It also resumed in-person visits, with mask wearing recommended but not required.
Many states have rolled back mask mandates for indoor public settings in the wake of the CDC’s announcement. But behind bars, where social distancing is nearly impossible, inconsistencies abound between prison systems, causing widespread uncertainty at a time when the next surge may be just around the corner, imposing more isolation and greater restrictions on incarcerated people. Many state prison systems, as well as the federal prison system, continue to require masking, following the CDC’s universal masking recommendation for jails, prisons, and other congregate carceral settings, although not all enforce the requirement. Some systems are resuming in-person visitation with restrictions. In other prisons, however, there is no return to what passes for normalcy as lockdowns continue and programming and activity remain paused.
Many incarcerated people are afraid to speak out about ongoing Covid conditions and how the pandemic continues to affect their lives. “I know that many feel very threatened by prison officials [regarding] speaking to media reps,” said G.A., a volunteer advocate and member of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. (G.A. asked that their full name not be published to prevent retaliation against the incarcerated people they work with.) G.A. noted that several people said that they have been sent to solitary confinement as retaliation for speaking to media.
In Pennsylvania state prisons, 89 percent of the incarcerated population and nearly 52 percent of the prison staff are fully vaccinated. That’s in large part due to the DOC’s incentives of $25 for an initial vaccination and another $25 for a booster, added to each incarcerated person’s commissary account. (The funds come from the Inmate General Welfare Fund, which is funded by purchases at commissary).
On paper, the mass vaccination effort seems to have worked. In mid-March, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections reported that 54 of its 36,215 prisoners currently have Covid.
But people inside the prisons say the number of Covid cases is underreported. Because Omicron is said to be milder and not as lethal, and because many in the prisons are vaccinated and boosted, many have opted not to report their symptoms and instead hide in their cells. “The numbers aren’t [down]. They just aren’t reported because we aren’t reporting it,” King told The Nation.
Take “Annie” as an example. (Annie asked that she not be named.) Annie had already contracted Covid in December 2020 when one-third of the prison tested positive.
After testing positive, she was ordered to pack her belongings, including her mattress, pillow, and half a dozen bags and boxes, and carry them down the stairs and through the snow-filled yard to a separate quarantine unit. She had to make several trips and, already suffering from body aches, fatigue, coughing, and tightness in her chest, the exertion left her even more exhausted, she said.
The quarantine unit was an open dormitory with 32 cubicles, each with two bunk beds that were taller than the cubicle partitions. People on the top bunks lay mere feet away from one another, she said. They were allowed out of their cubicles for two 30-minute intervals each day, and they had to be masked. But, noted Annie, covering her face is pointless “with so many people coughing and breathing around me while I’m in my cube.”
Wanting to avoid a similar experience, when she felt similar symptoms recently, Annie did not report her symptoms. Nor, she said, did anyone else on her housing unit, even though many also felt sick around that time. No one wanted to be moved or to have the housing unit quarantined, meaning that women would be locked in their cells for nearly 24 hours. “Since we were all vaccinated and no one had severe symptoms, we all laid low,” she said. “Everyone is OK now.”
The department stated that it only tests people who report being symptomatic and those who were in close contact with Covid-positive people.
Throughout the pandemic, incarcerated people have reported not being given the latest information about Covid safety. In December 2021, the CDC shortened its quarantine recommendations to five days. However, the agency continued to recommend that within jails and prisons, people who had been exposed to or tested positive for Covid be quarantined for at least 14 days. Many people inside prison were not told about this caveat, causing them to believe that prison administrations were wielding prolonged isolation as punishment.
The same holds true for the updated masking recommendations. Although New York, which has a Covid positivity rate of 2.13 percent, has lifted its mask requirements, its prison system, in which 22 people (or 0.07 percent) are currently positive, has not.
“If we don’t wear our mask, we are threatened [with] a misbehavior report that may result in loss of recreation and loss of commissary,” said Anna Adams, who is incarcerated at Bedford Hills, which had a flurry of new Covid cases in early December after a set of mass transfers from Rikers Island. Loss of recreation means they are unable to leave their cell (which Adams describes as the size of a walk-in closet) for nearly 23 hours each day.
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) stated that prisons provide updates about Covid policy through memos that are posted throughout the common areas of the facility as well as through the administrators’ daily rounds. But Adams said that this was not the case at Bedford, and she does not understand why she and others there must continue to mask when inmates in the rest of the state can remove theirs.
Even without losing recreation privileges, Adams and many of the women on her unit continue to spend the majority of the day locked inside their cells, a schedule that began in April 2020 and continues to this day.
“Due to the necessity for social distancing, a limited number of individuals in housing units with smaller indoor recreation areas at Bedford Hills are impacted by the ability to only allow half of the unit into the recreation area at a time,” the DOCCS wrote in a statement to The Nation. People in those housing units are given three hours of indoor recreation as well as time out of cell for meals and outdoor recreation in the evenings.
“Basically, we are allowed five hours out-of-cell time to utilize phone, kiosk, kitchen, shower and watch news,” Adams wrote in an e-message to The Nation. While in her cell, the door remains closed and locked from the outside. “I feel like a dog in a puppy pound.”
Spending the majority of her day behind a locked door didn’t prevent Adams from contracting Covid in mid-December, she said. She suffered from chills, aches, nausea, and coughing, and had to remain in her cell for 23 hours a day. “I’m very ill and no one cares,” she wrote.
According to the DOCCS, incarcerated people can request and receive mental health care, but this did not happen for Adams. Over the course of eight days, she repeatedly told officers that she was depressed yet received no visits from mental health staff.
“Feeling Wrung Out”
King has been incarcerated for 30 years and has witnessed the changes, positive or negative, that come with different administrations. Even still, she describes the past two years as a roller coaster that has left her “feeling wrung out.”
“I’m resilient,” she wrote, but “the imposing and lifting of Covid restrictions was something you couldn’t prepare for or become accustomed to.”
King is relieved to remove her mask. She works out five days a week, attending many of the newly resumed fitness programs. She also works in the prison’s mental health unit, offering support and a listening ear to women. Wearing a mask, she said, left her struggling during workouts and made it difficult for the women on the mental health unit, separated by plexiglass, to hear and understand her.
Still, not wearing a mask feels strange. “The first time I left my cell without a mask, I felt as if I was doing something wrong. Even now, I feel like I’m forgetting something.”
Annie too has shed her mask. “Hardly anyone wears them,” she said. “I stopped wearing mine because the [prison-issued] masks are ill-fitting synthetic fabric that don’t actually work (hence my getting Covid twice).” She is looking forward to in-person visits resuming, allowing her to see her family across a table rather than on a screen.
She worries about the future, though less about new variants and outbreaks than about the prison’s response. “I’m dreading next winter, because these lockdowns, even mild ones, are really caving me out,” she wrote. “I’d rather get sick.”