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.”

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