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Frequent hand-washing, key to preventing the spread of Covid-19, is especially difficult in prisons and jails.
News Inside

COVID-19: A Survival Guide for Incarcerated People

Tips on how to protect yourself from the virus within the limits of prison or jail.

COVID-19 has spread throughout the world with deadly impact. In the U.S., many communities are scrambling to treat the sick with limited resources, the streets are empty, and people are trying to stay healthy under challenging circumstances.

The most common symptoms include fever, dry cough, fatigue, loss of appetite, loss of smell and body aches. More severe symptoms include high fever, severe cough, shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, sudden confusion and bluish lips or face.

People infected with the virus may not show symptoms for two to 14 days after exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and other reputable public health organizations have issued safety practices to help people avoid infection that you’ve probably heard about by now:

Incarcerated people would be best served to use the same prevention practices, but the actual nature of prisons and jails, combined with restrictions on supplies can make it more difficult to ward off the virus. That’s why News Inside teamed up with Brie Williams, M.D, M.S., and Leah Rorvig, M.D., M.S., medical experts from the University of California, San Francisco, who specialize in criminal justice. Williams also runs a prison reform program called Amend at UCSF. Here, we answer your coronavirus questions while being considerate of your unique circumstances.

Should I be scared about getting released?

Medical Advice: Most places outside of prison have a lower risk of infection than any type of group-living situation. This is because it is easier to stay 6 feet away from people you don’t live with when you are out in the community. Also, it might be easier to get cleaning products and to stay away from others who are sick.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: This is a scary time, but you’ve improvised while incarcerated. In the free world, you will have more space and access to safety and cleaning equipment.

I’ve heard that handwashing is the best defense against getting and spreading the virus. How do I keep my hands clean if hot water is unavailable or inconsistent in my cell or dorm area?

Medical Advice: While hot water is better than cold for hand washing, your technique matters most: Wet your hands all the way up to and a little past your wrists. Rub soap on the front and backs of your hands and wrists, and scrub for 20 seconds. If you have access to clean paper towels, use one to turn off the faucet and throw it out immediately.

If soap and water aren’t available but hand sanitizer is, it has to be at least 60 percent alcohol to work. Use the same technique: Cover the fronts and backs of your hands and wrists with sanitizer and rub them together for 20 seconds.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Fill bottles in the shower specifically for handwashing. Heat your water using a hot pot, stinger, slop sinks or a bowl you place on the radiator. Insulate buckets of warm water with blankets and towels for longer-lasting use. Try to wash or sanitize your hands every time you leave and return to your cell.

How can I shower safely in a communal setting?

Medical Advice: Try to stay 6 feet away from other people, and be sure your hands are clean before touching your face.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: If it’s possible, remain 6 feet apart in the shower. Skipping showers isn’t ideal, but if you live in a cell, wash up in your sink using soap, water and a rag.

Is it safe to sit on a toilet that 200 people in my dorm share?

Medical Advice: Getting COVID-19 from sitting on a toilet seat is unlikely. However, the toilet handle, stall divider and sink faucets could be dirty. Be sure to wash your hands before and after using the bathroom. The toilet handle, faucets and other frequently touched items such as the door should be disinfected at least daily.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Before and after toilet use, clean the seat and flush handle with bleach diluted with water if it’s available. If you don’t have bleach, do the same with a rag lathered up with soap. When possible, place a clean towel on the seat. Wash and dry the towel after use. Place it directly in front of a fan—if you have access—to speed up the drying process.

How do I protect myself from COVID-19 when I am outside of my cell or off my bunk? Do I need a mask?

Medical Advice: Wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, try to avoid crowded spaces and stay at least 6 feet away from others at all times. If there are some people you can’t distance yourself from, try to keep this group as small as possible.

Some research suggests that a mask you make out of two layers of cotton cloth (from, say, a sheet) can reduce the risk of you and others spreading COVID-19 to each other.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Against the rules, but it might be worth asking the COs on your tier/unit to make an exception: Before leaving your cell or bunk, protect your eyes with shades or glasses. Cover up your nose and mouth with a clean—cotton if available—T-shirt, do-rag, scarf or knit hat with the top seams torn open. Women can repurpose headscarves and bras into masks.

If your prison industries program is making masks and other protective gear, consider signing up for it.

Can I get COVID-19 from an object someone has sneezed or coughed on?

Medical Advice: It is possible to get the virus by handling an item that someone with the virus has coughed or sneezed on and then touching your mouth, nose and eyes.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Don’t touch your face. As often as you can, wear disposable gloves over your washed hands and remove them after you touch surfaces. If you lack disposables, wear your exercise or winter gloves over clean hands. After you remove your gloves, wash and dry them. Speed-dry gloves by placing them directly in front of a fan, if you have access.

Many of the items I purchase from the commissary or canteen are packaged in cardboard or plastic. How can I protect myself?

Medical Advice: The virus can stay “alive” on plastic or metal for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24. Try to disinfect or wash with soap any packages. Remember to wash your hands whenever you touch things from a common area.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Wear disposable gloves while handling your items. If you don’t have any, use your exercise or winter gloves. Throw away any cardboard boxes and plastic packaging before you enter your cell or bunk area. Store exposed food in small garbage bags.

Wash and air dry the net bags you use to carry the items you bought after you unpack them. And wash and dry your gloves and hands before relaxing on your bunk.

I live in a cell with bars for doors or an open dorm. How do I protect myself from people coughing and sneezing at night?

Medical Advice: Unfortunately, reducing risk in open-air dorm rooms is difficult. To protect oneself and others, anyone with symptoms should be immediately evaluated by medical staff and housed alone until they have received results from COVID-19 testing.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Against the rules, but it might be worth asking the COs on your tier/unit to make an exception: Before going to bed at night, cover bars with a clean sheet, garbage bag or the plastic from a new mattress.

In double-bunked dorms, people at the bottom can hang the barrier from the top bunk to create a tent. Top bunkers should lay under a sheet as much as possible.

What’s the safest way to use the community phone?

Medical Advice: Phone receivers, buttons and cords should be disinfected at least daily. Still wash your hands before and after you make a call.

If you choose to wrap the receiver with a clean sock or piece of cloth, don’t touch your face with the side that covered the receiver. If you take your makeshift cover back to your cell, wash it with soap and water thoroughly. Don’t use it again until it is completely dry; germs thrive on moisture

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Wash your hands before and after you make your call. If you have access to disinfectant, clean the receiver, buttons and cord before and after you use the phone. If you cover the receiver with a clean sock or cloth, follow the medical advice.

We have community TVs here. If I don’t watch television, I’ll go crazy. Am I putting myself at an outsized risk?

Medical Advice: It’s important to do the best you can to reduce the amount of stress that you are feeling and to get enough sleep. Watching TV may help you do both.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: If you feel compelled to convene around the TV, ask your CO if you can try to keep yourself safer by: Covering eyes with shades/glasses, use T-shirts, or scarfs to cover nose and mouth.

Should I purchase stolen mess hall gloves?

Medical Advice: Proper handwashing is more important than wearing gloves. If you do wear gloves inside your cell, make sure that you don’t touch your face. The gloves will have the same germs on them that your hands would.

If you wear gloves outside of your cell, throw them out when you get back or wash them with soapy water and let them fully dry before using them again.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Ask the CO in your area if you can wear plastic or rubber gloves provided by the facility. If you cannot, wear your exercise or winter gloves before touching surfaces. After taking off the gloves, wash and dry them. Place them directly in front of a fan—if you access—to speed up the drying process.

What should I do if someone who prepares food has symptoms of COVID-19?

Medical Advice: Currently, there is no evidence of transmission of coronavirus through food. However, anyone with symptoms should be immediately evaluated.

Prison/Jail Adaptation: Respectfully ask the food handler to consult with the medical department. Remember that we are all in this together. There is no need to be rude to symptomatic people who may be afraid and vulnerable.

If you want more information about COVID-19, please consult with your facility’s librarian.