JOHN KIRIAKOU: Covid & the Way of Death in US Prisons

If we don’t care about prisoners on any normal day, then why would we care about them when a pandemic is spreading through the system?

“Free our people.” Car caravan on April 10, 2020, outside City Hall in Philadelphia demanding the release of people from the city’s jails in the face of Covid-19. (Joe Piette, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

The first comprehensive study of prisoner deaths during the Covid era shows that deaths in federal and state prisons rose nearly 50 percent during the first year of the pandemic, and in six states, they more than doubled. 

The New York Times reports that deaths in America’s prisons during 2020 showed more than twice the increase compared to deaths in the United States overall, and they even exceeded deaths in nursing homes, which were among the hardest hit sectors across the country. 

The Times found that it was not just the fact that Covid swept through already overcrowded prisons. It was also that prisoners are routinely subjected to substandard medical care.  That’s the norm. That, coupled with crowded facilities and an aging inmate population combined to make the worst public health crisis in American prisons since the 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic. 

And the states with the highest death rates are the states with the worst prison conditions, the worst medical care and the longest sentences:  Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia.  In all of those states deaths in 2020 were up more than 100 percent over the previous year. 

As an aside, the federal prisoner death numbers are incomplete.  Despite a 2013 law that requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to keep data on deaths, health and safety, the BOP stopped doing that in 2019, citing bureaucratic changes within the Justice Department.  Don’t like the law?  Just ignore it.  Nobody will do anything about it.

Aging Prison Population

“Public health is freeing the aged in Pa’s prisons.”  Philadelphia protest on June 7, 2020, calling on Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf to free vulnerable prisoners during Covid. (Joe Piette, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A companion study of American prisons is showing that the prison population nationwide is aging significantly.  Due primarily to tough sentencing laws during the 1980s and 1990s, Americans are incarcerated for longer and longer periods. 

In 2009, about 10 percent of all prisoners were 50 or older.  By 2019, that portion had jumped to 21 percent.  According to the Department of Justice, prisoners are considered to be “elderly” by the time they reach 50.  Their lifespans are shortened by their years in prison, and, in many cases by drug abuse, poverty and a lack of appropriate medical care. 

High rates of depression, obesity and suicide make the situation even worse.  For example, of the 46 prisoners who died in West Virginia in 2020, 42 were older than 50.  In Michigan, which has the oldest prison population in the country, 90 percent of the 248 prisoners who died in 2020 were older than 50.

Aerial view of Federal Correctional Institution, Loretto, Pennsylvania. (Prison Insight/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

I spent my 50th birthday in the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania, after blowing the whistle on the C.I.A.’s torture program. 

On the day that I arrived there, the prison, which was designed to hold 675 prisoners, instead held 1,425.  Cells built for four men held six or eight, and bunkbeds lined the halls. 

“Health care” was provided by physicians’ assistants from the National Health Service, a bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services.  After nearly a year without a doctor, we finally got a disgraced physician from Cleveland who had had his license temporarily suspended after he was accused of taking liberties with a child.

No matter a prisoner’s malady, the go-to medication in prison was Tylenol (acetaminophen).  I can tell you that I personally saw four prisoners just in my housing unit die in the 23 months I was in prison, all from undiagnosed cancers.  You can be sure, though, that they had all been prescribed Tylenol by the incompetent boobs in charge of taking care of them.

Near the end of my sentence, an African man in the cell next to me was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  He wasn’t isolated.  He wasn’t moved to a cell in the medical unit.  And none of us were provided with masks. When I asked the physician’s assistant to whom I was assigned what to do, he said, “I guess just hold your breath when you walk past him.”  That’s healthcare in the American prison system.

State & Local Prisons Even Worse

Living facilities in California State Prison, July 19, 2006. (California Department of Corrections, Wikimedia Commons)

If it sounds like I’m being harsh about the federal prison healthcare system, let me tell you that the state and local prison systems are even worse.  Look at it this way:  Many state and local prisons are private; managed by for-profit companies that the states and localities hire to cut costs.  How do these prisons cut costs?  They do it by cutting the money spent on food and on medical care.  Animal-grade food costs less than human-grade food, and it’s served in prisons across America every day. 

And when a prisoner needs a name-brand or otherwise expensive medication, you either let him have it, which happens rarely, or let him die, which happens daily.  If nobody cares about America’s incarcerated men and women and there is no price to pay when they die due to neglect, then there’s no reason to change the policy.

If we don’t care about prisoners on any normal day, then why would we care about them when Covid is spreading through our prison systems?  I was shocked by The New York Times report, but I wasn’t surprised. I doubt anybody else who knows about mass incarceration in this country was either.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

11 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Covid & the Way of Death in US Prisons

  1. Realist
    February 24, 2023 at 15:04

    Mr. Kiriakou, you are a real eye-opener when it comes to the level and prevalence of daily abuse in the American “justice” system. Like so many other social services supposedly provided as a civil right under the constitution, protected by so many platitudes and roundly ignored legislated laws and mandates, they are largely a fiction, blatantly disregarded by the authorities as well as government’s only potential watchdog, the mass media. In nearly every sphere of human life and activity American society is organised into one of abuse and neglect for the great masses and special, privileged treatment for the tiny upper crust. America is like a third world country for most of its people, and only “them that has” are those who get anything. You want to know the lot of most “little people” in the Anglophone world from which our country, the Great White North, Oz and Kiwiland derive (the acknowledged extent of the “civilised” world as far as we exceptional Americans admit), read Dickens. It would seem that nothing much has changed under the standard operating procedures that operate under the camouflage of all the political verbiage used to hide the actual truth. You want liberty, fraternity, and equality? First get born into big money. Face it, nobody (or damned few, and only those with qualifying sociopathic tendencies) earns their way into Carlin’s “big club” which you ain’t in. Any microscopic particle of so-called “reform” that ever gets passed or re-invented is, in retrospect, always discovered to be an inside subterfuge or ploy with mostly the welfare of the wealthy ruling class in mind as the beneficiaries.

  2. CaseyG
    February 24, 2023 at 08:47

    sigh—- Re: the Preamble ………”We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union—-ESTABLISH JUSTICE….”

    That’s amazing where ESTABLISH JUSTICE is the first item listed—–and yet it is no doubt the first item made UNDOABLE for any prisoners. America can be such a sad nation but so many do not seem to notice.

  3. Tony
    February 24, 2023 at 08:22

    A very interesting article.

    He has also written a disturbing article for the Covert Action Magazine website:

    “Massachusetts Bill Would Give Prisoners Time Off Sentences For Organ Donation”.

    • Anon
      February 25, 2023 at 22:07

      Somehow missed the previous animal grade food piece referenced above… at a loss for words
      Tnx CN for pushbutton retrieval, John for a shocker, and Tony for your comment… spirit got me curious.

  4. Rebecca Turner
    February 24, 2023 at 03:20

    Given that US health care for its working class is abysmal and enormously expensive/profitable, I suppose that most Americans cling to the principle of less eligibility that governed the British workhouse & Poor Law era: if imprisonment is to act as a deterrent, the treatment given a prisoner should not be superior to that provided a member of the lowest significant social class in the free society. Less eligibility is a powerful concept that has greatly influenced the policies and operations of the correctional system.

    See Sieh, E. W. (1989). Less Eligibility: The Upper Limits Of Penal Policy. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 3(2), 159–183. hxxps://

  5. HelenB
    February 23, 2023 at 21:45

    Thank you John. You are right. And there is more. Mental health units have issues, Nursing homes have issues. Sometimes it is just about making a buck, other times, more malicious things at work. Ethics even in regular communities may be comprised for many reasons. ?
    1) Shorten prison terms.
    2) Inspect everything more.
    3) Advertise medical facilities failures more.

  6. Michael Atwood
    February 23, 2023 at 21:26

    We see the most outrageous, cold hearted and compassionless action on seemingly every level of social functioning the world over.

    Does this not fit perfectly well with the dominant values of the most dominant religion in the present world?

    What is that dominant religion? Is it not the pursuit of money, power and profit to satisfy the manipulative egoistic urges of the extremely arrogant and heartless?

    The rest of us are chained to these barbaric systems of exploitive, degrading and enslaving economics and mind stifling media monopolies that seem created by the arrogant and heartless for those very purposes.

    Seems everything has been turned into a weapon against life itself, against nature, against peace, against human beings living joyously more simple and down to earth lives that are not obsessed with owning and conquering the whole world with endless wars, ecological destruction and creating and enslaving everybody to giant organizational structures that consume our short mortal lives in dehumanizing complexity and joyless alienation from nature, each other and ourselves.

    People discarded into prisons, poverty, meaningless jobs and senseless barbaric wars, endless mind trashing media, regimenting mind trashing education, nauseam…..We call this “LIFE”? Or have we become normalized to a mental slavery so that we accept all of this savage barbarity and destruction and human made suffering all around us with impunity as if it were just the natural order of things?

    This world is a bit strange if you think about it, but of course you must not question the money god-the only value that matters here.

    Michael Atwood

  7. CaseyG
    February 23, 2023 at 17:40

    Perhaps it’s time for those who run the prisons to be subject to laws and rules that dead prisoners , or prisoners who became ill in prison should be added to those crimes of those who run the prisons.
    Shouldn’t that be a truism? If a person dies in prison—shouldn’t there be an investigation as to WHY the prisoner died? If a prisoner has health care withheld—— isn’t that murder?

    • Piotr Berman
      February 25, 2023 at 20:48

      May 17, 2016 — Arrested for stealing $5 in junk food, Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally disabled 24-year-old, was left to starve in a squalid Virginia jail …

      Most recent case like that:

      Larry Price Jr., 51, was found by guards lying in a pool of his own urine and contaminated water, unresponsive in August 2021 after having been detained for more than a year. His once 6-foot-2-inch, 185-pound frame emaciated down to 121 pounds, according to the Arkansas State Crime Lab.

      In wellness-check documents obtained by ABC News, after Price had died, prison staff marked his log 10 different times with the same seven words, “Well-Being Check Inmate and Cell OK.”

      Price was arrested in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after entering a police department on August 19, 2020, and verbally threatening officers while using his empty hand to resemble a gun, according to the lawsuit.

      Price was often homeless, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, hallucinations, and “a developmental disability that significantly impaired his intellectual and adaptive functioning,” according to his lawyers.

      The officers were familiar with Price because he would often enter the police department and act out erratically and he seemed more agitated this time, the lawsuit states. According to the lawsuit, after officers couldn’t calm him down, they arrested him and charged him with terroristic threatening in the first degree.

      Price was detained and placed almost immediately in solitary confinement …
      As usual, nobody was found “guilty”, but there is a civil lawsuit, probably with good chance for “damages”. Of course, there are also records of periodic “checks by the jail nurse” too… Note the absurdity of charges, given that mental status of Price was perfectly know to police, and probably to whatever judicial officer was in charge too. Cruelty of solitary confinement FOR A YEAR…

  8. ee came
    February 23, 2023 at 14:28

    the pandemic revealed that America is ruled by two pro-death parties. one party was a little louder about attacking the very concept of public health. but the body counts and the constant smoke from the stacks of the crematoriums reveals that both parties are in favor of mass death. certainly neither will spend a penny preventing deaths at home when that penny can instead be spent causing deaths abroad.

  9. Mary Caldwell
    February 23, 2023 at 13:18

    For me the “real” America can be shown to the world by how we treat our prisoners.

    This is who we are, according to Kiriakou animal grade food , food unfit for human consumption is fed on a daily basis to prisoners.

    The conditions of filthy laundry, bedding, plumbing, overcrowding, the mentally ill prison guards all of it combine to prove our own sickness.

    Our need to dominate, discriminate, torture even murder those that the system deems losers is on a daily display.

    Every day we are at war somewhere in the world as well as right here on our own streets. Murder and mayhem are commonplace.

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