The Prison as ‘Death Camp’ during a Pandemic

Updated: Apr 23

Kaia Stern | 22 April 2020


This is a guest post by Kaia Stern, Ph.D., at Harvard University, who has spent decades studying the “American punishment system.” A scholar-activist, she is deeply invested in transformative justice and prison reform. In this piece, she shares rare insights about the impact of COVID-19 at one of the oldest operating women’s prisons in Framingham, Massachusetts, US.

Jails, prisons and detention centers are epicenters for the novel coronavirus as it spreads worldwide. For example, news media in the United States has been reporting on Rikers Island, Cook County Jail, and Marion Correctional Facility. The focus is usually on men. However, the coronavirus infection rate at MCI Framingham prison is, per capita, higher than Rikers. Less than 22 miles from Harvard University, most women condemned there are single mothers with children under the age of 18. According to state records, 99.9 percent are victims/survivors of domestic violence. Suicides exceed national averages. Black and Latina women and girls are the most vulnerable to crime and punishment, and they constitute the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population in the U.S.

When the prison opened its doors in November 1877, as the Reformatory Prison for Women, “Prisoner Number One,” a woman named Hannah Sullivan, was classified as “feeble-minded” and locked up for being homeless and drunk. (In the late nineteenth century, women in prison were generally classified into four categories: normal, feeble-minded, idiots and morons.) Sullivan’s criminal classification is familiar to many women behind bars today who are criminalized for being poor and struggling with trauma, addiction, poverty, and mental health.

Physical distancing is not possible when 30 people are double-bunked in one room. Few people have what they need (Not even wealthy hospitals have enough emergency protective gear.) If the prison staff has an N95 mask, they are re-using the same one every shift—that’s why they are asking volunteers to help make cloth masks to go over them. People who are serving triple life sentences are seeking clean water when their fevers rise. And women in prison are at risk of dying of the coronavirus at extraordinary rates.

The first college course I taught at MCI Framingham was in 2008, made possible through the Boston University Prison Education Program. After years of teaching there, the prison staff helped to arrange various tours of the prison for the Harvard students who were part of the college courses through the Prison Studies Project. We saw the dungeon that is slated for demolition. The seven metal tables, outfitted with stirrups, sinks, shackles, a pipe, and a central drain still haunt me.

An officer who had worked at Framingham for more than thirty years and witnessed multiple suicides told me that she performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on people who were clearly dead. An officer’s duty, she reminded me, is to do everything in their power to make sure the incarcerated population is safe. “We are not medical doctors,” she explained, “so we cannot pronounce anyone dead.” That is why, even if a body has been cold and stiff for half the night, the officers were required to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation—placing their open mouth against the corpse every fifteen seconds and exerting chest compressions at the rate of 100 per minute. That officer is surely acquainted with punishment as intimate disconnect.

There is something that we don’t like to talk about when it comes to prison reform— the massive workforce in jails and prisons across our nation who come from the same socio- economic communities, if not the same families as the people who are locked up. In a jail or prison near a city, the overwhelming majority of officers are black and brown. In this particular moment, when COVID-19 is gripping lungs, health care workers and prison officers keep putting on their uniforms and showing up for work. They are public servants; they are not the power elite. They are trying to put food on the table.

There is another secret. Human connection is contraband in jail and prison. We don’t say that out loud. It’s not written in our policies. But anyone who has spent time in a jail or prison knows this. Sharing is punished as extortion. Officers get fired for smiling too much. There are hidden spaces and palpable shame.

Prisons operate as if the people in custody are state property — it is written across millions of backs and is indelible on the hemp of our 13th Amendment. Slavery and involuntary servitude continue to be legal under constitutional law as punishment for a crime. So human connection threatens the logic of punishment. Both forbidden and inevitable, human connection in prison is somehow a smuggled good.

Last summer, before we knew anything about COVID-19, I was part of a working group inside another maximum-security women’s prison. Angela Y. Davis recently sold her life’s work to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Before the archives became available to the general public, some students, faculty, and I came together to read her books, unpublished letters, and manuscripts with Toni Morrison’s handwritten edits. We focused on justice as a thread to weave the themes of the conference dedicated to honoring her legacy.

In our conversations in that prison library, we, Harvard visitors, were told that all of our theorizing about justice—about what is reform and what is abolition—meant nothing. They were focused on meeting basic needs—securing sanitary napkins, and family connections. A student who had been incarcerated for 23 years was clear: “Punishment is increasingly repressive, and the people around me are not getting what they need.” One student asked a question that none of us could answer. Why do you hate us? Especially now, in this time of the coronavirus, this question may haunt us.

Our current catastrophe of mass criminalization, (which includes mass incarceration and mass deportation) reveals profound alienation at every level: alienation from ourselves (which often creates pathways of addiction and violence), alienation from community (evidenced in abiding fear of the so-called other— the “terrorist,” people who are elders, poor, queer, brown-skinned, mentally ill, not “saved,” not “chosen,” not “citizens”) and spiritual alienation. It is as if justice itself is imprisoned. And it is fighting for its life without a ventilator.

Keywords: #COVID19 #pandemic #prison #socialdistancing #massincarceration #masscriminalization

Kaia Stern is the cofounder and director of the Prison Studies Project at Harvard University, the first Practitioner in Residence at the Radcliffe Institute, the Executive Director of Concord Prison Outreach, and a Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she leads the Transformative Justice Initiative. Her work focuses on ethics, justice, and education in prison. Kaia is the author of Voices from American Prisons: Faith, Education, and Healing (Routledge, 2014). As a consultant, she has fostered partnerships between activists and law enforcement agencies, faith leaders and community-based organizations, victims’ rights advocates, and the US Department of Justice. Kaia received her master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School and her PhD from Emory University. She is ordained as an interfaith minister and has been teaching in and about U.S. prisons for more than two decades.

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