As Coronavirus Rips Through Prisons, Trans People Track Its Spread

No one knew the scale of the epidemic behind bars, so Adryan Corcione decided to map it.

Who will account for those with COVID-19 behind bars? That was the question Adryan Corcione asked themself as the coronavirus pandemic began to grip the nation.

Corcione, a transgender reporter who writes Shadowproof’s “Trans Behind Bars” series, kept hearing the same story over and over again.

“I’m in touch with a few incarcerated people, and they were expressing concern about COVID-19 and the lack of information there was available,” they tell NewNowNext.

Friends and family members of people in prisons, jails, and detention centers also had questions. Reports were circulating that prison staff were failing to provide soap, forcing incarcerated people to purchase it at commissaries. As the U.S. struggled to provide adequate testing to those on the outside, common sense dictated that people on the inside would fare far worse.

A friend commented to Corcione that someone should map known cases behind bars.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, I guess I can do that,’” Corcione says matter-of-factly.

In a matter of weeks, Corcione and developer Eli Sadoff have tracked COVID-19 in prisons and detention centers around the world using media reports, information passed on by people in detention, and details sent in by prisoners’ friends and family. The site has more than 470 pins of locations where the virus has been reported.

For Corcione, the project is a natural extension of their work reporting on incarcerated trans people.

“I’ve been particularly passionate about telling stories of trans people behind bars,” they explain. “I think a lot of data we know about incarceration in general tends to focus on young black men, which is still important, but because of how binary gendered data is, a lot of people who are included in that, would [actually] be black trans women.”

For Sadoff, who is nonbinary, a project that lays out health disparities among marginalized people is also particularly meaningful.

“I have been interested in issues around putting people in gender-conforming facilities,” they say. “That’s something that I’d been interested in before this, which is kind of where the intersection of health care and incarceration came in.”

Corcione draws a connection between the lack of testing for COVID-19 and the reported lack of gender-affirming health care for trans people behind bars.

“[For] a lot of people behind bars who are exhibiting [coronavirus] symptoms, there might not be positives because testing is not readily available to them,” they say. “Medical needs are ignored so that they don’t have to be confronted.”

The COVID-19 Behind Bars Map is far from comprehensive, Corcione and Sadoff note. Apart from the testing shortage that has plagued people inside and outside of prisons, the pandemic has dramatically hampered communication between those who are detained and their loved ones. Prisoners report serious delays in mail delivery due to fears of transmission. Jails and prisons have suspended visits from guests to try to slow the spread. This means it is up to officials to administer tests and report cases of COVID-19, something many advocates doubt is happening accurately.

Scott Olson / Staff

The COVID-19 Behind Bars Map allows anyone to report cases. While it may not be exhaustive, Corcione and Sadoff hope it will be of use in providing some data where there has historically been almost none. They also hope it will help other journalists reporting on prisons during the pandemic.

What the numbers do not capture are the voices of those living out the pandemic behind bars.

Corcione receives letters from incarcerated people each week and uses them to track the virus. In one such letter, a 66-year-old woman documents her experience trying to social distance in a men’s prison in California.

“Why is the prison running the yard everyday, with approximately 200 inmates intermingling, when the Governor decreed a stay-home order in order to prevent the spread of the covid-19 (sic.) virus, emphasizing the sensitivity and importance of the measure in daily press briefings, criticizing public groupings at California beaches and basketball courts?” she writes. “The prison is always putting us on lockdown for every little thing, any rumor, whatever they can come up with, but now, when it is the most ideal time ever to lock us down, in the face of a deadly disease that can kill us all, inmates and staff alike, they have not lifted a finger to lock us down.”

Kate Sosin is an award-winning, trans-identified news and investigative reporter.