Alabama prisons officials are requiring prisoners to sign a consent form before giving them masks that could help fight the novel coronavirus, a move that experts worry will discourage incarcerated people from using them.
The two-page form, which was obtained by The Appeal, is being distributed at the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities along with sewn masks that appear to be made out of a single piece of cloth.
The first page bears a warning at the top: “Use this mask at your own risk. The ability of this mask to protect the user and the effects of its use on health are unknown. The mask is not guaranteed to be effective against the spread of any illnesses or viruses including COVID-19 virus.” Below, prisoners are given the option to check off that they accept the mask, its warning, and have received instructions on its care or to reject the mask. There is a line for the prisoner and person who distributed the mask to sign and date.
On the second page of the form, the DOC provides instructions for caring for the mask. Among those, it says it is “mandatory” that people wash it every day in a laundry machine or hand wash it in warm water with detergent. The agency instructs prisoners to place it in a clean resealable plastic bag afterward. The paper also includes instructions on how to put on and remove the mask. For both steps, it tells prisoners to wash their hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer. Two men who are incarcerated in DOC facilities told The Appeal that there are a limited number of sinks at facilities and the agency has yet to administer hand sanitizer.
A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on whether the agency is distributing detergent, resealable plastic bags, hand sanitizer, and soap with the masks.
This is Holman (ADOC)…Today about 3 o'clock is when this was received..No sanitizer…. They come around and spray…
It is unclear what will happen if a prisoner refuses to sign the form. One prisoner said he refused to accept a mask because he is making his own and is suspicious of an attempt by the DOC to release itself from liability should he contract coronavirus. “The mask I’m making right now will not only be more comfortable but also more effective,” said the prisoner, who spoke to The Appeal on the condition of anonymity because he feared retribution from prison officials.
He said no one has been administered bags and it would be difficult to wash the mask daily since his facility doesn’t have a laundry room. Instead, laundry is driven to a nearby prison.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in settings where social distancing is difficult. It notes that coverings should especially be worn in places where community transmission is “significant.” As the coronavirus has ravaged the U.S., prisons and jails have emerged as epicenters of the disease. This week, two Ohio prisons became the country’s top two hot spots for COVID-19, with at least 3,556 confirmed cases between them. The state has tested more than 5,000 prisoners to date.
As of Thursday, the Alabama Department of Corrections, whose prisons are among the most overcrowded in the nation and operate at approximately 170 percent of design capacity, reported that at least four prisoners had tested positive for the disease and one test was pending. Last week, one man who was incarcerated at St. Clair Correctional Facility died of the disease. To date, the DOC has reported testing 62 of the approximately 22,000 people in its custody. At least six staff members have tested positive.
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, called the DOC consent form “baffling.” He said he has not heard of any other states requesting that prisoners sign similar documents, though they may still exist.
The DOC did not answer a question about its motivation for distributing the form. Fathi said that it appears to be a “knee-jerk form of risk management” and any effort to reduce liability is “mismanaged.” “It really doesn’t matter what a court does with this document a year or two from now, what matters is what’s happening right now and that is by discouraging people from wearing masks this policy may well result in increased sickness and death and not only among incarcerated people,” he said.
He pointed out that prisoners are often suspicious of prison administrations and are reluctant to sign documents that appear to be legal in nature. “There really is a risk that significant numbers of people may refuse the mask because of this form and that is a very significant downside with no apparent upside.”
Dr. Dominic Sisti, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed. He said that the form is “an unnecessarily confusing way to go about something which should be pretty straightforward” and all prisoners should receive a mask that “should come with no strings attached.”
Sisti added, “Incarcerated individuals have a right to healthcare and therefore have a right to PPE [personal protective equipment].”