COVID-19 Has Laid Bare Our Inhumane Treatment of Incarcerated People and Their Families

by Kristen Kovach, WFU JD Candidate ’21

Michael opened his email on a dreary Tuesday morning. Casually scrolling through the spam messages between sips of coffee, his eyes paused on one message sent to him in the early hours of the morning. “I think your brother is dead,” the subject line read.

Michael froze. His heart pounded in his chest. Sweat beaded on his forehead and dampened his palms. His brother, Todd, had been in prison for drug possession since 2018. The brothers had not spoken in a while. But that’s because it’s just hard to get in contact with prisoners, Michael thought. There’s no way he’s dead.

The email came from his brother’s cellmate, Greg, who said that Michael’s brother had been sick for a while. Todd had been coughing terribly, complaining that his chest hurt, and suffering from a bad fever. Todd thought he had COVID. Two weeks ago, the medics came for Todd. Yesterday, the guards came for Todd’s belongings. Todd never came back.

Panic swept through Michael. He immediately picked up the phone and called the prison. At first, the prison did not know Todd’s status. They said they would call Michael back. An hour later the prison called back, having talked with the hospital, and confirmed the worst: Todd had died of COVID a few days prior.

Although Michael’s story is fictionalized, it is an accurate representation of a traumatic and devastating experience that families of incarcerated people in the United States routinely face, even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are stories of people finding out about their loved one’s death over voicemail, in a letter, or even from a journalist many months after their death.[1] If there is one thing that unites the families of incarcerated people, it is the abhorrent ways they were told of their loved one’s death.

With an ever-increasing number of COVID-related deaths in prisons, the problems of prisoner treatment and family notification has become ever more apparent. As of November 2020, almost 1,500 inmates have died of the virus nationwide.[2] North Carolina saw relatively low rates of infection in the general population in October 2020, yet the number of COVID-related deaths for inmates had doubled since September.[3] As of November 20th, there were 1,566 cases per 10,000 prisoners in the state.[4] Compare that figure to the general population of North Carolina, which saw 3,480 cases per 100,000 people by December 1st.[5] Infections and deaths are exponentially increasing in prisons and unless we choose to do something about it, thousands more will die.

As a society, we must decide how we want to view prisons—as rehabilitation centers or as cages—and prisoners—as those in need of help or as villains to be cordoned off from “the rest of us.” Viewing prisons and prisoners in the latter manner has undermined our intended structure and perpetuated systems of violence and harm.[6] The racially-motivated underpinnings of the criminal justice system mixed with the desire to inflict punishment has allowed the ineffective system we have today to flourish.

Only by recognizing the reformatory intent of the criminal justice system will we be able to effectively correct criminal behavior and protect incarcerated people from COVID-19. The fewer people we lock up for nonviolent crimes, the fewer that are forced to live in unsafe pandemic conditions. We must realize that the criminal justice system should be a chance for rehabilitation, not a COVID-19 death sentence.

During the pandemic, this goal can be accomplished by increasing the number of inmates released, minimizing jail and prison admissions, offering vaccination for this vulnerable population, and putting in place a better system for keeping families informed. By keeping the jail and prison populations low for the time being, the risk of viral transmission among inmates and staff greatly decreases.[7] For the remaining staff and inmates not suited for release, the decreased population means the facility can provide the appropriate medical care for those who contract the virus.[8]

Vaccination will be a key tool in minimizing COVID transmission in jails and prisons, but it is slated to be underutilized. When a vaccine becomes available, only prison staff are currently expected to receive it, despite the number of sick inmates vastly outnumbering sick staff. Prisons should offer both staff and inmates access to the vaccine, especially since prison conditions make social distancing particularly difficult for inmates.[9]

Finally, families deserve to be humanely informed of their love one’s death. Sending prison representatives in person to deliver the news is logistically difficult under normal circumstances and potentially dangerous during a pandemic. At the very least, prisons should follow the lead of some states that have a prison chaplain deliver the news over the phone or via a letter if someone cannot be reached, following up with a letter of condolence.[10]

People like Michael should not have to find out about their brother’s death in inhumane ways, and inmates like Todd and Greg should not be forced to live in conditions where they feel their days are numbered. We must decide to live up to the idea that our criminal justice system is focused on rehabilitation and not simply a form of punishment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, doing so means respecting the health and wellbeing of inmates and their families.

Photo credit: Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock.com


[1] Christie Thompson, Your Loved One Dies. The Prison Leaves a Voicemail., The Marshall Project (June 21, 2018 10:00 PM), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/06/21/your-loved-one-dies-the-prison-leaves-a-voicemail.

[2] A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons, The Marshall Project, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons (last updated Nov. 20, 2020 7:43 PM).

[3] Hannah Critchfield, ‘Somebody Dropped the Ball’: Deaths in Prisons Continued, Even as NC COVID Cases Stabilized, North Carolina Health News (Oct. 21, 2020), https://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2020/10/21/deaths-in-prisons-continue-even-as-nc-covid-cases-stabilize/.

[4] A State-by-State Look, supra note 2.

[5] North Carolina Coronavirus Map and Case Count, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-carolina-coronavirus-cases.html (last updated Dec. 1, 2020 7:44 AM).

[6] Christopher Ingraham, Even Violent Crime Victims Say Our Prisons Are Making Crime Worse, The Washington Post (Aug. 5, 2016 9:12 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/08/05/even-violent-crime-victims-say-our-prisons-are-making-crime-worse/.

[7] Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Prison Policy Initiative, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/virus/virusresponse.html (last updated Nov. 24, 2020).

[8] Id.

[9] Michael Balsamo & Michael R. Sisak, Federal Prisons to Prioritize Staff to Receive Virus Vaccine, Associated Press News (Nov. 23, 2020), https://apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-prisons-85361fcf7cda33c7b6afb5ad8d2df8a2.

[10] Thompson, supra note 1.

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