COVID-19 in prisons: The precipice of tremendous change

By Felix Rosado

Editor's note: shortly after this article was written, a person from the block next to Felix became the DOC's first confirmed case of COVID-19. The next day, the entire state prison system went into lockdown. Check back here for updates from Felix over the coming weeks.   

"You can't come in here without a mask," says a snarky female voice through the intercom next to the button I just pushed, next to the door I'm trying to get in. I pull the little piece of cloth out my jacket pocket, unroll it, and start placing it around my face and tying bows being my head. Is this really gonna stop me from catching corona? A week ago, they passed one of these to each of us, made over at the plantation by the tens of thousands over a couple days out of white kitchen smock.

The door pops. I enter the building I've been coming in and out of three times a day for almost two years now. It's eerily silent, corridor vacant, no dozens of men at a time trying to bumrush the metal detectors to get to school, chapel, get-out-of-jail programs, one of the ten coveted law library computers, while COs try to manage the flow, asking guys who beep to go back through, collecting passes, no time to look at them, an impossible task.

After about a week of this, it's clear we won't be getting back to normalcy anytime soon. But what IS normalcy? What's normal about the caging of humans? We find ways to transcend, to make meaning, to breach the fences and razorwire. But it's never enough, never goes all the way.

People on the other side of all this miserable steel are telling us how crazy it is outside, how self-quarantining is getting the best of them, how they want to get back to life. Forty-eight thousand in PA, and 5,300 of us fighting death-by-incarceration sentences, have been wanting to get back to life for years, decades. Could this be the moment?

I think some of us are coming to realize that the world we knew a few months ago will not be returning, that we're on the precipice of tremendous change. Will the state use this to further control, we wonder, to expand the military industrial complex, to exploit and leave for dead the most vulnerable—even more? Or will the rest of us demand the kind of change we long for, that we've always longed and fought for? Is a world without war and prisons possible after all? Can we envision a justice not synonymous with cops, courtrooms, and cages, finally?

Person holding "inaction is murder #FreeOurPeople" sign

On the 11 o'clock news every night I hear about shutdowns, stimulus packages, an embattled and now shuttered juvenile prison being makeshifted into a hospital. Why not transform ALL these torture chambers into life-preserving centers, return the stolen land to life-giving cycles of reciprocity that value the sacred, the interconnectedness of all beings, nature, and the creator?

If trillions of dollars can suddenly appear with a few pen strokes, why poverty, homelessness, prisons? If politicians can get on board with social safety nets and $1000 checks months after laughing a presidential hopeful off the debate stage for proposing the same thing, why couldn't we have done this all along? If a police commissioner can lax arrest and processing procedures for some, why not for all?

So, what will this change, this new society and world, look like? There's likely going to be a lot of devastation, the depravities of capitalism and individual greed laid bare for all to see. But the possibilities for social transformation in this moment are profound. Crises are also opportunities. Our interdependency has never been more evident. In this moment of reckoning, what will we do? My hope is that the arc of this precipice bends towards dignity, freedom, and life—for all—and that when the masks finally come off, what we see honors the price we had to pay.


Felix Rosado is cofounder and co-coordinator of Let’s Circle Up, a restorative justice project based at Graterford State Prison. Originally from Reading, PA, he has been fighting a death by incarceration sentence since 1995. He also co-coordinates the Alternatives to Violence Project and is a member of the Inside-Out Graterford Think Tank. In 2016, he earned his Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from Villanova University. He is an advisor to Decarcerate PA, as well as to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today Exhibit and Returning Citizens Tour Guide Program. As a member of Right 2 Redemption (a founding organization of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration) and Lifelines, he seeks to end the practice of caging humans until death.