“I am scrambling to address what looks to be a typhus outbreak in the refugee camp,” my father, Peter Peacock, wrote in one of his letters from Malawi in 1987. He was an epidemiologist and a general practitioner who spent that year taking care of refugees from the civil war in Mozambique. He wrote one letter each week on flimsy, blue international stationary. “A person will seem fine, and then suddenly they have bad headache, high fever, and muscle pain. I have learned to recognize typhus even before the patient speaks. You can see it in their confusion and stupor, and in their sensitivity to light.” Dad never mentioned the withering madness of the death that follows if you don’t have access to antibiotics (or, these days, if you have a version that is antibiotic resistant).
Later, in college, I read Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and bit my nails as the anti-hero, Bazarov, dies of typhus. That was when I realized the horror of what my dad had described in his letters years before.
Dad didn’t write about how typhus is carried by body lice and spreads in unsanitary environments like prisons, ships, and basically in the slums of every city. That only began to change when they started spraying the world with DDT in the 1950s. But it is a disease of poverty and crowding, mostly. You can actually predict the likelihood of a typhus outbreak by measuring a community’s GDP, its sanitation levels, female education, and childhood diarrhea mortality. The German epidemiologist, August Hirsch, once said that “The history of typhus is the history of human misery.” This disease decimated Napoleon’s troops in 1812, Russian troops in 1916, Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, and Rwandan refugees in the 1990s. It has an untreated mortality rate of 60%. Amazingly, there was a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles just last year. A quarter of a million people still die every year from it.
I bring this up because epidemic typhus is famously known also as “jail fever.” Imprisonment, of course, forces dense populations into unsanitary conditions. Disease runs rampant.
I read today that the prisons in America, which are already bursting at the seams, are seeing escalating cases of COVID-19. This week, a state prison farm south of Little Rock that produces rice, cotton, and eggs, found that 680 of its 1700 prisoners had COVID. At a correctional facility north of Columbus, Ohio, 2,000 prisoners and 160 staffers have tested positive for COVID. In one Michigan prison, they found that 73% of the inmates tested had the virus. The number was 65% in a prison in North Carolina. These numbers are not happening because these particular prison systems are somehow exceptionally problematic. The reason we know that they are experiencing these surges is because they are the only states that have been testing in the prisons. And, as the Marshall Project has shown, even they have been remiss in testing their staff thoroughly.
It is hard to imagine what it must be like to be in a prison with little to no PPE, knowing that the virus has come and that you can do nothing to protect yourself. Stealing a car or carrying weed or getting into a bar fight can now result in a death sentence.
Inside prison, all semblance of control fades. You spend every day unable to make choices about when you wake up, what you eat, where you go, what you do, or how to keep yourself safe. The famous criminologist, Norval Morris, once said that violence is not the major problem in prisons. It is the dull sameness of prison life…. Nothing seems to make any difference; everything is inconsequential other than when you will be free and how to make time pass until then. Because of this, prison famously renders people helpless. It teaches helplessness, in fact. It teaches that the world is inhabited by forces that are far beyond the control of any normal person, that those forces will chew and swallow anyone that stands in their way, and that it is a waste of time to imagine that you can be the master of your fate. (Weirdly, this is how some people describe their time at home during this quarantine.)
If this is the lesson of prison, then what must be the lesson of prison during the COVID pandemic? Perhaps the Buddhists are right that control is only a fantasy, a projection of one’s ego. For those in prison with our disease running rampant, this must be a thin gruel to swallow. The pandemic prison takes away the control of life, the ability to effect the odds, even in the slightest, of someday making amends and becoming free.
 Karen H. Keddy et al., “The Burden of Typhoid Fever in South Africa: The Potential Impact of Selected Interventions,” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 99, no. 3 Suppl (September 2018): 55–63, https://doi.org/10.4269/ajtmh.18-0182.
 Danny Johnston/Associated Press, “These Prisons Are Doing Mass Testing For COVID-19—And Finding Mass Infections,” The Marshall Project, April 24, 2020, https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/04/24/these-prisons-are-doing-mass-testing-for-covid-19-and-finding-mass-infections.
 Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, eds., The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, New Ed edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 205.
 Juneman Abraham and Rigel Adiratna, “Learned Helplessness of Prisoners: Psychology and Knowledge Management Perspective,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, September 4, 2014), https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2483010; Richard A. Schill and David K. Marcus, “Incarceration and Learned Helplessness:,” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, July 27, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1177/0306624X9804200304
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BREAKING: We're calling for the immediate release of individuals in prisons and jails who, according to the CDC, face heightened risk of severe illness or death due to COVID-19. pic.twitter.com/KFjn1BMQCU— ACLU (@ACLU) March 18, 2020
Just 16. This man was 16 the last time he was free. Condemned to die in prison. In January, after decades advocating for himself, he was resentenced. Set for release in a few weeks after 44 years. Sister was planning his 61st bday. He just died from COVID.https://t.co/DxqK5sXwwS— Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech) April 18, 2020
I am very glad you see you speak up about this immoral negligence in Florida prisons, but what about speaking up with similar alarm about the TRIPLING of COVID-19 cases in CT prisons? We’ve been out protesting & you’ve been SILENT.https://t.co/GOHXiBXhYF— Stephen Poland 🌹🐋 (@decognizable) April 18, 2020
Patrick Jones is the first person in federal prison to die from COVID-19. Jones was convicted in 2017 of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine w/in 1,000 feet of a junior college. For this, he was serving a 27-year sentence. Think about that. https://t.co/cVW6Q91Yq1— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) March 30, 2020
BREAKING: In a letter to President Trump, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Elizabeth Warren outline a plan for urgent executive action to reduce the federal prison population in light of COVID-19. https://t.co/UhjjihDv88 pic.twitter.com/hhYL10TtOE— The Appeal (@theappeal) March 20, 2020
This was taken outside of Cook County Jail in Chicago, where 304 people inside have already tested positive for COVID-19, making it the largest cluster in the country.— Midwest People's History (@MPHProject) April 13, 2020
Jails and prisons across the country are quickly turning into death camps. What are we going to do about it? pic.twitter.com/6huZglPC4u
BREAKING: Inmates held in Arkansas prisons – especially those who have conditions that make them high risk for COVID-19 infection – are entitled to protections under the Constitution and federal statutes. We filed suit today. @NAACP_LDF https://t.co/nGGJhetYgP— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) April 21, 2020
* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (https://www.ajmc.com/view/a-timeline-of-covid19-developments-in-2020), the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (https://www.justsecurity.org/69650/timeline-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic-and-u-s-response/), the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (theweek.com), as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.