COVID-19 in Our Prisons
[Description of photo below: Jennifer sits at a desk, with hands outstretched, engaged in discussion with William Peeples, a black man with glasses and a greying beard. Cement brick walls surround them. A chalkboard appears on the left of the frame.]
When I was last inside Stateville Correctional Center—the maximum-security prison where most of the work of the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) takes place—COVID-19 was not yet at the forefront of public consciousness. We talked about final exams and papers, new courses for the Spring Quarter, and an upcoming book event to which we were all looking forward. And then we received a notice from the prison, which told us that it was on lockdown and that all classes and programs were canceled. Overnight, our students went from courses and study hall 4–5 times per week to virtually never leaving their cells.
For the NPEP students, the hours that they spend in the classroom and the interactions that they have with the faculty members and students from Northwestern’s Evanston and Chicago campuses are a lifeline to a world that is otherwise largely closed off to them. For three sacred hours each day, the men in the class are students and classmates, poets and writers, friends and mentors. In the classrooms, there are no bars, no correctional officers, and no handcuffs. The COVID-19 lockdown has robbed the students not only of their entire educational community, but also of the most humanizing and empowering space of their lives.
[Description of photo below: NPEP student, Abdul-Malik Muhammad, who wears glasses, writes on the chalk board with his right hand while William Peeples and Jennifer look on.]
Our NPEP students do not have access to computers or the internet, and faculty members are not allowed to have phone calls with them, so at present there is no communication of any sort between us. No online courses, no office hours via Zoom, no e-mails back-and-forth. One day last week, my daughter and I hopped in the car and drove to Stateville to participate in a solidarity caravan. We beeped our horn as we passed the wall surrounding the prison and held up a sign through the sunroof, hoping that somehow word would get back to our students that we are here and are thinking of them. While Zoom is no substitute for in-person meetings with our on-campus students, it is infinitely better than this.
There are no in-person visits of any kind at Stateville, so our students are also cut off from all outside family members and friends. Ironically, while they are experiencing intense psychological and emotional isolation through separation from their loved ones, there is, at the same time, no social or physical distancing possible from one another. They share small cells in crowded cell houses in a highly populated prison. Toilets are inches from bunk beds, cleaning supplies are limited, and health care is often minimal.
Currently at Stateville, there are almost 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 5 incarcerated people have died from the virus. At least 3 of our students have tested positive for COVID-19. At the same time that our NPEP students are confined to their cells, then, they live in terror that their prison sentence will become a death sentence. Because of the large populations, shared spaces, unsanitary conditions, and poor medical facilities, prisons and jails are repeatedly described as COVID-19 “petri dishes.”
We have all felt the weight of isolation during this time, but for many of us, we have the autonomy to make choices about where we go, and with whom to quarantine. Many of us are in our homes or apartments, working from our computers, connecting with others via phone calls and Zoom, going outside for walks or runs, and hugging our closest loved ones. For the over 2 million people incarcerated in this nation, including our cherished NPEP students, this quarantine is wreaking havoc on their lives in ways unimaginable to most of us.
[Description of photo below: Seated at a desk, William Peeples jokes with another student, Anthony Triplett who sits in a desk to the left of Peeples. Northwestern history professor Benjamin Frommer, who is laughing and writing, sits at a desk to the right of Peeples. Jennifer, who is laughing and gesturing toward Triplett, sits to the right of Frommer.]
There are several ways to support people who are incarcerated during this devastating time:
- Write letters to your governors supporting efforts to decarcerate, especially people who are medically vulnerable and over the age of 55.
- Support organizations in your states providing reentry services for formerly incarcerated people, including housing, educational opportunities, and employment.
- Donate to efforts to provide COVID-19 mitigation supplies to prisons and jails, such as the work we are doing at NPEP: https://sites.northwestern.edu/npep/.
Jennifer Lackey is the Wayne and Elizabeth Jones Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University and the Director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. Most of her research is in the area of social epistemology, with a recent focus on issues involving credibility and false confessions, the epistemology of groups, and testimonial injustice. Jennifer is the winner of the Dr. Martin R. Lebowitz and Eve Lewellis Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution and the Young Epistemologist Prize, and has received grants and fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.