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Letters From Massachusetts Jail Reveal Struggle To Survive Pandemic Winter

When it became clear in March 2020 that COVID-19 would spread around the United States, incarcerated people and their advocates on the outside sounded the alarm. They recognized jails would become a powder keg of infection.

Yet at the state and local level, officials attempted to delude the public into believing that incarceration could somehow be safe during a pandemic, even as reports from the inside grew increasingly dire.

In Massachusetts, Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi has been one of incarceration’s biggest local advocates during the pandemic. He staked out this position early on in a March 2020 speech, warning of the “the evil temptations that exist in our society” awaiting those he keeps locked up, as well as touting his facility’s healthcare capacity and COVID-19 prevention plan.

While the impression among Hampden County’s police is that judges aren’t sending people to jail anymore, the opposite is actually true. Local incarceration levels during the pandemic largely surpassed numbers from 2019.

The pandemic presented a new set of axes for social control and a worsening of already poor conditions for those incarcerated in Hampden County Jail and House of Correction (HCJ), as prisoners struggled to avoid contracting the virus.

Many wrote to the local advocacy group Decarcerate Western Massachusetts (DWM) feeling that the jail was disregarding their grievances, prompting them to launch planned and spontaneous actions with support from the outside. With many of their correspondents desiring more attention to the conditions they faced, DWM shared their letter archives from the fall and winter with Shadowproof.

Jail In A Pandemic

Officials from Governor Charlie Baker down to county sheriffs roundly rejected persistent calls from public health experts as well as the state legislature to reduce jail populations. Meanwhile, the actions taken by jail staff to supposedly curb the virus’s spread were inconsistent, punitive, and seemed to have little basis in the science of virology, according to letters from incarcerated people. 

In August, one person reported that they were locked down for six days with no shower or recreation time following a round of COVID-19 testing. This lockdown was three days longer than what is allowed by law.

During the following months, other incarcerated people reported a standard use of solitary confinement (which jail staff refer to as “isolation”) following a positive test or display of symptoms. But the testing regime, which Cocchi boasted about in March 2020, and its association with a 23-hour-plus lockdown eroded any trust they might have had in the facility’s safety measures.

Letters describe weeks spent in lockdown or solitary between tests, which Cocchi previously claimed took place weekly.

In December 2020, Jose Soto told DWM he did not want to be released from solitary into a COVID-infected pod because he thought his initial positive test, taken nearly a month earlier, was a false positive. He alleged that jail staff did not show inmates their positive results, leading him to believe they were keeping many on lockdown because the facility was understaffed.

Another inmate, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said staff didn’t report symptoms because they don’t want to miss work, which meant the virus was brought into the jail.

“We get tested more than the [staff],” Soto declared. “It should be the other way around.”

DWM’s correspondents see the jail staff as the main vectors of the virus. Another inmate who requested anonymity and we will refer to as “John” wrote in December that correctional officers (CO) didn’t change personal protective equipment (PPE) when moving between pods, which are separated based on COVID-19 positive status, and often did not practice correct mask use.

John, who is asthmatic, was informed around the same time that he “tested” positive for the virus and was let out for recreation time with the COVID-positive pod.

The following day, John was informed by another staff person that he had not tested positive and that he should write a complaint against the CO who let him out with the positive group. John could only conclude that the CO had done it for laughs. Similarly, another incarcerated person wrote that a CO forced him to shower with the COVID-positive group.

Organizing On The Inside

The pandemic restrictions have allowed jail staff to exert an extreme level of control over inmates’ lives. 

They have reported frequently being denied phone calls or recreation time. One correspondent wrote that COs would go around asking people if they wanted their recreation time while they were still sleeping so they wouldn’t have to give them recreation time at all, another wrote that COs would simply lie and claim the inmates had already had their recreation time.

To protest the lack of phone access, Soto and several others broke their cells’ sprinkler heads on December 5.

Soto reported that the COs cuffed him and slammed his head on the ground. They left him and the others who had joined the action in their cells for fifteen hours overnight, still wet and with no clothes or mattress.

One individual developed cold symptoms after being wet all night and was sent to solitary for having COVID symptoms.

According to Soto, phone calls and hot meals were eventually reinstated after the action.

John argued that inmates, who would normally have the opportunity to work, should be compensated while locked down. Much of the money earned by incarcerated people at HCJ before the pandemic was spent at the commissary to supplement the regular meals.

However, following the cancellation of work programs, nearly all correspondents reported that the meals were insufficient.

Soto was reportedly served a sandwich, apple, cereal bar, chips, and juice at 4 pm for dinner and nothing else until the next day. He sometimes had to eat toothpaste or gulp water to feel full.

According to Soto, the shrinking portions were because the guards were working the kitchen, not the inmates. He later wrote that he paid a worker to bring extra portions to the segregation unit, where he was housed. 

Incarcerated people circulated a petition demanding adequate portions and received support from DWM. They demanded more cleaning supplies, the standard two hours of recreation time, and access to COVID test results. (So far, the petition has circulated around two units, gaining 60 signatures, but copies were only recently sent to other units as well. It is also online, where it has gathered 530 signatures from community members on the outside.)

Aya Mares of DWM confirmed that all that has changed so far has been increased access to recreation time. Additionally, some programs, such as group meditation, are being offered again but only to vaccinated inmates.

“What the public doesn’t understand is how stressful this is for families and loved ones of those who are incarcerated,” Mares stated. “They haven’t been allowed to have their three-hour long weekly visits that are free while being held in jail. That hasn’t been replaced by anything.”

As Mares noted, “video calls are only ten minutes long and few and far between. So that has made it so that phone calls are super expensive for families.”

Families have also been forced to send more money for commissary, as their loved ones are unable to work to afford food to supplement inadequate portions.

The jail provides no communication about lockdowns or positive COVID tests to families, sparking worry when their loved ones go silent for extended periods because they lack phone access.

“There’s hardly any accountability in the jail,” Mares said. “The COs seem to be making up their own rules on the spot, and when it comes down to the sheriff, it seems like he’s hardly held accountable either. Who is witness to this?”

In addition to helping inside organizers share their petition, DWM also set up a bail fund for incarcerated people in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties, where twice as many people are incarcerated pre-trial as are serving sentences. In a cruel irony, many of those arrested locally face much longer pretrial incarceration than they would have before the pandemic, as courts work through a backlog generated by a year of limited-capacity operations.

Vaccines And A Regime Of Medical Neglect

As the past year has shown, congregant living in general and in jails is prone to devastating COVID outbreaks which, by their nature, are never limited to their own facilities.

While Governor Baker and the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts refused to commute sentences or implement a home confinement system as the legislature directed, the state was one of few to prioritize incarcerated people and jail staff as part of the first phase of its vaccine rollout.  Yet both of these groups have remarkably low rates of vaccination months after they first became eligible.

MassLive reported with the Associated Press and the Marshall Project that more than half of Massachusetts prison guards have declined the vaccine, a trend roughly on par with their counterparts around the country (WGBH reported slightly different numbers). They point to concerns over short- and long-term side effects, distrust of prison administration, and embrace of conspiracy theories to explain this trend.

For those on the inside, many of the same factors are at play, albeit from a sharply different positionality. The jail’s use of the pandemic as yet another means of social control, coupled with an infantilizing lack of transparency about testing and safety practices, has fueled vaccine skepticism.

Incarcerated people are not allowed to work without the vaccine, though no similar requirement has been placed on the guards, who are obviously far more likely to spread COVID around the facility.

Of the six incarcerated people contacted for this report, none said they wanted the vaccine at this point in time.

Christian Castro referred to a lack of information given about the vaccine. He suspected that flyers posted by the officers’ station were “only informing you of the good and what they want you to know.” Tyrell Mitchell-Bress learned information about the vaccine from DWM.

Some pod-mates received the vaccine and experienced side effects. “Some had mild symptoms, others felt worse as if they had COVID all over again,” Mitchell-Bress wrote. 

Danny Ramos mentioned people who visited and went to each unit promoting the vaccine and answering questions, and believes they “changed people’s mind from not getting it to getting it,” though he himself wanted to wait to get it due to his diabetes.

Joshua Cruz, however, wrote less glowingly that the nurse who came to his unit spoke only to those who were around at the time, and didn’t want to answer questions or repeat herself. “I personally don’t trust the vaccine nor staff who give it here,” added Cruz.

Significant numbers of DWM’s correspondents told stories of medical neglect unrelated to COVID-19.

Routinely, people who voice medical needs are ignored or minimized. Soto has consistent ghost pain and numbness in his leg from old gunshot and stab wounds and is offered only Tylenol.

John was given antibiotics for an “inflammation” about which he never received any information and was denied an inhaler for asthma after he showed normal blood-oxygen levels. His condition was previously noted by jail medical staff, and he requested the inhaler at the start of the pandemic, anticipating that he might need it.

One person who declined to be named complained of a basketball injury and was denied an MRI, postponing his treatment until he could convince jail staff to grant him one, which vindicated his complaints. Still another claimed he was denied insulin.

The facility largely ignores mental health and uses it to humiliate or control people, even as activities like recreation and work that might help have been curbed for a year now.

Writing after a week in solitary and 20 days without family phone calls, one DWM correspondent said he was told he would have to wait 7-10 days for a mental health appointment. The only regular check he received was “a daily wellness check asking if I am gonna kill myself.”

Soto mentioned that some incarcerated people say they are suicidal during these checks just to expedite the wait, which still takes 24 hours. They are then left naked in their cell.

Though Soto asked for medication for post-traumatic stress from his shooting, he was denied and told he “looked fine.”

Another person in solitary insisted the medication he is given does not work and alleged the jail keeps most Black people in the hole.

He believes the facility is sedating him so he does not “get out of hand.”

Brian Zayatz

Brian Zayatz

Brian Zayatz is a staff writer at The Shoestring covering municipal politics in Northampton, MA. His writing has also appeared in DigBoston and Popula.