First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19: Report on Events, Data, and Trends

First 90 Days of Prisoner Resistance to COVID-19: Report on Events, Data, and Trends

In this report, Perilous Chronicle analyzes the first 90 days of prisoner resistance to COVID-19, beginning in March 2020. It describes the context for the wave of unrest, describes major events from this period, and draws conclusions based on the data collected for each event.

Published November 12, 2020.


Click here for full dataset

Introduction

On March 17, prisoners at two separate facilities on opposite coasts of the U.S.–a county jail in New Jersey and an ICE detention center in California– organized protests in response to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. On that day those incarcerated at Monterey County Jail in California and at Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, New Jersey organized a food strike and a hunger strike, respectively. The ICE detainees in New Jersey knew, and told the media, that they were engaged in “a fight not only for our freedom but also for our health and safety.” What was not yet apparent is that the protesting prisoners were organizing one of the first actions in what is now clearly one of the most massive waves of prisoner resistance in the past decade.

At Perilous: A Chronicle of Prisoner Unrest we track all instances of prisoner protest across the US and Canada since 2010 that involve multiple prisoners. In early 2020 we were paying close attention to the outbreak of prisoner rebellions, escapes, riots, and resistance in other parts of the world in response to the coronavirus, most notably in Italy. As COVID breached the shores of the U.S. (where we live) we prepared ourselves as best we could to document what we anticipated would be a huge uptick in prisoner organizing and action.

That wave did in fact crash, and we subsequently counted 119 instances of prisoner resistance in the first 90 days of the COVID crisis. These actions occurred in prisons, jails, detention centers, and more. We mark the date of that crash as March 17, the date of the first two actions that we are aware of in which the participants clearly articulated the actions as responses to the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

Methodology

Like almost all attempts at data collection, our approach had its limits. We most certainly did not catch all actions that prisoners took over the course of March, April, May, and the beginning of June 2020. Our methodology was limited in the following ways:

Limits we imposed:

  • We only collect data if more than one incarcerated person is involved. Unfortunately, this excludes some of the brave escapes that occurred during these months, as well as other instances in which a single prisoner goes on hunger strike or attacks guards.
  • We also do not collect data on events that seem to consist of only fights between different groups of prisoners, unless the disturbance also includes some other aspects, such as attacks on guards or property destruction. We limit our scope in this way despite being aware that similar conditions spur both resistance and other forms of violence. For example, brutal living conditions, abusive guards, and incarceration itself are huge factors in both these outbreaks of intra-prisoner violence as well as massive hunger strikes and rebellions.

Limits we could not control:

  • Media coverage; what other research projects decide to report on
  • Efforts at obfuscation on the part of prison administration and other carceral bodies
  • Difficulty reliably communicating with incarcerated people
  • All-volunteer organization; limited resources often makes more thorough investigation impossible

Additionally, it should be noted that our data tracking is premised on an inclusive method that allows a single event to be recorded as having multiple event types or even multiple facility types. For example, a single event may be both a hunger strike and a protest and occur at both an immigrant detention center and a county jail (if for instance ICE has a contract with a county sheriff’s department). We do our best to keep this approach in mind when drawing conclusions below.

Despite the limits described above, we think the data and stories we collected provide some key insights into understanding prisoner resistance during the first few months of the COVID pandemic. This report is an initial attempt to make sense of our findings. What follows is a short overview of the context for the wave of unrest, descriptions of some of the key events from this period, and finally a summary of the data.

Map of All Actions

The map below shows all of the 119 events from this period.

  • Scroll by clicking and dragging on the map.
  • Zoom by using the buttons in the top left.
  • Click on a dot to view details about the event.
  • If more than one event occurred at the selected facility, then use the small grey arrow in the pop-up box to view the additional events.

COVID and Mass Incarceration 

In many ways the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to catch the U.S. by surprise. As the virus spread it applied pressure on all aspects of our world, exposing various weaknesses and faultlines as they buckled under the weight of the pandemic. Amidst the tragedy, the crisis also enabled many to more clearly recognize the quotidian devastation we had been living in all along.

As Frank Snowden writes in his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, epidemics are not “random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”

When the pandemic spread to the US, it found a society structured quite oddly, as few in the history of the human species have been. Huge amounts of the US population live in cages, a condition dubbed “mass incarceration,” in which 698 of every 100,000 people in the country were incarcerated as of 2018. This vast carceral network has few historical analogs. The best comparison is the Gulag system of camps and colonies of Soviet Russia that at its peak is estimated to have held about 714 to 892 per 100,000 people living in the country. As Adam Gopnik has pointed out, if you include those under other forms of “correctional supervision” in this country, such as probation and parole, that number nearly triples, far surpassing the levels achieved even by Stalin. Further, this rate of incarceration is achieved by a country that has long claimed to be the guiding light of enlightened democracy for the world.  

As early as March 12, public health officials were warning that the virus would “wreck havoc” inside jails and prisons. Unfortunately, they were right. At the time of this writing, the pandemic has killed 1,412 incarcerated people, according to the Marshall Project, and infected over 182,000.

As Snowden points out, a healthcare system that treats “health as a commodity in the market rather than as a human right” exposes itself to vulnerabilities created by the dissonance between the goal of public health and the requirement of profit. This dissonance is even more pronounced within carceral environments where medical neglect was already rampant before the pandemic and, as the UN put it, “distancing measures are almost impossible.” As the weaknesses of prioritizing profit over health meet with the weaknesses of a society organized around punishment rather than justice, it is important to study the resistance of those attempting to live their lives while trapped at the collision point of these two historical trajectories.

Our project aspires to a journalistic standard of fact-checking and research. Despite this methodological commitment, our political commitments remain clear: we hope this report, and our project in general, helps to amplify the voices of prisoners and proliferate the ongoing writing, research, and action against the carceral state. Especially in our current moment, when debates about abolition echo in the streets, the halls of government, and the zoom calls of academics, this report, a report we humbly believe to be based in careful research and thoughtful analysis, can hopefully benefit us all.

The Beginning of the WaveKey Events

As stated above, our records indicate that the first major protests in response to the spread of the coronavirus occurred concurrently in two facilities–an immigrant detention center in New Jersey and a county jail in Monterey County, California. 

The hunger strike at Essex was followed the next day by a hunger strike at the Hudson County Corrections and Rehabilitation Center in Kearny, New Jersey and by a hunger strike at the Elizabeth Detention Center two days after that. All three facilities are operated as ICE detention centers.  All together, the strikes involved an estimated 90 detainees, according to VICE News and Patch. 

In the following days, outside activists would respond to the protests in New Jersey with actions that would set the tone for outside solidarity actions as they continued to proliferate throughout the country during the pandemic. On March 22, Never Again Action, a Jewish political action organization, announced the country’s first “COVID-safe car demonstration” at the Hudson County Corrections Center in solidarity with the hunger strikers there and throughout the state. In retrospect, this tactical innovation couldn’t have been better timed. By providing a safe method of political engagement to a country desperate to act but afraid and still coming to understand the contours of the virus, they mapped the way forward with a tactic that would dominate for the next two and a half months before being displaced by the fires and on-the-street presence of Minneapolis in late May. 

Hotspots of Infection and Rebellion

On the tail of the New Jersey hunger strikes, Rikers Island in NYC saw its first prisoner responses to COVID-19. It is often not apparent whether protest that appears to move between facilities in quick succession is the result of deliberate acts of solidarity and inspiration, merely the result of incarcerated people reacting to similar conditions, or entirely random. This difficulty in understanding causal linkage is the result of a lack of first-hand testimony from prisoners and detainees who have participated in these events. Of the events we’ve tracked during the first 3 months of COVID, in only slightly more than half of these do we have statements about the event from the perspective of the incarcerated people involved.

In the case of the hunger strike and work stoppage that occurred in two dorms at the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island on March 22, detailed first hand testimony from David Campbell, a detainee at the facility, submitted to Hard Crackers, demonstrates that the strike there was initiated in direct response to the hunger strike at the Hudson County Jail in New Jersey.

According to the testimony, a prisoner at Rikers heard about the strike in New Jersey from his girlfriend and related it to his fellow prisoners who were already fed up with the lack of precautions the facility was taking to the rapidly-spreading disease: “Yo, my girl said she saw on Twitter that they’re doing a hunger strike in the Hudson County Jail.” 

The strike, or “stick-up” as prisoners there call it, occurred among prisoners who had already been sentenced. According to Campbell, “sentenced inmates like us don’t stick it up much. We tend to behave, because we’re going home soon, unlike the detained inmates who form the bulk of the island’s population.”

This phenomenon would become a common characteristic of the protests against COVID: the prevalence of protest among incarcerated people who would not normally take such risks. “All of us discussing striking knew that we could lose good time…or be sent to the Box, but the circumstances that we’d been forced into meant that they were risks we were willing to take.”

The “stick-up” made local news and forced the Department of Correction to agree to basic sanitary conditions and the provision of PPE. Shortly thereafter, the city released three quarters of its sentenced prisoners, and over 1,000 detainees.

At time of this writing, New York City jails are holding approximately 1,500 less people than they were in March but the COVID infection rate in the jails remains high: 11.44%, compared to 2.68% in the rest of the city, according to The Legal Aid Society. 

Meanwhile, prisoners in the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, were responding to an influx of COVID cases. On March 20th, two people threatened suicide when visably sick people were brought into the facility. Video streamed on Facebook shows the two detainees on the second story with bed-sheet ropes around their necks while a small crowd grows around them. They demanded the new detainees be moved and a moratorium on all new arrivals as a quarantine measure. Detainees staged a similar hunger strike on April 9th at the Mesa Verde ICE processing center in Bakersfield, California. The strike by over 100 detainees demanded staff wear masks, more PPE, and a moratorium on letting new people into the facility. Mesa Verde detainees staged another hunger strike in June, releasing a statement which proclaimed solidarity with the George Floyd Rebellion erupting on streets across the US: “We, the detained people of dormitories A, B, and C at Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility, are protesting and on hunger strike in solidarity with the detained people at Otay Mesa Detention Center. We begin our protest in memory of our comrades George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade. Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE,” the statement read in part. The mass protests against police violence had officially reached ICE detention.”

The arrival of COVID  catalyzed even larger-scale resistance at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, after six detainees and five of the staff tested positive for COVID. People held there protested being moved into “hot zones’ where others who had contracted the virus were previously held and demanded protective equipment and the means to practice social distancing — none of which they were receiving. On April 8th, upwards of 200 detainees staged  a protest in the recreation yard. Later some of them refused to return to their cells and set off fire extinguishers, and reportedly threatened to start fires and take hostages. Detainees initially defied the deployment of  pepper spray, rubber bullets, sting balls (grenades that release rubber balls and smoke in a loud explosion), clubs, but the arrival of reinforcements and continual barrage of these weapons eventually forced a surrender. 


Overview of the Data

Click here for full dataset

A closer look at the full picture of this wave of prisoner resistance helps reveal various trends and features that are not obvious by analyses of individual events. For instance, the frequency of events diminishes over time. More events were clustered near the front end of the wave of rebellion than at the end. There were 35 events in March, 55 events in April, 16 in May, and 7 in June. Keep in mind that we are only counting events on or after March 17. The month ends only two weeks later, on March 31. 35 events in 14 days is a rate of 2.5 events a day. 55 events in April provides a per-day rate of 1.8333. The per-day rates in May and June are 0.5484 and 0.5333, respectively (for the first 15 days in June only).

Number of Events Over Time

Events took place at all types of facilities, but the single type of facility that was the site of the highest number of events was Immigrant Detention Centers (45 events out of 119). Out of the total 119 events, 32 occurred at private prisons. 25 of these events at private prisons were at facilities operating under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Percentage of Facility Types

Although we only have direct prisoner quotes in 62 out of the total 119 events, at every single event that we do have a prisoner quote from, they refer specifically to the COVID-19 pandemic as either a principal reason or as important context for the actions that they took.

Percentage of Events Broken Down by Private Prison Corporation

Multiple events at the same facility

Buried across time but revealed in a spatial analysis lies the fact that a solid third of the total event count occured at facilities that also saw at least one more event at that same facility. 40 events occured at facilities with at least two events within the period under study. These 40 events were clustered at only 16 facilities. What this means is that fully ⅓ of the total number of protests or disturbances took place at only 16 facilities.

Name of FacilityFrequency
Cook County Jail6
Bristol County House of Correction3
Etowah County Detention Center3
Southern State Correctional Facility2
Établissement de détention Montréal – Bordeaux (Bordeaux Prison)2
Cummins Unit2
Stewart Detention Center2
Krome Detention Center2
LaSalle ICE Processing Center2
Otay Mesa Detention Center2
Northwest Detention Center2
Adelanto ICE Processing Center2
North Lake Correctional Facility2
Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre2
Franklin County Jail2
Swanson Center for Youth2
Counts of events at facilities that were the site of more than one event

Further, there were 5 facilities that were the site of greater than two events. There were 6 events at Cook County Jail in Chicago, 3 at Adelanto ICE Processing Center, 3 at Bristol County House of Correction, 3 at Etablissement de détention Montréal, and 3 at Etowah County Detention Center. The events that occurred at facilities that saw greater than 1 event were frequently at immigrant detention centers (21 out of the total of 40, or 53%). This is a slightly higher proportion as compared with the full list of events in which events at immigrant detention centers account for 38% of total events. However, these numbers may be limited due to the fact that facilities with histories of high-profile profiles events and a strong outside support network can more easily get word out to the media about events, therefore contributing to more frequent coverage at particular facilities. Subsequently this may contribute to a higher “cluster” rate in our dataset than may exist in the real or actual actions of prisoners and detainees.

Highest frequency in Louisiana 

The state with the highest frequency of events was Louisiana. 11 distinct events occurred there within the timeframe of this study. Relatedly, Louisiana has the second-highest rate of incarceration in the country (as of 2018, 1,052 out of every 100,000 residents is locked up). A closer look at the Louisiana events shows the following features: 

  • 6 of these events were at immigrant detention centers. 
  • All six of these detention centers are operated by private companies (four operated by GEO group, and two operated by Lasalle Management Corporation).
  • All six of these detention center disturbances exhibit some characteristics of traditional forms of protest: they were hunger strikes or other forms of protest with features such as releasing demands, contacting the media, etc. One of these events did involve an escape attempt, but none could be really understood as riots or uprisings.
  • Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that four of these six events were attacked with pepper spray, and one faced both pepper spray and “less-lethal rounds”. 
Number of events broken down by state/province

Further, Catahoula Correctional Center, South Louisiana ICE Processing Center and  the Catahoula Correctional Center, a Louisiana jail run by LaSalle Corrections all opened in 2019. According to an article on Nola.com, “Together, the three detention centers can hold about 4,000 people, potentially expanding ICE’s presence in Louisiana and Mississippi by 50 percent”. The COVID crisis at these facilities perhaps unsurprisingly follows on the heels of previous health crises: there was a serious mumps outbreak at Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center in 2019.

The other five events in Louisiana during this time period (the events not at immigrant detention centers) included an uprising at a federal prison (put down with pepper spray and “less-lethal rounds”), two escapes at juvenile detention centers, a riot/uprising at a juvenile detention center, and an escape at a facility that serves as both state prison and local jail.

Events with more than 100 participants

We documented 16 events during this period that definitely had more than 100 participants (although because of the limits of studying prisoner resistance, about half the total events we documented have little or no concrete information about the number of prisoner participants). Despite this, based on the data we do have, there is a much higher rate of these “large” events that occurred at state prisons as compared with the full dataset. Limited to only the events with more than 100 participants, there were 7 that occurred at state prisons, 7 at immigrant detention centers, 1 at a US federal prison, and 1 at a Canadian provincial prison. (2 of the immigrant detention centers were also connected to local city/county jails). This means that 44% of these “large” events occurred at state prisons, a higher rate than the full dataset (The full dataset has 38% of events occuring at immigrant detention centers and 29% of events at state prisons). Also notable is the fact that 7 of these 16 “large” events occured at privately-operated facilities (that’s 44% compared to 27% in the full dataset).

Title of eventEstimated number of prisoner participants (minimum 2)
“Breaking Down Borders” Hunger Strike at Northwest Detention Center in Response to COVID-19360
Hunger Strike at Stewart Detention Center, Georgia in Response to COVID-19350
Uprising in Grants, New Mexico Amidst Fears of COVID-19 Outbreak300
Disturbance at Westville Correctional Facility, Indiana200
Uprising at Ellsworth Correctional Facility, Kansas125
Hunger Strikes at Adelanto ICE Processing Center, California120
ICE Detainees Hunger Strike in Hudson County, NJ in response to COVID-19120
Uprising at Lansing Correctional Facility, Kansas100
Uprising at Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington in Response to COVID-19100
Uprising at Columbia River Correctional Facility, Oregon100
Hunger Strike at North Lake Correctional Facility, Michigan100
Hunger Strike at Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, CA in Response to COVID-19100
Hunger Strike at Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ontario100
Hunger Strike at Farmville Detention Center in Response to COVID-19100
ICE Detainees Hunger Strike in Glades County, Florida Protesting Inaction on COVID-19100
Prisoners “Threaten to Organize Hunger Strikes and Work Stoppages” at Connecticut Prison100
Events with more than 100 participants

Escapes

There was a significant number of escapes or serious escape attempts during the period under study. Between mid-March and mid-June we counted 10 escapes or serious escape attempts that involved at least two people. 4 of these events occurred in Louisiana, and out of the total of 10 escapes, 5 occurred at state prisons (one each in Arkansas, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Louisiana). 

Even more interesting is the fact that 9 of these escapes were clustered within a 27 day period, from March 23 to April 19 (the 10th escape occurred on May 6th). Except for an unsuccessful escape attempt at LaSalle ICE Processing Center that never surpassed the level of “attempt”, at all 9 other escape events the escapees successfully made it outside the walls of the facility they were locked in. A detailed look at these 9 “successful” escapes reveals a huge disparity between the lengths of time that the fugitives remained at large. For instance, on the low end of this spectrum, the prisoners who escaped from Southwest Arkansas Community Corrections Facility in Arkansas on April 12 were all re-captured within 25 minutes. On the opposite end, one of the women who escaped from the Pierre Community Work Center in South Dakota on March 23 was on the run for close to 5 months, evading recapture until August 18. Similarly, one of the escapees from the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in Oklahoma was re-captured over 3 months after his escape. He was finally apprehended only after a chase through woods and into the Arkansas river where he still attempted to evade police boats before the final apprehension.

We do not yet have the data to decisively say whether the high number of successful escapes constitutes a real leap as compared to another 3-month period.

Count of time an escapee remained at large
dateend dateFacilityState/ProvinceLength of escape
3/23/20203/27/2020Yakima County JailWashington4 days
3/24/2020August 18Pierre Community Work CenterSouth Dakota7 captured within 24 hours, the 9th and final lasted almost 5 months
3/25/2020LaSalle ICE Processing CenterLouisianan/a
4/5/20207/23/2020Jackie Brannon Correctional CenterOklahoma3 months and 18 days
4/6/20204/7/2020Swanson Center for YouthLouisiana17 hours
4/12/20204/12/2020Southwest Arkansas Community Corrections FacilityArkansas25 minutes
4/12/20204/13/2020Provincial Correctional Facility – Prince Edward IslandPrince Edward Island1 day
4/16/20204/17/2020Columbia Correctional InstitutionWisconsin1 day
4/19/20204/21/2020Swanson Center for YouthLouisianaat least 2 days
5/6/20205/6/2020Ouachita Correctional CenterLouisiana9 hours
Summary of escapes

Weapons used against prisoners

Out of the total 119 events, we found 27 events where weapons (above and beyond fists) were used against prisoners. Pepper spray was used at 20 events, “less lethal rounds” were used at 5 events, tear gas was used at 2 events, and tasers were used at 1 event. The most frequent type of facility that weapons were used at were immigrant detention centers (12 events out of 27). However, in a departure from the trends in the full dataset, only one of these events is a hunger strike. Perhaps this reveals an obvious point as hunger strikes often involve the violence of force-feeding rather than clashes with weapons between prisoners and guards. Two facilities saw repeated use of weapons: pepper spray was used twice against immigrant detainees at Lasalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana, and pepper spray was also used twice (and tear gas once) against immigrant detainees at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. Both of these facilities are operated by private companies: Lasalle is run by Geo Group and Stewart by CoreCivic. In fact, these two companies alone account for 10 instances out of the 27 times that we know that weapons were used against protesting prisoners or detainees. Weapons were used five times total at facilities operated by CoreCivic, and five times at facilities operated by Geo Group.

Uprisings

During the time period of our study, we counted 24 events that we classify as “uprisings”. We define an uprising as having most or all of the following characteristics:

1. The event is a collective act of rebellion in which a group of prisoners act in a disruptive way.

2. The event exceeds the usual scope of a protest.

3. The event is often destructive, violent, chaotic, or unpredictable. 

4. The event often is a clear collective attempt at expressing either specific grievances within the context of incarceration or with incarceration as such.

21 of these uprisings, or 87.5% of the total number of uprisings that we documented, occurred at facilities that were not operated by private companies. This is a higher percentage than the rate in the full dataset; in the full sample size, about 73% of the total number of events occurred at facilities not operated by a private corporation. Similarly, there is a higher rate of events in which we know prisoners were attacked using some sort of weapon (for example: pepper spray, “less-lethal” rounds, dogs, tear gas, etc). Out of the total of 24 uprisings, prisoners were attacked with a weapon at 10 distinct events, or 42% of all uprisings. This is a much higher rate than the full dataset, in which we know 23% of events were attacked using a weapon. However, this discrepancy may be due to the fact that larger uprisings are often covered in more detail, by both Perilous and other journalists covering the event, therefore providing more information into the methods of repression.

dateFacilityCityState/ProvincePrivate PrisonWeapons used by guards
3/23/20Yakima County JailYakimaWashingtonNo
3/23/20South Texas ICE Processing CenterPearsallTexasGeo GroupPepper spray
4/2/20El Paso County JailColorado SpringsColoradoNo
4/5/20Passaic County JailPatersonNew JerseyNoPepper spray
4/6/20Moberly Correctional CenterMoberlyMissouriNo
4/7/20Krome Detention CenterMiamiFloridaNo
4/7/20Columbia River Correctional FacilityPortlandOregonNo
4/8/20FCI Oakdale IOakdaleLouisianaNoLess lethal rounds (i.e. rubber bullets, sandbags), Pepper spray
4/8/20Monroe Correctional ComplexMonroeWashingtonNoLess lethal rounds (i.e. rubber bullets, sandbags), Pepper spray
4/9/20Stewart Detention CenterLumpkinGeorgiaCore Civic/CCAPepper spray, Tear gas
4/9/20Lansing Correctional FacilityLansingKansasNo
4/12/20Cummins UnitGouldArkansasNo
4/12/20Établissement de détention Montréal – Bordeaux (Bordeaux Prison)MontrealQuebecNoPepper spray
4/12/20Crossroads Juvenile CenterBrooklynNew YorkNo
4/12/20Ellsworth Correctional FacilityEllsworthKansasNoUndefined Chemical Agents
4/20/20Bridge City Center for YouthBridge CityLouisianaNo
4/21/20Collins Bay InstitutionKingstonOntarioNoPercussion Grenades
4/21/20Donnacona InstitutionDonnaconaQuebecNoLess lethal rounds (i.e. rubber bullets, sandbags), Tear gas
4/22/20Westville Correctional FacilityWestvilleIndianaNo
4/29/20Cook County JailChicagoIllinoisNo
5/1/20Southern State Correctional FacilitySpringfieldVermontNo
5/1/20Bristol County House of CorrectionNorth DartmouthMassachusettsNoPepper spray, Dogs
6/5/20Clark County JailVancouverWashingtonNo
6/10/20South Central Correctional FacilityCliftonTennesseeCore Civic/CCA
Summary of "Uprising" events

Size relative to past years

The dataset examined in this study–the data on the first 90 days of the COVID crisis–is certainly Perilous’ most carefully curated dataset. However, we also do have preliminary data on prior events and years. A comparison of the numbers of events that occurred during March-June 2020 and the number of events that occurred during previous years reveals a drastic increase during the first months of the COVID crisis. Even with the probable imperfections in our data collection for prior years, the difference is too massive to not warrant a mention here. We have counted 83 events total for the year 2018 and 53 events total for the year 2016. Additionally, during the 2018 National Prisoner Strike (lasting approximately from August 21, 2018 to September 9, 2018, and certainly an event of historic importance to the prisoner movement) we counted 28 events total. Compared with the 119 events of March-June 2020, these numbers make it clear that the prisoner response to COVID represents a huge increase as compared with prior years. Specifically, our data covering March-June of 2020 represents a 43.3735% increase from the number of events in 2018, and a 124.528% increase from the number of events in 2016.


Conclusion

The devastating effects of COVID-19 on those locked up inside prisons, jails, and detention centers did not stop in mid-June; neither did the actions of prisoners fighting for their health and their lives. But even a partial look at this wave of resistance that focuses on only the first 90 days reveals important truths about the U.S. and Canadian prison systems and the people that are locked up inside. 119 total events in 39 different states and provinces ranging from uprisings to hunger strikes; the number of the actions, their geographic spread, and the variety of tactics are all impressive, perhaps unprecedented.

The case studies and data analysis that we describe above make it clear that these few months of prisoner activity represented a serious crisis for the prison systems in the US and Canada. Now, writing months later, structural crises continue to plague the many overlapping systems of incarceration. For example, the economic crisis inaugurated by the COVID pandemic is having a devastating effect on state budgets. Faking a solution, politicians cut funding for prisons but do not take the necessary steps towards releasing incarcerated people from the now further overcrowded facilities. This means that state prison systems are being crushed from many sides: budgets shrink, workers quit, those that remain are forced to work overtime, guard unions go on the offensive, and the virus continues to spread. This vicious cycle of budget crisis, political turmoil, and general instability continues to be most acutely felt by the people incarcerated in these facilities: their living conditions continue to worsen, their access to resources becomes even more limited, and their ability to receive the bare minimum of adequate healthcare, even amidst a pandemic, moves even further out of reach. Not only are prisoners losing their yard time and programming–they are losing their health and their lives.

The wave of actions that prisoners and detainees engaged in during the first months of the COVID crisis was quickly followed by one of the largest nation-wide rebellions against police violence that the U.S. has seen in at least 50 years. Crisis piles upon crisis, and the virus seems to show no sign of going away. The report provided above–the size, the techniques, the demands, the successes, and the failures–can hopefully inform the actions that are taken in the months and years to come. Because amidst the continuing tragedy and crises we can be sure of one thing: prisoners and detainees know they are not in fact sentenced to death, and they will continue to fight for their survival from within the system that has abandoned them. We look forward to reading any journalistic, theoretical, or polemical pieces that use the humble findings presented in this report.


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