Indiana had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the nation in early December, with Parke County vying for worst county in the state. Within Parke, the epicenter was Rockville Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison for women, where 28% of the residents have tested positive, as well as 20% of employees.
In the first eight months of the pandemic, Rockville had almost no cases among residents or staff and the handful of women in the prison who tested positive were new arrivals. In November, the number of cases among staff began to grow. By mid-December, nearly one in five of the prison’s employees, including half of all those tested last week, had been infected.
Inevitably, cases among imprisoned women followed. The prison gradually locked down, but to no avail. By Thanksgiving, there had been 43 cases. Then the outbreak exploded. In the first week of December, 150 women tested positive. The following week, there were 92 more cases, with three out of four tests coming back positive. Similar outbreaks are now also underway at other prisons in Sullivan and Madison counties.
Why should people outside care if they have no loved ones in prison? A major reason is that COVID-19 infections in prisons spread so quickly and relentlessly that they commonly transmit the disease back into surrounding communities. Indeed, one of the main reasons why the U.S. leads the world in infections, especially in rural America, is because of mass incarceration.
For example, a recent study found that in the spring, more than 15% of all cases in Illinois could be traced back to the Cook County Jail in Chicago. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently noted that 90 out of 100 COVID-19 hot spots during the summer were prisons or jails.
COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons also matter because they reveal the cold disregard our political leaders have for the well-being of people in their custody. Although Rockville had eight months to prepare, when an outbreak arrived, officials mostly left prisoners to fend for themselves. Women are double-bunked three feet apart, with 14–16 women per fenced-in cubicle. Every 136 women share two bathrooms. Consider how three women described the situation:
• "I’ve never been so sick in all my life. Everyone on this dorm is deathly ill … It all went downhill when they started putting positive cases back in the room with negative cases … I was just told I was positive and left in my room. With negative people. They are putting us all in danger at this point, including their officers."
• "We get no medical attention whatsoever! They do not check on us, do not do temp checks, stopped giving Tylenol ... An older lady covered from head to toe with rash, her ears are swollen bad. They won’t get her help."
• "In the beginning, I used to flippantly say that when the COVID finally comes here, the prison will just let us all get sick and die. I thought that I was just being dramatic, but it might have been more prescient than I know ... Why don't our lives matter?"
More than 1,000 Hoosiers have signed a letter to the governor imploring him to do what should have been done at the beginning of the pandemic — reduce the size of our prison population. At a minimum, the Department of Correction should release the nearly 10% of prisoners that will go home in less than three months anyway. The governor could also release several thousand more people who were sentenced before Indiana made sweeping changes to its criminal code in 2014, people who would now be out — or never have gone to prison — if they had been sentenced after 2014. Keeping those people in prison makes no sense in normal times, and is madness during a pandemic.
As the letter to the governor concludes: “The vast majority of people in our prisons were not sentenced to die there. They are our children, siblings, parents, friends, students, parishioners, neighbors, and fellow Hoosiers. Whatever laws they may have broken, we love and care about them.”
We call on the governor, prison administrators, and other state leaders to show both compassion and courage, acting swiftly to reduce the number of people in our prisons and to improve conditions for those who remain. The pandemic is a test of our commitment to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us. Future generations will judge us by how we meet this test. Public health and morality alike require us to stem the horrific outbreaks that plague our prisons.
Kelsey Kauffman, a former correctional officer, directed the Higher Education Program at the Indiana Women’s Prison from 2012 - 2017. She is the author of Prison Officers and Their World.
Alex Roehrkasse is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Sociology at Duke University. He teaches and does research on inequality, mass incarceration, and child welfare in the United States. He lives in Greencastle, Indiana.
For up-to-date statistics on COVID in Indiana prisons, see their website, www.indianaprisonpandemicproject.com.