COVID-19 and Prisons by Jodie and Billy Sinclair

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are in the U.S. 1,316,000 inmates in state prisons, 615,000 in state jail facilities, 215,000 in federal prison/jail facilities, and 48,000 in youth detention facilities.

The COVID-19 virus will decimate the nation’s prison populations.

Inmates live in confined quarters, either in cellblocks or dormitories. One infected inmate, who will inevitably be infected by either prison staff or family visitors, will trigger an uncontrollable infection spread much like the Australian fire spread last summer. The infection spread cannot be contained in a particular cellblock or dormitory, regardless of how tight it is locked down.

More often than not, prison health care today is provided to inmates by for-profit private medical delivery systems that have little or no regard for an inmate’s medical well-being or physical safety. Essentially, there are no meaningful medical care delivery systems in the nation’s prisons.

Once the virus infection is either detected or strongly suspected, prison staff will immediately start taking sick leave or simply refusing to show up for work. The warden will be forced to declare a state of emergency. The governor will recognize that declaration. The National Guard will be called out to surround and control the locked down prison.

No movement inside the prison will be allowed. Food will be delivered by people dressed in hazmat suits.

As for medical care, medical personnel will refuse to enter the infection swamp. The prison situation will be deemed too dangerous or unstable. The doctors, physician assistants and nurses value their own lives and the lives of their families more than they do the lives of inmates.

There are significant medical geriatric groups and elderly population groups in every community prison. All of these inmates are in the extreme COVID-19 risk categories. None will survive—not one.

Cell bars will be rattled; screams and curses will piece the night; old scores and grudges will be settled; mini-uprisings will occur; the National Guard will quell disturbances with excessive tear gas, pepper spray and live rounds. It will be a nightmare.

Inmates will die by the thousands. Their contaminated bodies will be incinerated.

On the outside, hysterical inmate families will be unable to help their loved ones, knowing all the while that the inmates will die horrible deaths with no medical attention.

The inmates that manage to survive and return to their loved ones will never quite be the same again.

For the most part, the virus nightmare will go unnoticed by the larger free community paralyzed with its own fears, struggles, and grief.

When COVID-19 has exhausted itself, and all the inmate bodies are burned, there may be an official recrimination or two – but probably not.


Can People Really Change In Prison?

Just ask Spencer Oberg and Vik Chopra.  They’ve been to that “fair” and seen the bear. What suddenly changed them behind bars?  They say it was a “moment of clarity” that overrode the constant barrage of noise and insanity surrounding them in prison. 

They now live successful lives in Washington state as co-founders of “Unincarcerated Productions,” a company dedicated to changing public opinion about prisoners and those who have been released from prison.

Spencer served 8 years for selling and using drugs.  Vik served five years for identity theft and possession of a controlled substance. Both shared the “moment of clarity” that changed them.

  • Spencer:  “I was in a red jump suit in a King County jail after a full on SWAT assault team raid on my house, facing decades in prison at 22 shortly after nearly being kill while being robbed at gunpoint (and accidentally shot at) for the oxycontin I was selling… I wanted to be happy, confident and free, positively impacting people and the world around me…I had a choice: Keep doing the same stupid shit and get the same results or figure out a better way to live.”
  • Vik: “The spark of transformation comes at different times for those of us who were incarcerated…For me, it was getting sober, then realizing as I gazed around my unit in Snohomish County jail, that this was not how my story was going to end. The tale of my life would not be a tragedy.  It would be a triumphant saga of hope, redemption and success. I took my power back as the author of my own story that day…”

My husband – Billy Wayne Sinclair – changed in prison for the same reason after a stunning moment of clarity.  He spent years behind bars after being convicted of trying to rob a convenience store and shooting the clerk chasing him in the dark across the parking lot. The man died.  Then a close prison buddy slit his wrists and committed suicide in the cell next to Billy. As his body was being removed the next morning, Billy had his moment of clarity.

How can we ensure there are more” moments of clarity?”

We need more rehabilitative programs in prisons across the nation that can inspire these moments in all prisoners. A visit to “Unincarcerated Productions,” describes programs it offers inmates to help them change their lives. A Tulane University English professor and acclaimed writer, Zachary Lazar, is making changes in Louisiana inmates with a writing program at one of the state’s prisons.

In mid-2019, Prison Legal News reported that two studies of recidivism rates among prisoners showed very high re-arrest rates. Without more effective rehabilitation programs in prison, society will go on paying the price in lives lost and millions of public dollars spent to keep inmates behind bars.

There could be many more of these “turnarounds” if we had decent treatment for the incarcerated, and perhaps more importantly if we had more programs like Unincarcerated Productions to keep their lives turned around once they reenter the free community.


The True Stories of Inmate Suffering Finally Emerging

Every day, there’s a story in the news about the brutal treatment of an inmate or prosecutorial misconduct in a case that has kept an innocent man behind bars for decades.

For me, the stories are a dream come true. For too long, the truth about America’s criminal justice system has been hidden from the public. Outrage is unlocking its secrets. It’s a blessing for advocates of prison reform, because these days, “crime” is getting great ratings. 

According to Variety, “primetime programming at Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN rose 8% in 2018…while total revenue rose 4% to $5.3 billion.”  

Prime time crime shows are raking in big bucks from advertisers, including Chicago PD, FBI and FBI Most Wanted, NCIS, Law & Order Special Victims Unit, Blue Bloods, How To Get Away With Murder, SWAT and Hawaii Five-O, among other hugely popular crime programs currently on TV.

It’s prompting news networks and newspapers to cover the real stories behind the bars. NBC Nightly News is a prime example.

In September 2019, NBC anchor Lester Holt went to Angola, Louisiana’s maximum security prison, to talk to inmates and spend 2 nights in a cell.  A few days later, he held a town hall with prisoners at Sing-Sing, a New York State maximum security prison. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt was “the #1-most watched newscast in the key A25-54 and A18-49 demos for the week of September 2, 2019,” according to the ratings giant, Nielsen Media Research.

Am I grateful that big time journalism is getting the message? You bet.  Because I’m not a lone voice in an abyss anymore. 

After a 25-year battle to free my husband, publishing two books with him  – one while he was still in prison and writing my memoir – “Love Behind Bars:  The True Story of an American Prisoner’s Wife,” I am so glad others’ stories are getting the attention they deserve.

Because America’s prison system is an inhumane mess.


Love Blossoms in the Death House

I met Billy Sinclair on the 17th of March 1981 in the Death House at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. I was a TV news reporter doing a five-part series on the death penalty.  In 1981, he was a national award-winning inmate writer for Angola’s uncensored inmate magazine, The Angolite. He had been sentenced to death in 1966 for an accidental shooting after an abandoned robbery attempt in 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his death sentence in 1972.

We married in June 1982. My privileged background didn’t protect mewhen I became an inmate’s wife. A violated sense of justice was my only compass in his alien world for the 25 years I fought to free him.  But I brought with me the ability to chronicle how America’s criminal justice system shreds lives in the name of justice


Over that quarter century, I saw through one of the biggest lies ever perpetrated in America—that an unprecedented era of violent crime in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was afflicting the nation and an unprecedented number of Americans had to be imprisoned to stop it. For decades, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world although it only has 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners.

What I witnessed as an American prisoner’s wife was a kind of selective slavery based on the public’s insatiable desire for vengeance. At its worst, it’s a throwback to the Dark Ages, the Spanish Inquisition or the witch hunts of 17th Century America—eras that glorified brutal punishments for crime. The first order of government is to protect its citizens; not to torture them in the name of justice.

There is no reward for standing by an incarcerated loved one. Love and loyalty sentence inmate family members to years of contempt and hard time.  Revenge, not rehabilitation is the byword at the polls.  It moved across my life like a glacier on vulnerable land for the 25 years I fought to free my husband from prison.  It was there in the millions of goodbyes over the seemingly endless years and thousands of miles that I drove to see him, in the countless nights in cheap motels waiting to see his morning smile, in haunting nightmares about his safety and the fear I felt on the highway alone at night on 600-mile round trips from Texas to Louisiana and back to see him twice a month.  

I was just one of thousands of inmate family members across America enduring the punishment of loving one behind bars. Every weekend, in New York, Houston, Los Angeles and scores of cities and towns in between, across the United States, families board buses before dawn for trips to prisons up to seven hours away.  Others cut back on groceries to save money for gas and jerry-rig old cars hoping they won’t break down on the trip.

Corrections departments don’t care.  They offer few, if any, programs to ease their plight.  They ignore children with parents in prison and how it impacts their lives.  No one can calculate the ultimate cost of America’s War on Crime, or how long it will last.

One day, historians will document the rise of the Prison State in 20th Century America, laying bare the distortions of fact and public hysteria that has given modern society its merciless view of the “criminal class.” Until then, the stories of those nailed to its cross will bear witness to a society obsessed beyond all Christian measure with revenge.