Stories from Inside: Using Video to Expose COVID-19 in Prisons

We migrated seeking a better life. We want to live, give us a chance. We are at grave risk of coronavirus here. Help us!”


I’m scared right now, I’m shakin right now. I’m scared.” 


“A woman here with us is sick. She may have COVID-19.” 


“They literally leaving us in here to die” 


“We are trying to save our lives…so this needs to go viral… Immigrants lives matter. We matter.”


These are just some of the desperate messages from incarcerated individuals about COVID-19 that we’ve seen and heard on video/audio recordings. Incarcerated individuals are working with loved ones, journalists, and advocates to get their messages into the world by recording their phone and video calls, but some have already faced retaliation for speaking out.

When several women detained at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center used video visitation tablets to share written messages with The Intercept about their fears of COVID-19 contagion in detention, their tablets were taken away, televisions turned off, and phone calls prohibited. After the piece was published, the women faced further punishment like changes to how and when they could use the tablets to speak with loved ones, which is especially crucial right now as family and friends on the outside worry relentlessly about their health and safety. 

This type of punishment and retaliation not only infringes on the first amendment rights of the women in detention, but also the journalists trying to cover their stories. It further shields us from the truth, and puts those incarcerated in danger as they are cut off from the outside world during a global pandemic. 


The Situation Inside is Dire

As COVID-19 spreads across the country at a devastating rate, the nearly 2.3 million people locked up in prisons, jails and detention centers in the U.S. are at great risk. In April, infection rates at Rikers Island jail in New York City was nearly eight times greater than the infection rate in the rest of the state. And it’s likely that the number is actually much higher because it excludes those who were released or transferred after testing positive. Many of those incarcerated are elderly, have health conditions that could exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms, or are in pretrial detention (meaning they have not even been convicted of anything yet, they just couldn’t’ afford the cash bail). There are currently more than 37,000 immigrants detained on civil charges in jails, prisons, and facilities run by private contractors. Many of the immigrants detained are asylum seekers who risked everything to seek protection from persecution abroad.

Prisons are overcrowded and officials’ response to this global pandemic has been inadequate and disorganized. In prison there is no way to social distance, wash your hands regularly, sanitize your surroundings or wear a mask, as the CDC and U.S. government advise. Between the lack of transparency from The Department of Corrections and Department of Homeland Security, and in-person visits being substituted with phone and video calls – oftentimes costing far more than loved ones can afford –  it is hard to connect with those on the inside and understand how people are being impacted. This is why it’s crucial that we make every effort to collect, record and amplify messages from incarcerated and detained individuals, their loved ones, and advocates who are risking punishment and using creative strategies to make sure we know what’s really happening on the inside during this global pandemic. 


Staying Connected

As Steven Renderos, Executive Director of Media Justice, said during a digital town hall on the Right to Connect

“We have to rely on the ones we love to tell us what we need to know. Many of us take for granted that we can pick up the phone or jump on a zoom call and talk to our family. It should be a given, but for millions of families it is not.” 

As in-person visits with incarcerated individuals are suspended and movements restricted, it’s even more crucial that people have access to phone and video calls in order to stay connected.  Additionally with limited phone time, people who are incarcerated struggle to contact the public defenders who represent them, or their social workers who serve as a crucial resource for their cases. Due to increased advocacy efforts, federal prisons recently made video and phone calls free during COVID-19, but there are still so many sitting in local jails, state prisons and detention centers whose families can’t afford the exorbitant costs of picking up their phone calls due to predatory private phone companies. 

Here are some ways that you can help fight for the Right to Connect for all incarcerated individuals: 

  • Join Worth Rises #ConnectFamiliesNOW initiative and subscribe to their newsletter for weekly calls to action
  • Sign this petition from Media Justice to demand prison phone justice and subscribe to the campaign for updates
  • Share this written form created by Worth Rises for people to submit how prison telecom corporations have impacted them, their families, and their incarcerated loved ones. 
  • Support the campaign to #FreeThemAll and ensure that no one is left to face this global pandemic in a cage


Guidance for Safely Recording & Sharing Stories

If you are in a position to record a phone or video call with someone who is incarcerated, and want to help get their message out, follow this guidance to ensure that it’s done safely, ethically and effectively:


Where do I send these videos? 

Many advocacy organizations like The Dream Defenders are calling for submission of audio or video recordings from incarcerated people and/or their community members in order to amplify their messages and connect their stories with local advocacy campaigns. 

Additionally you can reach out to a journalist to publish the messages. We recommend: 

Visit our Legal Video Advocacy page for more resources on using video and storytelling to support incarcerated individuals. And see our COVID-19 Response Hub for more on how you can safely, ethically, and effectively document and share during this global pandemic.


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