Prisoners are 5 times more likely to get COVID-19 than the overall population. A 69-year old prisoner is trying to change that one livestream at a time.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is tearing through US prisons, with inmates 5.5 times more likely to catch the disease than the overall population.
  • One prisoner under home confinement, 69-year-old Rufus Rochelle, is calling for the release of prisoners in daily Facebook Live streams.
  • Correctional facilities are desperately lacking PPE and other health resources, and can hardly enforce social distancing measures.
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On the evening that Rufus Rochelle saw the future, he was watching the news in a crowded room. 

It was the common area inside the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, Florida. Rochelle was there on a 40-year drug sentence. 

Rochelle, 69, is a trim man who dresses neatly. At Coleman, he was called "the Gentleman," not so much for the formality it conferred but for the meaning it conveyed. There was a gentleness to him, a warm smile that came easily.

Rochelle had been busted in the late 1980s for selling drugs, and his decades-long sentence shaped, but didn't devour him. Instead, he wrote articles condemning mass incarceration and mentored younger prisoners.

"I understood the world far better," he said. "I became more aware."

Rochelle's fellow inmates were keeping the TV on almost nonstop as news about the coronavirus rolled in. It was March, and the men were watching COVID-19 decimate a Washington state nursing home, a "congregate setting," as public health experts would come to call it. Rochelle shifted away from the TV. 

"You're watching the expression on guys' faces," he said. "You're thinking, 'Man, if this thing hits inside of this place, a lot of us are not going to make it out of here." 

Rochelle was one of 2.3 million people locked up amid the looming threat of COVID-19. The country's prisons and jails, notorious for overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, were now being named COVID hotspots.

But, as an inmate, Rochelle was easy to ignore. His life was in jeopardy, and there was little he could do about it. He had already served 32 years, and he couldn't escape the thought that paying an additional debt — paying with his life — felt unjust and terrifying. 

He needed to get out, and he believed that thousands more did, too. They could die if they weren't heard.

Both infection and fear are spreading in US prisons.

In July, Rochelle's gut feeling was confirmed.

The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that prisoners were infected by the coronavirus at a rate more than five times higher than the general population. The virus was spreading more than twice as fast behind bars because many inmates lived in close confinement with limited medical care and PPE. 250,000 of them were considered aging at 55 or older. Chronic illness plagued 40% of the population, with people of color overrepresented.

The same communities locked up in greater numbers were also the ones suffering most from COVID-19. 

The JAMA research warned that prison outbreaks were "unlikely to be contained without implementation of more effective infection control."

The infection control inside the Coleman Federal Correctional Institution in the early spring looked spotty to Rochelle. He found sanitizer hard to come by. Guards gave him a mask every two weeks. His daily concerns over factors he couldn't control, like Coleman's ventilation system, gave way to nightly fears that kept him up.

"You don't ever know when you go to sleep at night whether you're going to be sick with the virus the following day," he said.

A key strategy to end COVID behind bars has drawn controversy.

In early fall, Columbia University professor Bruce Western found himself convincing legislators of a different path to infection control: pruning the vast prison population, potentially by the hundreds of thousands. The "decarceration effort" Western described to Congress was the official recommendation by him and his colleagues at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Letting out as many people as possible allowed for physical distancing inside prisons and jails. It could tamp down cases and deaths. 

Western had plenty of backup. The New England Journal of Medicine insisted releases had to be "scaled up and sustained."

The Lancet wrote that "decarceration is urgently needed, particularly during a persisting and prejudicial pandemic."

The experts also pointed out that while the virus attacked prisoners, it refused to live like them. COVID-19 was free to come and go.

"We have to understand that these institutions are embedded in communities," Western said. "The idea that we can wall off and segregate our way out of social problems — the pandemic has revealed that as a fiction." 

Local jails were fast becoming "veritable volcanoes for the spread of the virus" into their surrounding towns and cities, according to an ACLU study.  With 10 million jail admissions every year — one every three seconds — the virus was continually carried in and out by those arrested and released.

Likewise, the nearly 420,000 correction workers traveling to and from their jobs every day could unwittingly become vectors. The ACLU report estimated that nearly 100,000 could die of COVID-19, both in and out of prisons and jails, unless drastic cuts were made to the inmate population. 

In late March, former Attorney General William Barr wrote a memo urging federal prisons to transfer medically at-risk and nonviolent inmates out of prisons and into home confinement.

"Given the surge in positive cases," the Federal Bureau of Prisons said on its website, every effort would be made to prioritize Barr's directive. As of today, 7,787 inmates are finishing their sentences at home, but that number isn't high enough, many public health experts and advocates continue to argue. More federal and state prisoners must get out.

"People are going to die," said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU's Justice Division. "They are going to die inside prisons and jails, and these infections are going to spread to the rest of the United States, and they already have."

For inmates and prison workers alike, it's a race against time.

Cynthia Carter-Young felt like her brother was almost in the clear. 

Leonard Carter had been locked up for 25 years, but he'd been granted parole in January and would be getting out in May.

Still, his sister couldn't shake the fear she felt over his profile and his circumstances — Leonard was a 60-year-old Black man with a history of emphysema hospitalizations, and the guards around him were getting sick.

"He said, 'I really hope I don't get it because we're not out there," she remembered. "I hope [the guards] don't bring it in.'"

In mid-April, the prison phoned Carter-Young during a Zoom church service. Leonard had COVID. 

By the time Cynthia connected with a nurse on his hospital floor, her brother couldn't talk to her. He was on full oxygen already.

"I said, 'I want y'all to do everything possible,'" she told the nurse. "I want him to have every fighting chance."

Cynthia was planning to cook him oxtails on his first night home and introduce him to his teenage grandson.

He died in the hospital on April 14, still in custody, a month and a half before he would have gone free.

But it's not just inmates who are dying — corrections workers haven't been spared from the virus, either.

"We've lost members, and maybe unnecessarily," said Tammy Sawchuk, executive vice president of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association. 

The Marshall Project, a criminal justice advocacy organization tracking COVID-19 infections in prisons and jails, reported 94,002 infections and 162 deaths of corrections staff at the time of this publication. 

Meanwhile, corrections workers from Arizona to Georgia, Illinois to California and Connecticut, have raised safety concerns. 

An OSHA complaint filed in April listed ventilation problems at a Federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida. A letter to correctional officials in March described thermometers in Chicago's Cook County jail "designed to measure the temperature of a room or wall, not the body temperature of a human."

Rochelle made it home, but he wasn't free.

In late April, Rochelle got fitted with an electronic ankle monitor and briefed on a new set of rules. He was going home but remaining in custody, and if he wanted to stay on home confinement and steer clear of Coleman, he'd have to keep the ankle monitor charged and submit to constant monitoring.

And so Rochelle's new life began at his sister's house in Gainesville, Florida. His days were bracketed by accountability calls to a halfway house. His nights were spent sleeping while tethered to the nearest electrical outlet, his ankle monitor charging away.

"Yes, I feel safer," he conceded one recent Sunday afternoon. He was sitting on a sofa in a place that was a home, but also now his cell. "I am still in prison. Let's not get that mistaken."

Rochelle discovered something about himself during this home confinement: He remained preoccupied by thoughts of COVID-19 in prison. He couldn't stop thinking about the friends he left in Coleman.

"Many nights I wonder, is that person still surviving?" he asked. He prayed often, ruminating on why his friends had to stay trapped inside with a virus that could kill them. "They didn't deserve a death sentence," he said. "They weren't sentenced to die."

And so, free to do almost nothing but think, he decided to keep doing that — only out loud and online. Rochelle taught himself to use Facebook Live.

"I'm steady growing and learning," he said. "You never have learned too much."

He started broadcasting in the evening, when he knew people were home from work. He often dressed in a hat and tie and began with a chipper greeting: "Hello, hello, hello! This is Rufus Rochelle!"

Quickly though, he shifted his tone, and the delivery changed. It was as if he was back in that common room in Coleman, watching the news, feeling the threat.

"You got thousands of them that's languishing behind bars," he thundered into two camera phones, one in each hand, one night in September.

"As long as you keep them locked up behind bars, the odds are against them. Give them clemencies. Commute their sentences. Allow them to go home."

Public health experts could testify before Congress and TV news reporters could show ravaged nursing homes. Rochelle would head to Facebook every night. He would grab two cell phones and yell into their cameras. If 2.3 million people were locked up and unable to speak, he would do it for them. 

"There's a need for my voice," he said, "There's a need for helping others, those ones I'm leaving behind. That way they don't die behind bars. I am a voice that's an awakening."

Prisoner releases encounter resistance from many corners.

As Rufus and the public health experts have campaigned for large scale releases, lawyers have filed petitions and writs to get people out.

People like Taiwu Jenkins, who is serving 40 years for assault in a New York State prison. Jenkins has already done half his time. He has chronic asthma so he's high risk, but in July, a judge refused to let him out, writing that his "right to be protected from the virus had to be weighed" against the rights of his victim, his "victim's family, and members of the public" to be safe from him. 

So Jenkins remained in prison, fearing for his safety, especially when the guards came around.

"When no one's looking, they take their masks off," he said, "They cough around us and they touch all the same things we touch, and that's how you're passing it around in the jail." 

"Another round [of infections], and I could lose my life here. That's my biggest fear: losing my life to COVID-19, not coming back to my family."

But families of victims have reservations about prisoner releases. 

"Releasing some people is good, it makes sense," said Richard Pompelio, a victims' rights advocate. But, Pompelio worried about honoring one group's needs at the expense of another's. Open up the prison gates, in other words, and some will feel tremendous relief; others will cower. 

"The person on the victim's side of that equation — it just dominates their mind, almost every second, and it's fear. It's living in fear," he said. 

Some in law enforcement have maintained that the post-release infrastructure can't absorb hundreds of thousands of prisoner releases, all at once. 

"The system is already overburdened," said Larry Cosme, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "Now, you want to reintegrate these individuals back into society — try to find them a job, try to find them housing, try to provide them appropriate medical help. You're placing a burden on the officers, and you're placing a burden on the inmate. It's a catastrophe."

Lawmakers have pushed back, too. In New Jersey, Republican state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick voted against his state's recent inmate release measure.

"When you're releasing thousands of inmates," he said, "clearly lots of information is needed. Have they notified people in [the] community? I haven't seen that." 

In New York, Democratic state Assemblyman David Weprin said lawmakers were left to balance public health and public safety. 

"The story is we're trying to protect the public," he said.

Rufus Rochelle got a surprising call from prison.

In November, Rufus Rochelle got some good news.

His brother, 58-year-old Richard Williams, was getting out of prison. Williams had been serving two life sentences for selling drugs, but a judge ruled that he had served long enough for a nonviolent crime. Moreover, Williams was wheelchair bound, diabetic, morbidly obese with high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses. The judge wrote that he wouldn't ignore Williams' poor health right now, not with the pandemic raging.

Like Rochelle, Williams was locked up at Coleman and so the family went back to pick him up one windy morning, arriving in time to see correction officers push Williams' wheelchair out into the parking lot. He was free, after 29 years and 11 months. 

William's sister, Cheryl, bent down to hug her brother. The two of them stayed there, his head tucked inside her.

"Y'all just don't know," Williams said, quietly. "This day…" 

They would all be living together now: Cheryl, Rufus, and Richard. Rufus under electronic monitoring. Williams reporting to a parole officer for the next 10 years. Cheryl, 67, caring for her two aging brothers.

Before leaving the Coleman parking lot, Rufus looked around, took in the moment. 

"I know when he's out of here, I'm free now," he said, looking at Richard.

Back at the Gainesville house, the brothers sat together in the living room. 

"I ain't been on this sofa in a long time," Richard said, as he tried to remember the way the room looked decades ago, the last time he saw it.

The memory of prison was much fresher. Just hours ago, he had been living in one cell, the size of a small bathroom. There was a hard bed. He was wedged in with another prisoner he barely knew. 

"For the past several months, since March, we basically lived in one room. As quick as you can come out," he said, you were sent back in. "If your mind ain't strong enough, you're not going to make it out of there."

This was prison, under COVID conditions. Education and support programs had been paused in lock up's across the country. Guards kept prisoners in their cells almost continuously to guarantee physical distancing. 

"We do 35 days locked down," Richard said. "That means: you're not allowed to leave 24 hours a day. You take a shower three times a week. You don't come out. Sometimes we go months without a phone call or an email. That's your life."

Evening arrived, and Rochelle took his place on the lawn for his nightly Facebook live broadcast. He wore a plaid shirt, tucked in. A cap shielded his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. He clasped a cell phone in each hand and aimed their cameras toward himself. "Hello, hello, hello," he began. "This is Rufus Rochelle." 

The rectangle of his phone occasionally caught the sinking sun. The trees darkened. A cat slunk by. A few yards away, just inside the house, his brother was getting ready to fall asleep in his home, for the first time in nearly 30 years. Richard told Rufus that the men in prison knew of his Facebook Live advocacy, and it gave them hope.

"If guys like my brother aren't out here on the front lines — just like they're on the front lines for COVID," he paused and thought about it. "You better know he's battling a killer."

Out in the yard, Rochelle stared into both cameras and made a promise: "We're the ones not going to let your sons and daughters die behind bars based on COVID-19," he said, his voice gaining volume and intensity. "We are on a mission." 

Days later, Richard Williams' legs swelled and fatigue settled over him. Cheryl decided he needed the hospital.

"They saved his life," Rochelle said. It wasn't COVID-19, but complications stemming from a misdiagnosis and incorrect medication prescribed during his prison sentence. Williams stayed in the hospital for a week and half.

"They took 30-something liters of fluids from his body," Rochelle said. 

And what if his brother had still been in prison? What if that judge hadn't let him out? 

Rochelle didn't hesitate. "He probably wouldn't have made it."

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