Justin Ray Faircloth has started keeping his spoon after meals at Limestone Correctional Facility, Alabama’s largest state prison. He’s not supposed to, but he figures that the fewer people touching his silverware, the better.
Faircloth, 34, has Stage IV colon cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemotherapy so far, and he believes he might die if the coronavirus makes its way into the prison and infects him.
“I don’t have an immune system,” Faircloth, told VICE News in a phone call from prison. “I try to distance myself as much as I possibly can, but in an open dorm it’s impossible.”
While most Americans are under order to practice social distancing to contain the spread of coronavirus, that’s not possible for the 2 million inmates in America’s state and federal prison system. Approximately 40% of inmates in the federal prison system suffer from chronic medical conditions, and the U.S. prison population is aging. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, about 11% of federal prison inmates are aged 56 or over.
Faircloth was taken into custody in October for violating the terms of his probation (including drug possession and resisting arrest) stemming from a 2014 drug offense. He shares a dorm with 120 other men, located across the hall from another dorm housing another 100.
“He’s a non-violent offender,” Faircloth’s wife Amber told VICE News. “All sick, non-violent and elderly inmates should be released home to their family during this time.”
Limestone has one of the biggest healthcare staff in the state, and because of that, has the largest elderly and sick inmate populations. Faircloth estimated he’s one out of about 1,000 others who would be particularly vulnerable if coronavirus got into the facility.
“It’s very sad and scary knowing I may never see him again,” Amber said.
A growing number of prisons and jails across the U.S. are reporting confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, among their inmate populations. New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, a federal prison in Louisiana, and two state prisons in California, have been among them.
Activists have been ringing alarm bells for weeks, warning that the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in most American prisons make them ticking time bombs for the virus to spread very quickly among the inmate population.
In the last week, local officials in New York City, Los Angeles County and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County have taken steps to release vulnerable inmates to decrease their jail populations and mitigate the potential for the virus to spread. On Sunday, state and federal representatives for New York — which is the current epicenter of the virus — joined medical personnel and corrections officers union reps and called on the DOJ to release at-risk inmates from federal jails in the state. That same day, President Donald Trump said that his administration was looking at the possibility of releasing nonviolent, at-risk offenders from federal prisons.
On March 10, Alabama’s Department of Corrections — which is notorious for violence, understaffing, neglect and squalid conditions at its prisons — rolled out a series of measures designed to keep coronavirus out. Those measures mirrored many of those taken by state prison systems around the country, including ending in-person visitiations and suspending vocational classes.
Then, late last week, Alabama’s Department of Corrections said one of their employees tested positive for COVID-19 — but did not reveal who they were, or what facility they’d been working in. They also said that no inmates had tested positive for the disease.
But Faircloth feels like they aren’t doing enough to keep it that way — and that’s particularly concerning with Limestone’s large number of elderly or infirm prisoners.