Here’s the good news about being in prison in the midst of the global novel coronavirus pandemic: you are locked away from that virus-filled world.
Now, here’s the bad news: the good news disappears with the first infection inside the prison. That’s when the bad news logic of the incarceration situation takes over. Locked up in close quarters with large groups of men, whose bunks can be uncomfortably close, and whose toilet and shower facilities are invariably shared is the most dangerous place to be when this contagious disease is loose in the facility.
Statistics from prisons and jails around America, gathered by The Marshall Project, a journalistic platform devoted to criminal justice system issues, illustrate emphatically how the good news/bad news prison situation plays out in real life.
Isolation protects as long as it does, and during the opening weeks of the American outbreak of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, infection rates in American lockups lagged behind the general population.
But the longer the outbreak continued, the more prison isolation was penetrated, often by corrections officers who live in the real world before and after their shifts. And once the first cases were spotted, the surge in new infections came one and a half times as fast the overall population.
Which is why, the Marshall Project researchers concluded, there are only two kinds of prisons or jails in America today – those with very high rates of Covid-19 infection and those that haven’t tested for it yet.
The state of New Mexico used to be in that latter camp, but things are changing, and by the middle of May, the state health commissioner promised, with Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham looking on, that all corrections officers and staff at the 11 state prisons would be tested for the coronavirus, and a quarter of the inmates, as well. Not long after that, those state officials have said, testing will be available for all prisoners and all guards, and – starting now – all new prisoners will not only be tested on intake, but quarantined for 14 days before joining the general prison population.
As usual, two imperatives preceded the state’s shift from almost no testing for anyone serving time or working in the prison system to the promise of tests for all: 1) show me the problem, and 2) show me the money.
It’s actually new money from a federal pilot program for so-called sentinel, or surveillance testing that will underwrite the prison testing. But a driving force behind this reform has been the investigative reporting of our guest today, Jeff Proctor of New Mexico In Depth. It was Proctor who made an issue of conditions inside the state prison system during the pandemic, and who started asking pointed questions about testing.
Jeff Proctor is an investigative reporter based in Albuquerque, NM. He works for the news website NM in Depth (nmindepth.com) and is a Contributing Editor at the Santa Fe Reporter. His work has appeared in the New York Times and on the NPR investigative news magazine Reveal.