“It was like you were being literally punished for getting sick”: formerly incarcerated people’s perspectives on liberty restrictions during COVID-19

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: COVID-19 has greatly impacted the health of incarcerated individuals in the US. The goal of this study was to examine perspectives of recently incarcerated individuals on greater restrictions on liberty to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. Methods: We conducted semi-structured phone interviews from August through October 2021 with 21 people who had been incarcerated in Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities during the pandemic. Transcripts were coded and analyzed, using a thematic analysis approach. Results: Many facilities implemented universal “lockdowns,” with time out of the cell often limited to one hour per day, with participants reporting not being able to meet all essential needs such as showers and calling loved ones. Several study participants reported that repurposed spaces and tents created for quarantine and isolation provided “unlivable conditions.” Participants reported receiving no medical attention while in isolation, and staff using spaces designated for disciplinary purposes (e.g., solitary housing units) for public health isolation purposes. This resulted in the conflation of isolation and discipline, which discouraged symptom reporting. Some participants felt guilty over potentially causing another lockdown by not reporting their symptoms. Programming was frequently stopped or curtailed and communication with the outside was limited. Some participants relayed that staff threatened to punish noncompliance with masking and testing. Liberty restrictions were purportedly rationalized by staff with the idea that incarcerated people should not expect freedoms, while those incarcerated blamed staff for bringing COVID-19 into the facility. Conclusions: Our results highlighted how actions by staff and administrators decreased the legitimacy of the facilities’ COVID-19 response and were sometimes counterproductive. Legitimacy is key in building trust and obtaining cooperation with otherwise unpleasant but necessary restrictive measures. To prepare for future outbreaks facilities must consider the impact of liberty-restricting decisions on residents and build legitimacy for these decisions by communicating justifications to the extent possible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAJOB Empirical Bioethics
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • bioethics
  • carceral health
  • COVID-19
  • liberty restrictions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Philosophy
  • Health Policy


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