As Coronavirus Sweeps Through Jails and Prisons, Officials Crack Down on Inmate Speech

Jails and prisons now account for many of the largest clusters of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States. Two prisons in Ohio now have more than 1,500 cases each; nearly a thousand cases are connected to the Cook County jail in Chicago; and a prison in Arkansas has recorded nearly 700 cases. Prisons are, in the words of one inmate, a “death trap.”  

As the virus continues to sweep across the country, and as jails and prisons seal themselves off from society (even more than usual), incarcerated people must be allowed to share their stories—of life on the inside during a pandemic, to raise awareness about or to protest conditions, or just simply to connect with friends and family. Many states have draconian rules that stand in the way of that: these rules unduly limit prisoners’ ability to express themselves and share their stories through the Internet. Nearly a month ago, we called on jail and prison officials to relax the enforcement of rules limiting an inmate’s ability to connect with the outside world during the pandemic.

But little has changed.

In San Diego, a group of inmates protested conditions inside a local jail by holding up a sign—that read “#We Don’t Deserve 2 Die”­—during a video call made by another inmate. The image from the call was shared with the San Diego Union-Tribune, prompting a report on the jail’s lack of protective equipment, testing, and medical care. Officials punished three inmates for taking part in the protest by placing them in solitary confinement for a week.

In another example, asylum seekers imprisoned at a Pine Prairie, Louisiana, ICE detention center provided first-hand accounts to a journalist, through a “video visitation” app, about inadequate health equipment and the growing tensions between guards and detainees at the ICE facility. According to the journalist, “[a]fter the story ran, the video chat accounts for two of my sources were marked ‘suspended.’” For some detainees, access to the app is “the only way they can talk to their families.”

Retaliation like this—and at a time like this—is unconscionable. It’s also unconstitutional. EFF remains committed to fighting for the rights of those on the inside to share their stories with the world. 

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