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Virus Cells: The coming coronavirus catastrophe behind bars

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“What about in here? It’s worse. There is a vulnerable population, because this is a hospital and a senior citizen home, in a sense. And we get the worst medical treatment.” – Will (ACI-Cranston inmate).


Day by day the short- to mid-run prognosis of what the coronavirus will mean for daily life becomes more dire. As people stockpile toilet paper and cities impose weeks-long quarantines, the very real threat of mass casualties inside of United States prisons has received little attention or concern. Hospitals have been put on lockdown, with no outside visitors allowed. Universities have closed so as to not turn dormitories into publicly-funded virus petri dishes, but our prisons sit near full, with populations that have gotten considerably older and sicker in recent years.

In Rhode Island, there is little concern expressed by politicians or prison officials about the virus being transmitted into the prisons. Guards are not screened for fever or checked for symptoms, let alone tested for coronavirus. There has been no change in the typically poor provision of basic cleaning supplies, access to medical care has been restricted rather than expanded, and guards sit back and openly joke about the likely mounting death toll this could bring to the incarcerated population. We had the opportunity to interview a prisoner at ACI-Cranston Men’s Maximum Security on the morning of March 17th (his name has been changed to Will for this article to protect him from retribution). What he had to say is chilling in its portrayal of the inhumane daily conditions prisoners face and the likely health catastrophe that looms in the near future.

Instead of social distancing, prisoners are being subjected to social compression. The very real threats to prisoners in at-risk age brackets or to those with health conditions that make them vulnerable to death by coronavirus are being compounded by how the Department of Corrections is failing to take even the most minimal precautions to mitigate the spread of the virus to incarcerated populations. This situation is made worse by the complete lack of a plan to deal with sick prisoners. In Rhode island, one out of four prisoners is over 50 years old, seven percent are older than 60.

“They ain’t really doing too much as far as Corona-prevention goes,” said Will. “What their whole reason for locking us down and everything, they ain’t doing too much when it comes to that.”

Planning on a Pandemic

“We’re winging it.” – ACI guard


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Instead of a plan in case of disaster, the ACI’s plan is a disaster itself. As Will put it:

“They don’t even have a schedule, they just saying we’re gonna do this right now because we don’t know what’s gonna happen. They literally said, ‘We’re winging it.’ So, they don’t even have a gameplan.”

Like many prisons across the country, the ACI has restricted all programming and placed prisoners on a lockdown.

“They don’t even know what they’re doing. They’re just like ‘Fuck it. Lock them down, we’ll figure it out as we go along.'”

With the exception of a small window of time to leave their cells for (lukewarm) showers, prisoners in Rhode Island are locked in their cells all day and night. “Shelter in place” in tightly-packed cell blocks, with little sanitation, shared ventilation, food distributed by guards lacking masks or gloves, who are not tested for corona virus, and sick prisoners who remain on the cell-block rather than being transferred to quarantined medical units, means that these prisons are a epidemiological timebomb.

Mouthy Guards with No Face Masks

Prison guards and staff are by far the primary mechanism for the coronavirus to be transmitted into the prison. At ACI-Cranston they are not being screened or tested when they come to work. They wear no protective gloves or masks when interacting with the prisoner population. Jokes that have been made by correctional officers (COs) in Rhode Island betray a lack of professionalism and humanity, but should also be read as potentially lethal biological threats:

“The worst part is that it is going to be coming from the COs who ain’t doing shit, they just collect an easy-ass check, walking around here, laughing, joking, talking about, ‘let one of us get it so they can watch all of us drop.’ Like, that’s their mindset,” said Will. “So they don’t give a fuck. If one of us get it they’re just gonna fall back in bubble and just sit there and joke about it.

“Like I said, they ain’t got no gloves. They’re not getting checked at rollcall for symptoms or temperatures.”

Virus Cells by Design (Cell Hygiene Conditions)

Prisoners are typically restricted from possessing common cleaning or hygiene supplies due to their high alcohol content.

“The hand sanitizer we have, zero percent alcohol,” said Will. “Even the chemicals to clean our cells, they hit it with water, they water it down. Every time, they stretch it… They put water in all the chemicals, so even the chemicals that we get to clean our cells is watered down.”

This is coupled with a lack of hot water and sub-standard soap. In this moment this means the denial of the most basic preventative measures prisoners can take to prevent the spread of the virus to themselves and their fellow prisoners.

“We have to buy quality soap from Keefe [Supply Company], which we don’t even know what’s going on with that,” said Will. “We have to buy our own soap, because the soap that they pass out ain’t shit. At all… It’s really not shit, it’s nothing…

“The water we’ve got in our cells it don’t get hot. Like, it get’s lukewarm at best… And definitely when it comes to quality soap or anything regarding cleaning our cells… or anything in general like that, sanitary-wise, it’s all in their hands.

“Like I said, we don’t even have access to basic anti-bacterial wipes. The only thing that has a label that says it prevents flu and shit like that, they’re the only ones who’ve got access to it.”

Hands Off Handling of Recent Flu Cases and Reduced Medical Care

Will relayed how a case that was diagnosed as Influenza-A was handled one month ago:

“To have influenza-A and have it confirmed and you just put them in their cell and not even give them medicine to treat the symptoms. They didn’t even give them Theraflu. Nothing, nothing at all. No Tylenol, no ibuprofen, they didn’t give them shit at all. If something like that [Coronavirus] comes then they ain’t even going to be able to deal with it.”

Due to the lockdown and the lack of planning at ACI-Cranston medical provisions have gotten worse during the crisis. Prisoners are being denied their routine, necessary medications unless they have a heart or diabetes condition.

“And then, the nurses, they’re still here, but their bringing the med-cart to the block,” said Will. “And they’re saying we can’t even ask for KOP [Keep On Person], which is basically medicine that you keep in your cell. They’re saying we can’t even ask for KOP medicine unless it is heart medication or diabetic medication. So they’re not even allowing all of us to get what we’re prescribed because they’re coming to the Block and they don’t have everything that we need stored with them. Like they’ve got a little cart with wheels on it.”

A Failure to Plan Does Not Excuse a Failure to Act

When ‘bodies start dropping’ the guards might be amused, but the fact that this was foreseen by everyone who runs the system – from the correctional officers to the Governor – means those deaths are on their hands. At an absolute minimum all prisoners at the ACI should be given (without charge) basic cleaning supplies and preventative personal hygiene materials. Correctional officers must be screened for symptoms and fever on a daily basis and required to wear secure masks and gloves when interacting with prisoners. All prisoners exhibiting symptoms should be allowed to be seen by outside medical professionals, and to be tested for coronavirus, with no co-payments. They should also be free from retaliation for speaking out against conditions in the prisons.

Prisoners diagnosed with the Coronavirus should be transferred to a secure medical facility. The most secure and cost-effective way to do this would be to transfer the few dozen men currently in ACI-High Security (a supermax prison that is currently being petitioned for closure due to its misuse, low prisoner population, and the exorbitant cost-per-inmate exceeding $200,000/year) and use that adjoining facility as an emergency medical unit.

Steps should also be taken to expeditiously parole inmates over 50 years old who have served the bulk of their prison term. Older prisoners should not be subjected to a death sentence due to the brazen carelessness of prison officials and the disregard of political figures who failed to act.

Rhode Island should release all people being held on bail awaiting trial on their own recognizance. Prisoners serving jail sentences or minimum security prisoners with release dates should be released promptly to decrease the risks to themselves and others. All prison labor within the ACI should cease immediately.

Rhode Island Governor Raimondo, and power holders throughout the country, should take immediate emergency steps now to deal with the mounting crisis going on behind prison walls. People on the outside have an obligation to stop these pending state sanctioned executions, regardless of the banalities, justifications and excuses of those in power.


If you are a family or loved one of someone incarcerated in Rhode Island and would like to relay information about conditions in the ACI, or would simply like to be in touch with us, please contact: iwoc.pvd@riseup.net

We're working with incarcerated workers in Rhode Island and beyond to dismantle the prison industrial complex. If you are a family or loved one of someone incarcerated in Rhode Island and would like to relay information about conditions in the ACI, or would simply like to be in touch with us, please contact: iwoc.pvd@riseup.net