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Stories from the Inside: Incarceration in the time of COVID-19

23 December 2020 Published in Criminal Justice

Stories from the Inside: Incarceration in the time of COVID-19.

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As the pandemic continues to spread within Utah jails and prisons, our criminal legal system continues to devalue the lives of incarcerated people. As of late December, 11 people have died of COVID-19 in the Utah prison system, while county jails across the state have experienced their own outbreaks on varying scales.

Incarceration should not be a death sentence.
That’s why the ACLU of Utah has been fighting to protect incarcerated individuals amid this pandemic. Incarceration is the ideal environment for a virus like COVID-19 to spread rapidly. The communal living conditions in jails and prisons are not conducive to social distancing, nor are inmates and staff provided regular and adequate PPP and sanitation supplies.

The closure of jails and prisons since March 1 has also presented us with a unique challenge of understanding the extent and damage caused by outbreaks in these facilities. As a result, we have had to rely on letters from inside jails and prisons that we receive at the ACLU of Utah. Since March 1, we have received over 200 letters and complaints from incarcerated individuals involving COVID-19, comprising about 63% of all medical complaints received in period.

The letters published below tell the story of Utahns who are too often forgotten. These “Stories from the Inside” are the voices of the people suffering from COVID-19 while held by the state. We need to hear their stories.

Our first letter is from an individual we will refer to as “T.” T is incarcerated in the Utah State Prison in Draper. Life changed for T when the pandemic hit nine months ago, and the situation has not gotten much better. Read his story below:

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“Prison is an extremely stressful environment in and of itself. When the whole COVID-19 global pandemic started, it changed everything for everyone. None of us has had a visit in 8 months, no church services.

In October, COVID-19 finally made it to general population. In the first week, the positive case count went from 10 to over 40. The following week, it went to over 80, and the 3rd week it was over 270. They shut down the whole prison for at least 21 days with the exception of staff coming to work. Eventually, the last week of October, they lifted the lockdown. They started to move people around the prison without doing any kind of testing for COVID.

The result was the positive case count going from 9 to 260 in less than 2 weeks. Before, it was just in Wasatch and nowhere else. Now it’s in Lonepeak, Promontory, and Oq-5 where most of the older and medically fragile inmates are housed. Where there was one death. The prison has been under-staffed for a number of years. There has never been very good health care and now it’s very important for everyone to try to be as clean as possible to stop the spread from getting any worse. We are not given proper cleaning supplies, the masks that we are given don’t fit properly, the medical staff don’t change their gloves between tests, the prison guards aren’t given new N-95 masks but maybe once a week.”

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