Pathfinders: Locked up in lockdown

A US prison inmate with 12 months left on an 8-year sentence for selling crack cocaine is confined to his cell during lockdown with a cell-mate suffering from Covid-19, so in panic he smuggles a phone message out to plead for help, claiming a staff member told him half of the inmates were going to die:

‘So all of a sudden, out of the blue, fucking everybody just fucking dying and getting sick and shit. Like this shit serious as fuck. Like, they literally leaving us in here to die’ (

The Ohio authorities immediately deny the claims, saying the man is exaggerating and that there’s nothing wrong with his cell-mate or with the prison. But given the extent of confusion and misinformation at the moment, especially in a country with a self-proclaimed genius as president who recently announced that he had ‘tested positively toward negative’ for the virus, it’s fair to ask who has got their facts right here. One hint that it might not be the Ohio authorities comes from an LA Times report that 70% of inmates at a federal prison in California have tested positive for the virus (

Up-to-date figures for UK prison infections have been suspiciously absent from media reports, despite warnings from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in March that up to 60% of prisoners could become infected with the coronavirus (Guardian, 23 March –

The suspicion here is that while the public may have sympathy for the plight of care-home residents, there’s no such concern for prison inmates who deserve everything they get, so journalists are ignoring the subject. But as the Guardian article points out, the most dangerous inmates have single cells in maximum security conditions and are therefore not at risk, whereas for the lowest-risk inmates, jailed for often minor misdemeanours, ‘the local jails may well transform into charnel houses’.

Prisons are of course the one place that can really enforce a round-the-clock lockdown, but because of overcrowding there is little realistic chance of maintaining any social distancing. A Telegraph article in April suggested that the number of cases in UK prisons was already six times the published figure, and that lockdown was expected to continue for another 12 months, sparking fears of prison riots (Telegraph, 28 April –

In socialism one common-sense move would be the immediate release of the large majority of inmates jailed for minor property or drug-related offences. Capitalist governments tend to ignore common sense especially where prisons are concerned. Around 60,000 people are sent to prison in the UK each year, of whom nearly 70 percent are jailed for non-violent offences, and nearly 50 percent for six months or less (Independent, 21 May –

Study after study has shown that prison is the least-effective way of tackling crime, yet the UK has the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, and the US and China the highest rates in the world.

But the pandemic caused a shock to the system so in April the UK Ministry of Justice proposed an early-release scheme for up to 4,000 low-risk prisoners. The scheme was soon suspended after media furore when 6 prisoners were accidentally released ‘due to human error’, despite the fact that none of these were dangerous and all returned of their own volition when asked (

As we go to press, only 57 of the 4,000 have been released, and prison virus cases have reached 1,000 (

Animal rights campaigners often rightly expose the brutality with which capitalism treats battery farm animals, packing them in so tightly they become sick with stress and self-inflicted injuries, yet there is little mention of how society treats its battery farm humans, many of whom experience Dickensian overcrowding conditions and where incidences of self-harming have hit record highs, with UK occurrences now averaging one every eight minutes (Guardian, 30 April –

Nice and Nasty

Some pundits are asking the obvious question, what social practices might change in a post-Covid world, due to the perceived need for continued social distancing and contact tracing? We can predict the answer to that. None. After going through the motions for a while, capitalism will revert to type, cramming people together in vehicles, workplaces, social outlets, hospitals, care homes and prisons in order to save money. Capitalism is, as they say, nasty, brutish and short-sighted.

But socialists could ponder the question of agreed social practices more broadly, by considering how viruses work. In the first place, viruses come in various strains, which compete against each other. Where potential hosts are physically in close proximity, the most virulent or aggressive strain of that virus out-competes all the other strains and spreads rapidly through the population. If a virus born in these conditions makes the species jump, it is the nasty stupid form, not the nice benign form.

If animals and people are dispersed, however, the opposite happens. The most virulent strain is stopped at the host border, just like every other strain, so it has no competitive advantage. In fact, it suffers a competitive disadvantage. Instead the advantage goes to the strain that can survive in its host the longest, which typically means the most benign strain. So the evolutionary tendency of viruses is to become less virulent with distance, until they are able to live in the host with little or no inconvenienc, like the common cold (New Scientist, 20 May –

The 2009 swine flu epidemic evolved in pig farms in Mexico and spread rapidly because the pigs were crammed in together. The Covid-19 virus similarly spread because of densely crammed animals in Chinese wet markets. Human behaviour therefore played a critical role. Capitalism is about chasing money not learning lessons, but socialism will want to ask big questions, not just about farming practices, but about social and working practices too. The more you cram organisms up close and personal, the more you are asking for trouble. That has implications for urban or rural population densities, transport, recreational activities, everything.

Nobody is ever going to stop viruses, the most abundant and successful life form on Earth, if one can even call them a life form. The human race is not going to get wiped out by this virus, and probably not by any virus. But never say never. If we’re going to minimise the likelihood of a future pandemic of truly biblical proportions we need a truly smart and benign social system to do it, not a stupid and virulent one that ignores every lesson and carries on regardless.


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