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As we’ve covered previously on Rattling the Bars, prisons in the US have been a major source of COVID-19 infections throughout the pandemic, and experts have suggested that the reality is even worse than the limited data have shown. Now, as the more contagious Delta variant causes another surge in cases in prisons around the country, certain states have stopped sharing infection statistics with the public, and there is less transparency and oversight than ever before.

In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with professors Kathryn M. Nowotny and Zinzi Bailey of the COVID Prison Project about the concerning reality that we simply don’t have good information about COVID-19 infections and deaths connected to the prison system. Kathryn M. Nowotny is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Miami and is a co-lead investigator and co-founder of the COVID Prison Project; Zinzi Bailey is a research assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and project investigator for the COVID Prison Project.


Eddie Conway:    Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. We wanted to take a minute to look at what’s happening in the prison system in relationship to COVID-19. We have been watching for the last year and a half those cases. Joining me today to give us an update it’s a former guest, Kathryn Nowotny, and one of her colleagues, Zinzi Bailey. Both of them are associate professors at the University of Miami, and they work with a project that follows the COVID-19 cases in the prison system. So thanks for joining me, Kathryn and Zinzi.

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah, we’re glad to be here.

Zinzi Bailey:    Thank you for having us.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Let’s start with Kathy, though. Can you talk for a minute about the rise in COVID-19 cases? Because there’s been newspaper reports saying that the COVID cases in the prison system is under reported, and that there’s a tremendous amount that the public don’t know about what’s going inside. Do you have any insight on that?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah, definitely. So you’re right. Both in the community and correctional settings, we’ve seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases, particularly with this new Delta variant that’s highly infectious. And as you know, one of the things that COVID-19 did was increase a little bit the transparency of what happens behind bars. Prison systems were reporting daily cases, testing, deaths, and so forth. So even though I strongly believe throughout the whole pandemic that it’s still greatly undercounted for a lot of reasons, they were still reporting it. Now out of the 53 prison systems we’re following, nine have stopped reporting data. So as cases have been increasing, we’re actually getting less transparency than we had before. And so some states, we don’t even know if they’re still testing. We don’t know anything, because they’ve stopped sharing that information with the public. So it’s really distressing to not know how this new uptick in COVID is being handled, how a new variant is being handled, what percent of the population is vaccinated to help protect against COVID, and so forth.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. First let’s just step back a minute. You said 53 prison systems? You’re talking about Puerto Rico, you’re talking about besides the 50 states?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah. 50 states plus Puerto Rico, plus the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and ICE, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Okay. And you’re saying nine have dropped out now and you’re not getting any information?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Nine have dropped out, yeah.

Eddie Conway:    Is there some apparatus? And I know I’ve asked you this before, and I think y’all were trying to see if some apparatus on a national level. Nobody is responsible for what happens in the prison system in terms of an epidemic spreading?

Kathryn Nowotny:    No.

Eddie Conway:    No agency whatsoever?

Kathryn Nowotny:    No. So that is one of the big travesties of our prison system, is there’s no collective oversight when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to public health epidemics. That’s why we see so many lawsuits. Changes happen through litigation. COVID-19 conditions are improved through litigation. Litigation is the only option that we have. There is no agency, or accreditation, or anybody doing regular site visits to make sure that policies are being followed. This just does not exist in the United States, whether it’s during COVID-19 or not. There’s some voluntary accreditation services that are organized by nonprofits who care about quality of healthcare and the wellbeing of people who are incarcerated, but the number of prisons and jails that are participating are very low. We don’t have oversight in this country.

Zinzi Bailey:    And there’s always an issue.

Eddie Conway:    Wait a minute, Zinzi, because I want to ask you that question, in fact that’s what I was getting ready to ask you. You follow this stuff. As a scholar, what is it? Obviously it’s got something to do with institutional racism, but how deep is it? I mean, it’s the prison system, is it also outside in the community? Talk a little bit about how the medicine, and how people of color or even poor people are being treated.

Zinzi Bailey:    This is a really deep issue, and I would say that oftentimes the things that we are seeing with the prison system and lack of data is representative of things that are going on in the community, but you’re going to see things that much more concentrated when you’re getting into a prison or jail trying to find data. But what we’re seeing on a community level is that there is not a lot of coordination in terms of what data is available, and for whom. So essentially there might be overall reporting, or kind of lumping up the reporting into weekly COVID reports, and that sort of thing. But when you get to information about race and ethnicity, where someone is from, you’re getting a lot less data. You’re not getting the full picture of who is getting COVID, who is dying of COVID, who’s suffering of COVID.

You’re going to get that from direct care and the people that you’re in contact with. So if you look at the CDC data there is big, huge gaps in race and ethnicity in location information. And CDC does not have oversight over correctional facilities. And that’s one of our key holes in our public health system where we really don’t have a public health system for everyone. It is not for everyone. So in short, what we’re seeing in the correctional facilities is one marker of what’s happening kind of globally, a sign of structural racism.

Eddie Conway:    You know, and I was wondering, and I was thinking about OSHA. Zinzi, I’m still talking to you, I’m thinking about OSHA. And I realized that prisoners are still considered slaves? And so there’s no federal protection at all for prisoners. Not only is that troubling, but how does that impact the larger community?

Zinzi Bailey:        Well, I think that we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do. In this country, we have lost sight of what occupational standards may be, people who are in any kind of occupation. OSHA has [a] certain level of oversight, but what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to intercede on is very limited. There’s only so many things that they’re actually going to do something about. And there’s a lot of questions around politics of OSHA and that sort of thing. But essentially, folks who are working while they are incarcerated are not protected. They’re not, that’s the long and the short of it.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Kathryn, you mentioned that there’s some groups, self-help groups, or NGOs, or groups like that that’s doing stuff. Is there a network or a place in which they can share their information, a site or something that people can go to, to join in with them? Because if it’s just like in Arizona there’s a little group, and in New York there’s a little group, and in Florida there’s a little group, that’s not going to have an impact on what’s going on nationally. So what’s the status of these groups, and how are they operating, and how can we help build them?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah, I think that’s a great question. In terms of advocating specifically for healthcare and health services, generally on a national effort, there’s not much in terms of grassroots advocacy. As you mentioned, states and counties. Here we have Dream Defenders in Miami that are really pushing for changes at the local level, and with our jails. Nationally there is the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare, which is a nonprofit that does try to improve healthcare services and, as I mentioned, provide some kind of oversight. So they offer voluntary accreditation where they do make site visits to prisons and jails to see what their health services are like, to see what their medical staffing is like and so forth, but it’s very limited. We are in dire need of a national effort. And we’re in dire need in my opinion of having, whether it’s through nonprofit to the federal government, but a mechanism of oversight. All of our prisons, sorry not all of our prisons, all of our hospitals in the United States have very close oversight in terms of the medical care that they provide.

Every medical error is deeply investigated internally by the hospital by the physicians to see what went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How can we prevent it from going wrong in the future? They do patient quality assessment surveys. I mean, there’s a whole apparatus for monitoring healthcare. That does not exist in prisons and jails at all, in any way shape or form, but yet they’re providing the same medical care. So we already know what works from community hospitals, and that could be implemented in our prison systems as well.

Eddie Conway:    You know, you mentioned lawsuits, are there lawsuits pending now or presently in relationship to what’s happening? The prison systems that are not cooperating?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah. I mean, it’s my understanding that I think every single prison system has been sued based on conditions of confinement around COVID-19. I know the ACLU in some states has been leading that, and so have other organizations, because no state has done an adequate job. And so every state is in different levels of court order and litigation around their conditions of confinement. And that’s brought on not only by outside activists and lawyers but also by the incarcerated people themselves that are fighting for their lives, and that are working with outside counsell to try to improve the conditions in which they live. And also to get them released. Which we haven’t talked about, but as we mentioned on the show before, the most effective way to reduce COVID-19 transmissions in prisons is to reduce the population and release people, and we should be focused on downsizing. I mean, improving healthcare in prisons is important, but really we should be reducing the number of people in prisons, full stop.

Eddie Conway:    Zinzi, what’s the numbers? I mean, I was looking at the statistics, vague as they are, and they were talking about the Native American population and how it’s being devastated. And then it went on down to the Latino population, the Black population… what’s the numbers in relationship to populations of color and populations of non-color?

Zinzi Bailey:        So that’s an interesting question. And it goes back to what we were talking about where we have some estimates of what those statistics are, but depending on the jurisdiction we have missing data, so we can make an estimate but we’re not very confident in the overall value. So what we’re seeing is based on the information that we have, Native American, Latinx, and Black populations are overrepresented in those who are dying of COVID. Those who are hospitalized for COVID. But that exact number is something that we really need to be getting at, but we still haven’t improved those numbers since the beginning of the pandemic.

And I think that’s one thing to really emphasize, that over and over again we’ve been saying how this is so important because we live in a structurally racist society that we know has certain patterns, and we can see the beginnings of what those patterns are. But without adequate data collection, we don’t know the full extent of how this pandemic is basically impacting our populations. And we have yet to have that improvement. I’ve looked at the data from CDC. It’s not great. It’s not great.

Eddie Conway:    Kathryn, just give me an overview. I know y’all keep statistics of the number of cases that has been reported. The number of deaths, probably more hospitalizations because a lot of them occur probably inside the prison system, but the number of cases and the number of deaths. Can you give me, right now, the general statistics of how many people in the prison population’s been affected, and how many has deceased?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Sure thing. Yes. So to date, about 425,000 people in prison, incarcerated in prison, have tested positive for COVID-19, and over 2,500, 2,583, that we know of as a minimum have died from COVID-19 in prisons. And when we look at staff—So we haven’t talked about staff, but we know with prisons, staff are the way that COVID get into prisons because people in prison are not allowed to go anywhere. It’s the staff that are going home, and back into and from work every day. And we have over 100,000 reported cases, positive cases of COVID-19 amongst staff. And so you can see staff are the bridge that are bringing it in, but then it’s really spreading among the incarcerated population disproportionately.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Is there any way you would know whether or not they have opened up the prison systems in terms of visitation and work site? You know, whether they have put the prisoners back to work? Because obviously prison is a money-making operation, and I’m sure that’s got an impact on how people are interacting, and so on. If so, can you tell me, are they taking any precautions?

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah. So some states have reopened up for visitations, which was great for families. Some families, some kids have not seen their parents for a year and a half. And so visitations are really important, but some states opened visitation and then the Delta variant happened. We got our fourth uptick and now they’ve closed visitation again. And so we really need to get this under control, so we can have those really, really important visitation appointments with people who are incarcerated and their families. Same thing with work sites. So most work duties are done within the prison compound, so there’s a little bit more control, but obviously that’s not true everywhere. So in California, famously uses inmate labor to fight forest fires. And other places.

And so there has been an opening up of work duties. And then, like I said, some visitation in some places, but from what we’ve seen they’ve all rapidly shut down again because of this new uptick in COVID-19. And that’s the thing we were talking about earlier with OSHA protections. You know, workplace conditions for people who are incarcerated are also not really monitored and regulated in terms of workplace injuries, and in terms of heat-related illnesses, in terms of exposure to COVID-19 and other diseases, and so it’s a real problem.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Zinzi?

Zinzi Bailey:        Yes.

Eddie Conway:    What should we be doing? I mean, you are probably like a lone pioneer out there, operating in this area without a whole lot of support, or a whole lot of the people being concerned about it. What should… yeah, I mean, I could see that.

Zinzi Bailey:        Yeah, yeah!

Eddie Conway:    Yeah. So what should we be doing to enhance the awareness of this? You know, ever since they did smallpox with the Native Americans. You know, we certainly understand what germs are. What should we be doing? What can we be doing? Who should we be engaging with to bring more light to this, because it’s a 500-year-old problem.

Zinzi Bailey:        Yes, it is.

Eddie Conway:    That continues.

Zinzi Bailey:        Mm-hmm. So, this is a hard question, and maybe I have a kind of glib answer and a more complicated answer. We need to be engaging everyone. So I think part of our issue is that people are willing to push things under the rug if they can. If it’s possible, out of sight, out of mind. So it might be an important consideration to really put this out into the narrative more and more. Since the murder of George Floyd, we had an uptick of conversations and then things died back down again, and what happened? What happened? What were the tangible actions that were brought about as a consequence? I think a lot of times structural racism is continued, it’s no longer the sexy thing, it’s no longer the flashy, shiny object in the room. It’s a 500-year-old problem.

It’s hundreds of years old, and we still haven’t figured it out. So I think we have to have a sustained attention and don’t allow other people to take over the narrative of what has been going on in the United States through incarceration, through housing instability, through gentrification, through a range of different things that are actually related to each other. We have to continue that kind of narrative and bring it out, bring it into the forefront. Have the data that we can collect but we choose not to collect, and not collect it well. We need to know what is happening for each one of our communities. We need to know who is getting sick and who is not. We need to know what are the conditions that people are in that are bringing about those kinds of sicknesses. So there’s a lot that we can be doing as private citizens within our professions, but bringing attention and changing the narrative is very key to all of this.

Eddie Conway:    Okay, and Kathryn, you get the last word on this. What in general do we need to tell the public that they need to be doing? Obviously Zinzi really gave us a good overview and so on but for me, that I’m more concerned about people of color suffering the consequences. And now what I’m doing, and I’m not doing this in general, but the population in general is in jeopardy when they jeopardize certain segments of the population. What should the population in general be concerned about? Because it’s their health, too.

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah. So, you’re right that by ignoring the health of our most vulnerable and marginalized populations, we do a disservice and all of public health is impacted. I think one of the things that people can do is continue to put pressure on local policy makers. Sometimes some people may not care about the humanity of people behind bars, which is a travesty. But they should know that disease spread within prisons is linked to disease spread in communities, and we, in terms of disease mitigation, you need to go after the communities that are most vulnerable. And that includes people in our prisons, and so I think there’s an argument for people who may only care about themselves.

So I think locally, it’s to support the local organizations that are doing the work. There’s local organizations that are leading reform efforts, that are leading advocacy efforts, that are putting pressure on policy makers, putting pressure on jail administrators, writing up ads and newspapers. I think those are things that the people can do. And ask for accountability, and hold these elected officials accountable, and make them be transparent in their reporting. And to that end, I wanted to give a shout out. Something else people can do is buy this book called Hear Us.

Eddie Conway:    Okay.

Kathryn Nowotny:    “Written from the inside during the time of COVID.” This is a collection of stories written by incarcerated authors about the experience of COVID-19 and about the experience of racial injustice and racial uprisings and social movements in the United States.

Zinzi had mentioned the murder of George Floyd, and some of the authors spoke about this. And so it’s a really, really beautiful book with incarcerated authors across the United States, and it’s published by a small brother-sister press in Louisiana called Disorder Press, and the benefits help a local nonprofit here in Miami who provide services to people who are incarcerated. This is an excellent, beautiful, beautiful book that’ll give you an inside view of what it’s like to be in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it includes writers from San Quentin, from Florida, from all over the US.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Thank you. And thank both of y’all for joining me.

Kathryn Nowotny:    Yeah. Thank you so much, Eddie.

Zinzi Bailey:        Thank you.

Eddie Conway:    And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.