Incarcerated Women Are Demanding Protection As COVID-19 Spreads

Supermajority Education Fund

April 7, 2020

The U.S. is the world epicenter of COVID-19, and incarcerated people, who can not practice social distancing, are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Incarcerated women are of special concern, as the number of women in prison has grown at twice the rate as men — and, even before the pandemic, women inmates reported facing civil rights violations such as vulnerability to rape and sexual assault and inadequate access to medical care. Now, as COVID-19 continues to spread, incarcerated people and their advocates say inadequate facilities are putting the incarcerated population’s health at even greater risk.

Yesterday, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Young Women’s Freedom Center, organizations challenging the abusive conditions inside California’s women’s prisons, urged state officials to protect inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), where the first staff members in these facilities tested positive for COVID-19. 

Kelly Savage, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners who was formerly incarcerated, has been in communication with women inside the facilities, who are living six to eight people per room. “Some yards are not receiving basic chemicals to clean their rooms,” Savage told Supermajority News, “let alone masks to protect them from obtaining the virus.” She continued, “Staff is aware that they’re putting the population at risk, but are more concerned about a paycheck than protecting these individuals from the virus.”

California will release 3,500 inmates serving sentences for nonviolent offenses in the next 60 days, but advocates are seeking further action for all vulnerable populations in prisons. This includes people with asthma, people who are HIV-positive, cigarette smokers, and pregnant people, who face poor reproductive health care behind bars. These groups are over-represented in U.S. jails, state prisons, and federal prisons, according to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative.

“As formerly incarcerated people who understand how horrific prison conditions at CIW and CCWF are, we demand that CDCR [California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation] take immediate action to release elderly and high-risk people, and improve conditions to protect the incarcerated population,” Amika Mota, the policy director for Young Women’s Freedom Center stated in a press release, shared with Supermajority News

Incarcerated populations in other states with high numbers of COVID-19 cases  including New York, New Jersey, and Michigan have also described unsanitary conditions, staff exposing inmates to the virus, and neglect toward prisoners who show COVID-19 symptoms. 

Wayne County jail facilities in Michigan began releasing pregnant women in late March, but at least 1,000 people remain behind bars, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit shared with Supermajority News. At Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, three women inmates who had flu-like symptoms complained that they still have not been tested, reported on Sunday (April 5). On Monday, a 53-year-old man who was jailed at Rikers Island in New York City suffered complications from the virus and was transferred to a nearby hospital where he died.