SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has ravaged high-density areas ranging from New York City to rural churches. Prisons, however, have been largely undiscussed hotspots of infection and death. Incarcerated people are 550% more likely to contract COVID-19 and 300% more likely to die from it than non-incarcerated people, according to an article by Brendan Saloner, Kalind Parish, Julie A. Ward, Grace DiLaura, and Sharon Dolovich published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July 2020. How did it get his bad? According to an article published in Forbes, “Close confinement, limited PPE and increased risk of cardiac and respiratory conditions makes prison populations especially vulnerable to coronavirus” with outbreaks in some prisons exceeding an infection rate of 65%. The Prison Policy Initiative has identified numerous ways that the criminal justice system could help “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as by reducing jail populations and improving access to and quality of healthcare in carceral institutions. Instead, California’s San Quentin prison declined free tests and advice, North Carolina has maintained its parole abolition (established in 1994), and Louisiana has reversed recommendations to release people from carceral institutions where physical distancing is impossible.
Despite all this, the public discourse regarding the pandemic’s spread has largely excluded discussions of carceral environments, and the voices of incarcerated and previously incarcerated people themselves are overwhelmingly absent. There’s plenty of publicly available data on the topic of COVID-19 in prisons, but how often have you heard illness experiences described by incarcerated people? How often have you read about COVID-19 in prisons without reading about the criminal charges that are supposed to somehow justify exposure to illness? That’s why I decided to put together an ArcGIS Story Map to integrate publicly available data about COVID-19 in prisons with personal accounts from people on the inside.
The project, which I submitted as a final project for Dr. Jane Thrailkill’s ENGL610 course in the fall of 2020 and which I will be presenting at the Health Humanities Consortium International Conference this March, can be viewed here. My goal is to keep updating this document throughout the pandemic. My most recent update added to the map the articles from Synapsis‘s recent special issue regarding COVID-19 and criminal justice. I hope the story map will teach you something and inspire you to act. There are resources at the bottom of the webpage that anyone can use to support incarcerated people.
Megan Swartzfager is pursuing an MA in English & Comparative Literature with a concentration in Literature, Medicine, and Culture and serving as a HHIVE Lab Research Assistant and Health Humanities Grand Rounds coordinator. She is interested in health disparities and the politicization of medical knowledge, and you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.