Exhibit sheds light on prison experience

PrisonPandemic exhibit

“Locked Down and Locked Up” on display through Oct. 14

Locked Down and Locked Up,” a PrisonPandemic exhibit tells the story of incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is on display through Oct. 14 in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Catalyst Gallery, ACT 2223.

PrisonPandemic, a project documenting what it’s been like for prisoners, their families and prison staff members to be in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic, started with a social worker at San Quentin Prison who, in April 2020, was worried about incarcerated patients without access to protective equipment, room to socially distance, or ways to quarantine. The nurse shared her concerns with UCI’s PrisonPandemic team.

By that summer, 2,000 incarcerated people at San Quentin were infected with COVID-19 and 29 died. The prison became, as the social worker feared, the epicenter of one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the world. Many state prisons prohibited all visitors — lawyers, family, educators, clergy, and others — for at least a year during the pandemic. Prisoners were stuck in crowded cells with each other, enduring wave after wave of deadly infections and cut off from the outside world. 

But, those trapped in federal and state prisons, local jails and immigration detention facilities across the state were asked to share their stories through the PrisonPandemic project. The project’s team of researchers wrote letters to tens of thousands of incarcerated people, asking them about their experience. They spent more than $25,000 on stamps and they ran a hotline, accepting collect calls from any carceral facility in the state.

UCI students staffed the hotline over hundreds of hours from fall 2020 through spring 2022. They received more than 5,000 calls and letters. 

The exhibit invites visitors to “look, listen, imagine the experience of being incarcerated during a global pandemic, and take action to connect with people incarcerated in our state and to share their stories with others.”

With more than 63,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in California’s prisons, UCI’s PrisonPandemic project features what it’s been like for people in prison, their families and prison staff members. The project has collected and is sharing on its website thousands of stories.  

“We have learned that people in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic have felt abandoned, isolated, scared, and vulnerable, with good reason,” says Keramet Reiter, professor of criminology, law and society, and PrisonPandemic co-founder. “They had extremely limited access to friends and family, protective equipment, and healthcare, have lacked ability to social distance, and have faced frequent lockdowns and, even, solitary confinement as a tool of quarantine.”

PrisonPandemic was created to amplify often silenced voices of incarcerated people, create a resource where students, community members, and researchers can explore and systematically analyze the experiences of incarcerated people in California, and serve as a model of how incarcerated voices can be accessed. The website is full-text searchable by jail and prison facility and has audio playback features. 

In addition to the exhibit, PrisonPandemic is hosting a talk by Keri Blakinger, author of “Corrections in Ink: A Memoir,” on campus Oct. 12. The talk and exhibit are free and open to the public.
Mimi Ko Cruz


PrisonPandemic documents COVID-19 toll