Help Us to Build a National Resource for How to Support Prisoners During the Covid-19 Crisis
We are working to build a national resource that will include information that is region specific. If you’d like to help build this resource, please fill out this form.
This is a work in progress! We are collectively building this resource and will update it frequently.
The carceral system is an act of warfare against criminalized people--disproportionately Black, indigenous, POC, migrant, disabled, and poor. In a moment of massive health crisis, we have an opportunity to reconsider the interests of incarcerated people, who are now among those at the highest risk for mistreatment and medical neglect. While all incarcerated people should be free--and, as the response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran demonstrates, could be released now--our intention in this document is to highlight particular needs of incarcerated people during this outbreak, and the potential interventions we can make to mitigate harm.
People in prisons, jails, and detention centers are at high risk of infection and have seriously abridged access to health care and hygiene within facilities. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of confinement, coupled with inadequate, neglectful, and often punitive responses to medical needs, mean that COVID-19 poses serious risks to this population. And the risks are exacerbated further by the fact that criminalized and incarcerated populations have disproportionately higher rates of serious and chronic illnesses that leave them more vulnerable to viruses, particularly those who are elderly, pregnant, or immunocompromised.
The following guide is intended to help incarcerated people through the public health crisis as well as create opportunities for people on the outside to support one another in various ways. Developing mutual aid networks around supporting prisoners is necessary for the current COVID-19 crisis but are necessary for public health in general as well.
We shouldn’t have to do any of this, but we can’t rely on prisons to respond to this crisis in ways that attend to people’s needs; prisons do not resolve, but rather produce and extend crisis. This short guide includes ways to support prisoners now and a short-list of decarceration campaigns. While some of the things listed here, like adding money to people’s commissary or phone accounts helps to line the pockets of the PIC, we also recognize that this is a moment of crisis and that we need to operate in a harm reduction mode to a) address people’s immediate needs for things like food; b) facilitate communication; and c) provide additional support and community to people on the outside advocating for those on the inside.
Having all of this information on hand makes it easier to share information if you need to mobilize support for someone inside.
First and Last Name
Date of Birth
State Bureau Identification Number (SBI Number)
Name and address of the prison
Their housing unit
Please make sure that you have accurate information and that you are sharing accurate information! Conspiracy theories and misinformation are particularly harmful right now.
If your person becomes symptomatic and they are denied treatment, document everything. Ask them to give you one of their friend’s names and to ask that person to call you or contact you if their symptoms become worse or if your person is taken to the infirmary and can’t call you.
Prisons generally don’t call families to let them know what is happening with their loved one inside so having a plan in place for how to get information is crucial to their safety and your peace of mind.
Call the warden and deputy warden and report that your person is sick and demand action. Document the time and date of the call and who you spoke with. If you reach an assistant, ask their name. Try to be polite, but also express a sense of urgency. Ask them what they plan to do and call back to check to see that it’s done.
You can always call and ask to be connected with Medical (sometimes called the infirmary). The person answering the phone may or may not connect you, but the point is to ask. Do not capitulate to the prison’s silence--make them give you information. The more people that do this, the more that it becomes expected that they should do this.
If you are not making progress, consider asking friends and family to make phone calls on behalf of your loved one to demand treatment.
Because food is generally scarce in prison and most prisoners supplement their meals with purchases from the commissary it would be helpful to add money to people’s books so that they can stock up on what they need. We fear that if the prison goes on lockdown these services will be cut off and people will go hungry. If you are able to put money on your person’s books do so now. The food they buy will not go to waste.
If you are in a position of need, please reach out to let someone know. We are currently trying to build capacity to help meet people’s needs, but we need your help.
Prisoners on the compound have limits placed on the amount of money they are allowed to spend.
If your person has food allergies know what they are and how severe they are. Ask them to keep you informed (to the extent possible) of any changes that the facility makes to their diet. Kosher meals are considered specialty meals in some facilities. If your person receives a kosher meal ask them to let you know if this changes in the event of a lockdown.
Make sure you are added as a HIPPA contact, so that you are able to conduct wellness checks on behalf of your person in case you aren’t able to communicate with them directly. More on HIPPA information here.
Gather whatever information you have available regarding your person’s condition including their diagnosis and any medications they are prescribed. Locate the contact information for the prison and ask for the direct number to the infirmary. If the need arises and your person has not received their regular treatment including medication, call and ask to to be connected with the infirmary.
If your person is transgender and hormonal replacement therapy, they may experience gaps in receiving their hormones. Although this is not ideal, it is important for trans people to understand what side effects to look out for in case they are without HRT. For instance, for those assigned female at birth (AFAB) taking testosterone, they may get their periods back. Those assigned male at birth (AMAB) on estrogren can experience mood swings—as well as AFAB and intersex people on T—when their hormonal balance is off.
Although coercive destransition is inherently harmful, we can arm our people with knowing what to expect and how to emotionally prepare for long periods without HRT. Encourage your person to document physical and emotional side effects in detail to being without HRT.
If you are able to put some money on your person’s phone account then do so. Phones may be difficult for them to access during this time especially if the facility is on lockdown, but having money on their account means that they can contact you or someone else even if it’s just for a quick check in.
If the facility has video visits and you are able to afford it, set up a video visit asap. This is particularly important if the facility has halted in-person visits. This is a poor substitute for in-person visits, but it allows you to still see each other. Contact, even virtual, is important both to their mental health and general well-being and to yours.
Depending on the facility there are different companies that offer video visits. You will have to check with the prison, sometimes this information is available on their website. If it’s not and you are in communication with your person ask them what company the prison uses.
Document and keep track of court appearances or postponements. If your person is represented by a public defender you should ask your person to contact them and find out what the plan is if their court dates get moved. This information also applies if you have private counsel.
If the prison goes on lockdown legal visits may also be cancelled. Contact your attorney for information and if they are able to go in to visit then ask that they do.
In the event of mail disruption, legal mail will also not be delivered. This has consequences for people’s cases. Contact your attorney and ask what to do. They are best able to advise you about next steps including postponements etc.
In the event that your person’s case files are destroyed during this crisis, please contact their attorney if they have one and call the warden’s office to ask if they will be covering the cost to replace lost files. You can contact the court and the prothonotary's office to request a copy, but they are likely to charge you. Prisoners can request their own case files by writing directly to the prothonotary’s office. You should contact a legal aid clinic in your area if you need assistance.
Begins: Thursday, April 23
Ends: Saturday, May 23
Facilities may not allow prisoners to observe Ramadan this year. If your person is Muslim talk with them about this and ask them what they need. If there’s an Imam at the facility ask for their name and reach out to them to ask how they can help support Muslim prisoners during this time.
If your person is due to be released in the next 30, 60 or 90 days ask them what the facility is telling them regarding their release. Our concern is that the crisis will be used as a pretext to extend confinement, and keeping records will help us to better organize support. We need to know what is happening in order to be able to respond effectively.
Families and loved ones can contact the Warden, call the District Attorney’s Office, and your Governor to demand the release of your person.
Encourage your person to use the internal grievance process. Yes, we know that the prison’s grievance process is bullshit and that the people and institution that you are complaining about should not be in a position to decide whether the grievance has merit. However, let’s use all of the tools that we have available to us and the grievance process is one. Grievances give us a paper trail and can be used as the foundation for or in support of law suits. We understand that litigation is another tool and not a panacea. We document and support prisoners that file grievances as part of an overall strategy.
If the facility is on lockdown it means that prisoners are confined to their cells 24 hours a day. All movement is terminated including no mail delivered inside of the facility, no access to phones, no access to video visits, no access to tablets (for facilities where prisoners share tablets and have to check them out of a kiosk), no recreation, and no religious services. During a lockdown there may be fewer staff on duty and prisoners are not allowed to access daily showers. These measures, which prison officials have long claimed to be for safety of staff and prisoners, do not cohere with what medical professionals are saying about how to stop the spread of Covid-19.
Lockdowns also intensify the existing tensions inside. If your person tells you that they’re being harassed, had their cells shaken down, denied meals, medical attention or anything along those lines, please document it. Get names and times and then call the warden. Keep a running list (hopefully not necessary) of these incidents.
You should contact the prison and ask them when the lockdown will be lifted. Connect with other loved ones to demand that lockdowns be lifted.
Please document any price hikes on commissary items during this crisis. Doing so allows us to track what the DOC is doing and how much additional profit they are extracting from prisoners and their families. We are demanding that everyone held in confinement be given free commissary and personal care products including soap. Ask your person inside if they’ve noticed a price increase and document it. This can be as simple as listing the item, the old price and the new price.
There are efforts across the country to get people released from prison. We are working to compile as many of these as possible, but while we work on this we are sharing calls by different groups on our social media. We encourage local efforts and you can always tag us or message us if you find something that we’ve overlooked.
We are not powerless in this moment and the more of us that call the better. Here is a phone script that you can use.
A short list of decarceration resources. Use these as models to do similar work in your community!