COVID & the Most Vulnerable Prisoners

Opponents of the death penalty note how it multiplies all the failures and inequities of a criminal justice system. For thousands of prisoners stuck in the US’s system of mass incarceration, the COVID-19 epidemic has turned prison terms into death sentences.


By early February 2021, there were been at least 372,583 cases and 2,359 reported deaths among US prisoners, according to the Marshall Project, which has focused coverage on the issue. As of the end of 2020, more than one-in-five prisoners has been infected. In seven states, more than half of prisoners have been infected. In Nevada, 4.2 out of every 1,000 state prisoners have died.

The underlying problems that make prisons hotbeds for infection – within their walls, and spilling out to their communities – will continue to put millions at risk. The most vulnerable and overlooked inmates face even more peril, and need voices of family and friends outside prison walls to speak up, organize, and apply pressure.

Men incarcerated for sex offenses routinely face some of the longest jail terms handed down, so are often kept locked up into their most medically vulnerable elderly years. As well – uniquely among prisoners – they can be held indefinitely after completing their sentences.  For this group, risks from COVID are multiplied yet more.

elderly inmates
Long sentences mean more medically vulnerable inmates

Some 6,300 men are held in the US in post-sentence “civil commitment” by the 20 states and Washington, DC – along with the feds – that allow lifetime preemptive detention to prevent future sex offenses. Confined in putative “treatment centers,” governments hid behind medical confidentiality laws – so COVID infections and deaths in these internment facilities aren’t even reported in national totals. Knowledge of COVID’s impact among these men is only anecdotal.

Reports by inmates at New York State’s civil commitment facility in Marcy indicate that many have been sickened by COVID and several have died. State-run in-patient psychiatric facilities, such as Marcy, were “one of the hardest hit institutional settings per capita in New York State,” noted one report in April 2020.  For months the facility has been kept in lock-down, with inmates confined to their rooms.

In Florida, James Pesci, a civilly committed man at the Florida Civil Commitment Center was one the key organizers of resistance among the some 300 locked up post-sentence with no release date. Pesci published an in-house newsletter on the library printer – Duck Soupthat he went to federal court to fight the administration from silencing.

Florida Civil Commitment Center
Hotbeds of injustice & disease – Florida Civil Commitment Center in Arcadia

“A supervisor can order any detainee placed in a secure management cell for the smallest of infractions,” Pesci wrote in a 2003 article. “These cells are filthy and never cleaned and the staff rarely does the required 15-minute security checks…. One detainee, who attempted suicide in one of these cells, splattered his HIV-infected blood over the walls and it remains there to this day.” In December 2020, Pesci, still in locked up for “treatment,” himself died at from COVID.

COVID deaths at Minnesota's civil commitment gulag
COVID deaths at Minnesota’s civil commitment gulag sparked a 2021 hunger strike.

Minnesota, perhaps surprisingly, is the state with the highest proportion of civilly committed men in the US. Anger was already high among inmates from failure to ever release the men under “treatment” – only 13 have every been unconditionally released in 25; more six times as many died in custody. The failure to address a burgeoning COVID epidemic that claimed three inmates in December 2020 finally provoked resistance.  In January 2021, a dozen activist inmates at the facility launched a hunger strike, garnering national publicity. “Several of the men said in interviews that they were prepared to be hospitalized or starve to death if the state did not respond to their demands,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.  The strike was called off after two weeks when state officials agreed to meet with inmates’ outside support group, consisting of their family, friends, and other activists.

When, not if

Something like a COVID-19 was in the cards. Infectious, deadly respiratory illnesses recur reliably. Despite the specter raised by SARS (2002) and MERS (2012), no serious pandemic before COVID-19 had emerged since the US started its experiment in mass incarceration in the 1970s. Prisons in the US are characterized by overcrowding and generally woefully inadequate health care in the best of times. The Marshall Project’s reporting shows as well the serious inadequacies systematic failure to take basic precautions to protect inmates and staff.

“Staff ignored or minimized prisoners’ COVID-19 symptoms, and mixed the sick and healthy together in haphazard quarantines,” the Marshall Project notes, discussing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the US’s largest single jailer. “Thousands of prisoners were shipped around the country in February and early March [2020], taking the virus with them….”

In Texas, a 79-year-old prisoner wrote from a federal medical facility, saying it “is now nothing more than a de facto Death Row for elderly and sick offenders. This facility is literally God’s waiting room.”

Staff at prisons have also been affected. As of early February 2021, there had been 100,377 cases among prison workers, with 175 deaths.

The ongoing rollout of vaccines will help, but the underlying problems that make prisons hotbeds for infection – within their walls, and spilling out to their communities – will continue to put millions at risk. The most vulnerable and overlooked inmates face even more peril, and need voices of family and friends outside prison walls to speak up, organize, and apply pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to fight these injustices.

précis: What counts as a sex crime? It depends.

Some relationships involve sex. Some acts are motivated by desire. When are they good? When are they morally questionable? When should they be illegal? When are they plain wrong?

Answers to these questions can be among the most strongly felt positions held by people – and societies. But when it comes to sex, legal systems vary dramatically in terms of what’s allowed or prohibited. Over time, the variations are huge.

Today almost everywhere, adultery may be considered wrong, but it’s not illegal. Nor are sexual relationships between people with different skin color or of the same gender. But in past times many so accused faced punishments up to execution.

Because feelings about sex can be so charged, it’s possible a society may come to see that it has overpunished those who violate certain norms. Historically, many laws have persecuted people for behavior or interests that are anomalous but also benign. This may be the case even today.

On the other hand, sometimes societies sweep wrongdoing under the rug rather than face unpleasant realities.

Neither situation is good. Keeping an open discussion and dispassionately considering the evidence are the best ways to strike a balance.

Today in the West, sexual feelings adults have for minors – and acts that sometimes follow – are the occasion for outrage and harsh punishments and permanent suspension of civil rights. What are the actual facts that can help us create laws that are effective and just?

For more details click here.
For an even deeper dive into these questions, click here.


précis: Making sense of attraction to minors

Attraction can take many forms. How people act – or otherwise deal with – their sexual feelings and desires varies a lot. Erotic bonds can be the glue that starts and sustains the most important relationships in a person’s life. Sexual impulses can also be unruly, motivating hurtful acts and crimes, from stalking to rape to child abuse.

woman kissing frog
In the eyes of the beholder

Today in the West, sexual diversity is widely acknowledged and discussed. But one area is strongly taboo – erotic attraction of adults (over 18) to persons younger. Are such desires rare or common? Are they always exploitative or harmful? How do males and females differ when it comes to such feelings?

With attraction to minors a highly charged issue today, the first impulse is now to condemn and punish those who cross the line. Where should the lines be drawn? What evidence matters when it comes to crafting laws and policies that are effective and just?

Read a little more on this topic here.
For an even deeper dive, click here.


in brief: What counts as a sex crime? It depends.

What counts as a sex crime varies dramatically by time and place. So does what happens to those who cross the line.

In colonial America, Puritan authorities executed a teenage boy for sex with farm animals.

But despite those Puritan beginnings, America has sometimes also been remarkably lax about regulating sex.

  • In 1880, 35 U.S. states set the age of consent for girls at 10. Boys were not covered by any age of consent generally until the 1970s.
  • In 1981, New York’s highest court ruled that child porn laws were unconstitutional if they prohibited portraying adolescent sexuality in a “realistic but non-obscene” manner.

Today U.S. sex laws are anything but lax, even if laws against adultery and sodomy, which were almost never used, have been cast aside. Compared to the 1870s or 1970s, America has reversed course, dramatically expanding the scope and the harshness of sex laws in ways that recall the Puritans’ vindictiveness.

Between 1980 and 1997 alone, one scholar found an 800% increase the number of Americans (both adults and juveniles) incarcerated for consensual underage sex. The most common age at which a male was prosecuted as a sex offender, according the U.S. Justice Department, is 14.

Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, condemned a Supreme Court decision that barred execution for sex with minors, laws written so loosely they covered acts of consensal sex among minors themselves or sex crimes with no actual victims.

A regime of thoughtless and unrelenting harshness leads to needless tragedies. In 2017, 16-year-old honor student Corey Walgren threw himself to his death off a parking garage in Illinois when his high school principal threatened him with child porn charges for photos he’d taken with his girlfriend. His death adds to a sad litany of men and boys who have killed themselves rather than face prison for sexual offenses or be shamed for life as registrants.

The tangle of rules and prohibitions put on people ever convicted of a sex offense has created a new version of Jim Crow. After the U.S. Civil War put an end to slavery, the South imposed on blacks second class status and a reign of vigilante terror. National institutions, such as the Supreme Court, looked the other way or lent their support.

This new Jim Crow regime is also based on knowingly false stereotypes and ill will. People who have a conviction for a sex offense in their past can be barred from living in most places or working in many jobs, or even forced to live away apart from their families or have their children taken away.

US Justice Department statistics show that people convicted of sex offenses have among the lowest redidivism of among past lawbreakers. But in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court cited a throwaway line in a popular magazine claiming that recidivism for people with sex offenses was “frightening and high”. Based on that falsehood, the U.S. high court has ruled there is virtually no limit to the restrictions – up to and including lifetime “preventative” incarceration after a sentence a fully served – that can be put on people who at any point in the past had a conviction for a sexual offense.

Families and friends of those in prison for sex offenses have to wrestle with false stereotypes and as they try to square the prevailing vindictiveness with their affections, concern, and loyalty to their loved ones. Those of us in this difficult position can play a vital role in watching out for the well-being and basic humanity of these prisoners – and organize to fight an often cynically stoked panic that threatens the rights of all.

For a longer discussion of these issues, click here.


in brief: Making sense of attraction to minors

  • There’s a huge disconnect between current popular attitudes and professional knowledge of psychiatrists, social scientists, and historians.
  • Erotic attraction to people under 18 years of age is common and, along the life course, typical. That’s true even today in the West when such feelings are labeled “pedophilia” in mass media and regarded with outrage both in public opinion and harshly punished by the law.
  • Psychiatry defines pedophilia as primary and persistent attraction to prepubescent girls or boys, generally age 10 or younger — and views such as a mental disorder. But psychiatry recognizes attraction to adolescents as so common as to be completely normal.
  • For centuries, marriage in societies around the world was most often between a girl 12 to 15 with a male 19 to 21, who had time to establish himself economically.
  • Male same-sex relationships over time show a similar pattern. Most famous historical figures now celebrated as “gay” were in fact mainly erotically oriented toward youths, such as artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci, poet Walt Whitman, writer and wit Oscar Wilde, or computer-science pioneer Alan Turing. In societies — from ancient Greece to pre-modern Japan where these relationships were seen as normal, it’s striking that a large proportion of men seem capable of feeling such attraction — together with heterosexual impulses.
  • These patterns persist, even in America today. Boston University researchers looking at internet search terms for erotic imagery say no request is more popular than “nude girl 16.”
  • Seeing that male erotic feelings for minors is typical – and almost certainly what males are evolved to feel – does not speak to whether sex involving minors is legal or right for today. But harsh and inaccurate attitudes about the rarity of attraction to minors puts a large proportion of men and boys today at risk of years of imprisonment. Some 40% of U.S. youngsters have “sexted” (broke child porn laws) by age 13. In some U.S. states as high as 30% of prisoners are incarcerated for sex. And federal incarcerations for porn possession rose more than 60-fold from 1996 to 2010. Around one million U.S. citizens are deprived of virtually all civil rights as registrants.
  • Surely there are ways to foster sexual behavior in line with today’s mores without destroying hundreds of thousands of lives.

Read more on this topic here.


What Can I Do?

If you’ve reached this website, you may already agree that our current justice system is out of control. Not that lawbreakers should be given a pass, but how do we treat those who have committed crimes so as to effectively protect society and rehabilitate offenders? How do we do this in a way that not only helps offenders but helps society as well? Can one person make a difference?

Alone, we usually feel helpless to achieve anything of great significance. But when we look around at all that human beings have accomplished we have to marvel. From skyscrapers and bridges, universities and parliaments, electrical grids and computer networks — all are the products of many individuals combining their singular voices and talents to achieve goals greater than could ever have been achieved alone. Here are a few ways you can contribute and suggestions that will increase your reach and influence:

  • Support for those in prison, civil commitment, or on the registry. Your friend or relative may have been sentenced for acts that may make you uncomfortable, but that person is still a human being. Loss of liberty is one thing, but ostracism can be a punishment even worse. Try to stay in contact at least by letter, phone, or other means allowed. Prisoners who have outside support are less likely to be abused by prison staff or other prisoners. They are also more likely to be productive once they are free.
  • Stay informed. Please check our list of prison reform organizations — and let us know if there are any we should add.
  • Support some of the organizations listed with donations or simply by joining their mailing lists. Legislators are definitely influenced by the size of support behind reform groups.
  • Call or write your legislators when action is needed. (Calling is likely more effective.) Many lawmakers have websites where you can let your opinions be known. Email addresses can be anonymous should this be a concern. When new laws are proposed to further harshen punishment for those who break sex laws, or further tighten restrictions on when offenders get out, call or write your legislators to let them know your concerns. By joining the mailing list of your local reform group you’ll find out what are the top concerns and talking points.
  • Try to engage other relatives or friends in the issue. You may feel uncomfortable doing this but there are ways of diplomatically broaching the subject.