The Pandemic Inside: COVID-19 in Michigan Prisons

A compilation of writing by prisoners in Michigan covering the first year of the pandemic. This publication was collected by Michigan Abolition and Prisoners Solidarity (MAPS).

Submitted by R Totale on September 12, 2021

Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS) is pleased to announce the release of a new zine, The Pandemic Inside: COVID-19 in Michigan Prisons. This zine is a compilation of writings by prisoners that were shared with us during the first year or so of the pandemic. Their letters and essays expose the deplorable conditions and routine abuses to which those incarcerated in this state are continually subjected—forms of disposability that were only intensified, often with deadly results, by the pandemic. But these pieces also highlight some of the many ways that prisoners pushed back against this condemnation to premature death: from letters and lawsuits to mutual aid and uprisings.

Each article includes the name and MDOC number of the author. We encourage you to reach out to authors about reflections, feedback, solidarity, and more. To find the most updated information on a prisoner’s location, search for their name or number on the OTIS website.


In certain ways, a global pandemic can act as a kind of equalizer. COVID testing and vaccination have demonstrated some collective capacity for free, universal healthcare in a country with a system long dominated by for-profit healthcare providers. In a very short period of time, telehealth services long-needed by many working, chronically ill, or disabled people became ubiquitous, simply because “everyone else” needed them too. And 2020 saw the rollout of the closest thing Americans have known to universal basic income in the form of enhanced unemployment benefits.

But we also know that COVID-19 did not affect everyone equally. As usual, already marginalized populations bore the brunt of its effects. Without the resources to ride out the pandemic, for example, many people in poor and racialized communities had to keep working in person and were exposed to infection and premature death at much higher rates than the wealthier and mostly white communities that could afford to take an extended leave or work remotely. In other words, the pandemic exacerbated already existing and uneven forms of suffering and death.

This structural violence has been especially apparent in prisons. The pandemic hit hard and fast in Michigan prisons, and by May 2020 the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) had logged more prisoner deaths than any other state. As we write this introduction in August 2021, 143 prisoners have officially died from COVID-19 in MDOC facilities (and this is probably an undercount), and Michigan prisons still lead the country in infections per capita (6,992 per 10,000).

Statistics like these can give us a general overview of the catastrophe, indicating some of the mechanisms by which prisons make prisoners disposable, but they can’t account for the granular, embodied experience of daily life under such conditions. They miss the fears, hopes, and frustrations, the abuse, cruelty, and indifference to which incarcerated people were subjected by politicians, officials, and guards at every level. They also fail to document the forms of mutual aid and resistance, some more spectacular than others, by which prisoners have tried to stay safe. This is why we have decided to publish a selection of writings on the experience of the coronavirus pandemic by prisoners of the MDOC. These writings were sent to Michigan Abolition and Prisoner Solidarity (MAPS), a group organizing in solidarity with prison rebels, over the last year and a half. Many of these submissions were initially intended for MAPS’s quarterly newsletter, The Opening Statement, which circulates among over a hundred imprisoned subscribers. However, we hope they can find a broader audience outside Michigan’s state prison walls, as a testimony to the harm caused by prisons, and the spirit of collective resistance to carceral violence that persists even as things go “back to normal.”

These essays and letters detail daily suffering and administrative incompetence as well as the structural impediments to effective care in the prison system. Although the MDOC is a rigidly hierarchical system, the central administration in Lansing often struggles to standardize implementation of its policies across all of its prison facilities. Workplace culture varies from prison to prison; wardens have greater or lesser regard for the rules that supposedly govern them; and staff may have a broad range of intentions behind their activities. During the pandemic, some prisoners received the appropriate cleaning supplies and masks promised by the state, while others were forced to purchase them on prison wages, and still others couldn’t acquire them at all. Some prisons tried to follow distancing protocols more closely while others opted to further overcrowd their facilities and shut down entire wings, enforcing lockdowns in ways that left infected people in cramped quarters with others who weren’t. Meanwhile, despite the governor’s directives against them, prisoner transfers sparked new outbreaks by introducing infected prisoners to facilities where COVID had not yet begun to spread.

But, as a universal trend, the pandemic empowered prison administrators to make all sorts of capricious and harmful decisions at all levels. In some places, mail was delayed for up to two months due to understaffing as many prison guards opted to use time off, retire, or quit outright rather than work in pandemic conditions. The scant offerings of classes and rehabilitative programming at many facilities were simply discarded, causing a backlog/slowdown of parole hearings. Prisoners were denied in-person visits with loved ones, to the profit of the price-gouging communications contractors who sell phone, email, and most recently video visitation services to prisoners. Mobility was further restricted, often without rhyme or reason, as lockdowns were required and prisons had to operate on a skeleton crew staff, with wardens at times working in prison kitchens just to keep things running. Pre-existing environmental problems like black mold, unclean water, and rotting food were simply ignored. On top of all of this, the fascist architecture of the prison makes infection nearly inevitable. How does one socially distance in a 10×10’ room shared by 8 people?

With cases in Michigan prisons once again rising fast due to the appearance of the delta variant, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over. Overall, the pandemic has clarified why abolition is necessary: prisons amplify existing social problems and create new ones instead of solving them. These accounts of prisoners’ experiences of the pandemic and struggles for survival and dignity in the face of premature death document some of the multiple forms that abolitionist politics can take even inside the prison walls.