Prison Reform

U.S. Prisons Fail Inmates During the Pandemic

By Jamesina Green

State prisons are known for a lot of things—overcrowding; subpar medical care both physical and mental; consistent human rights violations with little to no rehabilitation.

It has been consistently documented that United States prisons are unsanitary breeding grounds for bacteria and germs—Petri dishes if you will. So, when the COVID-19 virus made its presence known, it is no surprise that prisons were hit hard.

Some prisoners may not have been sentenced to ‘Death Row’ but the pandemic made it feel that way.

The death rate was higher for incarcerated persons than any other population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from March 2020 to February 2021, nearly 2,500 incarcerated persons in state and federal prisons died of COVID-19. I believe the numbers are much higher due to the lack of accurate reporting of COVID cases.

As luck would have it, I live near one of the largest medium-security state prisons in Maryland. And like most prisons, when the pandemic began, the prison went into lockdown mode.

Family members were not hearing from their incarcerated loved ones and the prison’s administration was not answering calls. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services went silent.

My organization, “A Mother’s Cry” was bombarded with calls from distraught mothers worried about their children, and rightfully so. It had been weeks since I had any communication with my own incarcerated son.

The only information we received was the periodic TV news reports. The panic and anxiety levels were intense. Families were asking, “Is my child infected? Is my child dead?” I even wondered about the well-being of my own child. On behalf of the families we serve, I sent emails and social media queries to our Governor, and it would be months before anyone from the governor’s office responded.

By some kind of divine intervention, an incarcerated person at the Eastern Correctional Institution was able to contact a family member. The stories he told were jaw-dropping. Not only did he describe worsened living conditions due to the pandemic, but he also shared about the lack of safeguards or concern about the prisoner’s health and well-being.

He described two individuals locked down in a space about the size of a small bathroom. One had a high fever, severe cough, body aches, and other COVID symptoms. The other individual who had no symptoms was forced to share the space because there was nowhere else for him to go!

All the things recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention such as safe distancing were ignored. Hand sanitizer is not allowed because of its alcohol content. And the face masks were nothing more than strips of the material that the State uses for prison uniforms. Not much protection there. And the sanitation is woefully inadequate.

Aware of all the atrocities, we urged the family member to contact the local news media. And because of this family’s news tip, the media covered the story, and some changes were made.

Incarcerated persons are more suspectable to COVID-19 because:

  • The stress of incarceration affects the immune system.
  • The medical care is inadequate on a regular basis, then you add in a deadly virus that the staff is not equipped to handle. Remember, prisons are warehouses for humans and are not equipped for a medical crisis of this magnitude.
  • The food that they are served has low nutritional value and the water is often contaminated.

As the world carries on, the COVID-19 virus is still very much alive and infecting bodies. Society tends to forget and ignore the prison population, however, COVID has not forgotten them.


Jamesina Greene is the founder and executive director of “A Mother’s Cry.” A community-based outreach and advocacy organization whose mission is to support women and mothers affected by social inequalities and injustices. Jamesina says that “A mother’s cry is not just about her tears, it is about her voice. This voice raises awareness and nurtures. It crosses ethnic, social, and geographical barriers.”

His Name is Byron! One Mother’s Cry!

Written by: Jamesina Greene

On June 16, 2006, my 25-year-old son was escorted into the courtroom. He looked handsome in his starched white dress shirt and new jeans. The ankle chains, and handcuffs, however, reminded me of my ancestors being led to the slave auction blocks. A mother observing her child being led into a room like an animal, surrounded by pistol-wearing individuals with blanket authority to harm him, was traumatizing. This day would begin one of the most heart-wrenching phases of my life’s journey.

He sat next to his court-appointed attorney, head held high, shoulders squared, looking his accusers in the eye, I could see the regal and highly intelligent warrior that he was raised to be. Still, my heart was gripped with fear. Statistics show that young Black and Brown men experience harsher sentences way more often than White men of the same age in this country. The tension and even hatred in some of the faces in that room were palpable and were directed at my child.

My mother’s heart hurt.

I watched the system fail yet another young Black man and his loved ones. With no physical or forensic evidence, no eyewitness, and a recording proving that the victim lied, my son was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years for ASSAULT. Not murder. Not attempted murder. Not rape of a child. ASSAULT.

This is our so-called justice system at work. When you give a 25-year-old a 50-year prison sentence, you are saying to them, “you are useless, you do not matter and we are throwing you away.”

These excessive sentences are unfair and damaging. It has been well-documented that the development of the human brain is not complete until the age of 25. So these extreme sentences for young Black and Brown men and women are an abuse of power. They are intentional acts that destroy families and the lives of our youth.

Not Just Another Statistic

My son is not just another statistic in a very broken system. He has a name and a story. His life matters and I always tried to convey this to him.

His father died when he was 10 months old and the family all but abandoned him. Not only did my son lose his dad, but he also lost the benefit of extended family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who could have stepped in and helped raise and guide him. This lack of connection and support made my son angry. When he was a teenager, that void became evident.

Photo courtesy of Jamesina Greene. Jamesina with her eldest son.

The judge presiding over his case was previously my divorce attorney. And if that weren’t reason enough to recuse himself, my mother used to babysit his step-children. When I was called to the stand, he remembered me. Shocked, he asked me how I’d been and to send regards to my mother.

For a moment, I was hopeful. I thought perhaps there would be some mercy shown during sentencing since again, he failed to recuse himself. A mother never stops hoping and praying for the best outcome for her child. No such thing happened. My son was sentenced to 50 years in the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Photo courtesy of Jamesina Greene. Picture of her son on a call during the pandemic.

Seventeen years later, I still cannot verbalize the disappointment and shock of hearing that asinine sentence. He was not allowed to hold or kiss his two young sons who were in the courtroom. Further actions of manipulation and control by the State. I asked his attorney about filing an appeal and he informed me that he could not even discuss it without receiving $35,000 first. More systemic injustice and inequality for single, poor mothers such as myself. I left that courtroom speechless. How was I going to tell my family what had just happened?

Many people say that the system is broken and cry out for reform. I say that it is working just as it was designed to. Our children are introduced into the legal system at earlier ages and with harsher sentences than their white counterparts. Politicians offer next to nothing to provide stable environments and/or options to keep them off of the street. Yet, they are ready to lock them up at the first sight of wrongdoing.

The Prison Industrial Complex is a multi-billion dollar business and offers the least amount of opportunities for rehabilitation. Poor nutrition, polluted water, sometimes no water, and minimal to no educational opportunities—this is America’s prison system. There is the continual use of lockdown time which limits fresh air and sunshine, much less human contact outside of a cage. The daily violation of basic human rights disturbs my soul. Mass incarceration of Black and Brown youth is a reality and families are being negatively impacted.

Mine was.

And it’s why I fight for mothers and families just like mine.


Jamesina Greene is the founder and executive director of “A Mother’s Cry.” A community-based outreach and advocacy organization whose mission is to support women and mothers affected by social inequalities and injustices. Jamesina says that “A mother’s cry is not just about her tears, it is about her voice. This voice raises awareness and nurtures. It crosses ethnic, social, and geographical barriers.”