'It Will Run Like A Wildfire': Incarcerated Iowans Share Coronavirus Fears

Apr 24, 2020

Incarcerated Iowans are voicing fears that the new coronavirus may “run like a wildfire” through the state’s correctional facilities. Statements from individuals currently held in Iowa prisons that were shared with Iowa Public Radio raise concerns about the Iowa Department of Correction’s ability to control the spread of the virus, at a time when confirmed case numbers are ticking up and testing remains limited. Some Iowans serving time warn that widespread outbreaks of the disease could lead to “panicking” and a critical breakdown in the “social adhesive” that makes life behind bars possible.

Public health officials have consistently said the best defense against the virus is to promote stringent social distancing and drastically limit physical contact between individuals. That’s a practice that some incarcerated Iowans say is functionally not possible behind bars.

While state leaders have said that proactively reducing Iowa’s incarcerated population is a priority during the COVID-19 crisis, they’ve made little progress.

As of Friday, the state’s prisons are operating at 119 percent capacity, according to IDOC numbers. That’s down from 122 percent on March 28. The ACLU of Iowa has called on the department to do more.

An administrator of a prison enrichment program shared with Iowa Public Radio written statements between Iowans who are currently incarcerated in the state’s prisons. IPR is sharing some of their thoughts, but is withholding the identities of the administrator and the incarcerated individuals because they fear retaliation against themselves and against the enrichment program.

The incarcerated Iowans are being identified by the first letters of their last names. Some statements have been edited for clarity or to preserve the privacy of the individuals.

"Most [incarcerated individuals] here are not overly concerned with hygiene, nor are staff.  If it comes inside this compound, I think it will run like a wildfire, and many [people] will die,” said H.

For weeks, advocates have warned that correctional facilities may be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, due to the cramped and sometimes unsanitary conditions.

“This is an ideal environment for transmission of any virus - large numbers of people in forced close proximity with limited opportunities to separate from one another,” said T. “I hope this is taken seriously or the consequences will be deadly.”

Prisons and jails in other states have been plagued by COVID-19, offering a stark warning of how the disease can travel through the facilities, and how it can kill. At one Ohio prison, mass testing has revealed that 80 percent of the population has tested positive. One model has projected a 99 percent infection rate could be possible in Arizona state prisons.

Multiple incarcerated individuals expressed fear about how quickly the virus could spread once it entered an Iowa facility. Communal living is an “inescapable” reality of being in a prison, added L.

“It is inevitable that when Covid-19 makes its entrance into this prison it will hit us like a [Mack] Truck. We have no opportunity for social distancing, I sleep three feet under my bunkie for goodness sake,” said L. “The best we can hope for is that the institution's quarantine protocol will be able to stymie the outbreak, but this is very unlikely.”

'It is inevitable that when Covid-19 makes its entrance into this prison it will hit us like a [Mack] Truck. We have no opportunity for social distancing, I sleep three feet under my bunkie for goodness sake.' -L, an incarcerated Iowan

As of Thursday, 13 incarcerated Iowans and three IDOC staffers have tested positive for the new coronavirus, all in connection to the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville.

According to IDOC, “extensive testing” is being conducted at IMCC, and the department is taking steps to prevent the spread of infection throughout state facilities. Staffers and incarcerated individuals throughout the prison system have been supplied with three masks each. Anyone entering a facility is being monitored for symptoms, and incarcerated individuals are also having their temperatures checked, according to IDOC Director Beth Skinner.

“All staff in prisons are to wear a mask, and individuals incarcerated are strongly encouraged to wear a mask. All inmates now at IMCC, since there’s a positive case must…are required to wear a mask,” Skinner told reporters.

“Staff are consistently monitoring inmates with symptoms. We’re doing random temperature checks. At IMCC we’re doing temperature checks at least twice per day,” Skinner added. “If any inmate is displaying symptoms, they are immediately placed in special quarantine and testing for the illness will begin.”

But as of Friday, state numbers show that while 167 inmates have been tested at IMCC, often called Oakdale Prison, testing in the state’s other prisons remains scarce. After IMCC, Newton Correctional Facility and Iowa Correctional Institution for Women have done the most testing, with each testing 9 incarcerated individuals.

As of Friday, not a single person being held at Clarinda Correctional Facility, Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility or North Central Correctional Facility has been tested, and only one person has been tested at Iowa State Penitentiary, according to IDOC figures.

This is an ideal environment for transmission of any virus - large numbers of people in forced close proximity with limited opportunities to separate from one another [...] I hope this is taken seriously or the consequences will be deadly. - T, an incarcerated Iowan

Some alleged that incarcerated Iowans are resisting having their symptoms monitored, because they fear being quarantined, an experience they consider akin to solitary confinement.

“’Social Distancing’ in prison is solitary confinement, and this is their answer to the Corona virus,” said R. “If you have a fever, the prison will isolate the infected person, and all [their] cellmates in solitary confinement […] so the inmates who are showing symptoms of being sick avoid the temperature checks.”

“To the inmates, solitary confinement is not worth the possible containment of the Corona virus,” R added.

IDOC spokesman Cord Overton said in a statement to IPR that at some facilities, the only “quarantine cells” available are indeed cells that would normally be used for what the department terms “administrative segregation."

“At some of our sites, the only units that meet the [quarantine] criteria are ones that in the past housed disciplinary cases,” Overton’s statement reads in part, added that the physical isolation deemed necessary to slow the spread of the virus can feel punitive in a prison setting.

“From the earliest days of our planning for COVID-19 I have been aware and very sensitive to the need to ensure inmates do not feel "punished" for reporting symptoms or being ill.  To that end, in the rare cases we have had to quarantine general population inmates, wardens have gone to great lengths to ease those concerns.  This has included providing TV's and DVD players in some plans so as to ease any concerns regarding conditions of confinement,” Overton added.

Some raised concerns about the underlying health issues that many incarcerated Iowans face, which could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Researchers have shown that conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart and lung disease, high blood pressure and asthma may lead to more severe infections.

When I think about where the Corona pandemic is headed, and how it will affect the prison population, I worry that death could throw things out of whack. Which does have the potential to be dangerous. - R, an incarcerated Iowan

“I'm fairly young and healthy, so I feel like I have good odds once it gets into the prison. But I am convinced that once it does get in here, it will wipe out a huge chunk of the population,” said H. “Many [people] in this prison in particular are older, sick, and overweight.”

R added they are particularly worried about older people, who could also be at a higher risk of severe illness.

“I believe that when Corona does make its way into the prison, the prison healthcare system, which is deplorable at best, inhumane at its worst, will not be able to adequately treat the older population,” said R.

Department statistics provided to IPR show that IDOC employs a total of 283 medical professionals across all 9 facilities, with staffers ranging from dental assistants to psychologists to ARNPs to physicians. The number of providers varies from site to site.

Overton said in a statement to IPR that the department employs “dedicated” staffers, and has on-call physicians available 24/7 and nurses on-site at facilities 24/7. If necessary, individuals could be transferred to regional hospitals for care.

“When needed, patients are evaluated by either a physician or mid level provider such as an ARNP or Physicians Assistant. Based on the history and physical exam, vital signs including oxygen levels, labs and information by nursing staff a decision is made to treat on site or refer to the hospital,” Overton said. “[The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics] is available for consultation to our providers 24/7.”

Still, concerns persist about the overall quality of life behind bars during the COVID-19 crisis. In March, IDOC halted all volunteer activities and all in-person visits, in an effort to limit potential exposure to staffers and incarcerated individuals.

Due to these limitations, the department has taken steps to expand remote communication, by offering one free five-minute phone call and four free O-mail messages (monitored offender email) per week.

But just as for those outside, for people inside these facilities, the limitations on physical movement, periods of social isolation and disruptions to daily life can take their toll on the “comradery” that life in prison depends on.

“We can't get visits so I know that's taking a toll [on] some of the guys, and with the temporary lockdowns some people get to panicking,” said N.

R added that they’re concerned about the potential psychological toll if incarcerated Iowans die of the disease. As of Friday, there are no confirmed deaths of incarcerated Iowans due to COVID-19.

“When I think about where the Corona pandemic is headed, and how it will affect the prison population, I worry that death could throw things out of whack. Which does have the potential to be dangerous,” said R. “When people die, it [affects] every facet of our lives. It is especially difficult to deal with loss in prison.”

“We’ve already had so much taken from us,” R added.