It’s time for the inevitable – a post detailing our response to the COVID-19 pandemic! At this point, organizational announcements about C19 are all functionally identical, so I’ll skip the preliminaries about these “unprecedented times” and whatnot. Although this is mostly meant to catch up anybody who might be passingly curious about how we’ve been, there is some detail about our procedures, to benefit any other BTP-style groups who are looking for guidance.
In early March, we slowed – and then halted – our volunteer operations as the threat of COVID-19 seemed more and more credible.
After shutting down our operations to the public, we did some research and found that the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission by package was negligible (given the materials that they are wrapped in, and how long they wait between each stage of the letter-answering process.) At that point we re-opened the space to our staff, for them to come in for completely solo shifts. All shared materials were sanitized at the end of each shift, and people who were especially worried about ambient transmission were given a minimum 3-hour time period with nobody in the space, to allow for any particles to settle. (24 hours was preferred when possible.)
To facilitate this, we deputized some of our longer-running volunteers in late March, giving them keys to the space so that we could have a larger roster of folk coming in as individuals. The informal restriction here was that only folk who could reach the space without using public transportation would be allowed, to prevent anybody becoming a potential vector.
In early April, two of our long-running book donors offered to start pairing books with packages at their home. We took them up on this, and they began to answer letters with books from their own home. These were then reviewed and wrapped by solo volunteers at the office. Somebody from BTP would pick up letters from the office about once a week, drop them off at their home, and pick up the completed letter-and-book bundles. Their garage was used as a decontamination site.
In mid-to-late April, we began dropping off boxes of books and wrapping supplies at the homes of volunteers who had trained with us prior to the pandemic, so that they could wrap the packages up without having to enter the office. Once wrapped, these packages were returned to our space for decontamination, postage, and logging before being sent out to the post office. Our biggest limiting factor here turned out to be the scaleds and tape dispensers used in wrapping packages – if anybody tries to replicate all of this, try scavenging kitchen or bathroom scales to help supplement equipment.
This system worked pretty well, and we stuck with it throughout May and June.
Now, in early July, we are looking to host (very small) cohorts of experienced volunteers for regularly scheduled shifts. The idea is that if we have the same two volunteers present for the same shift with the same staff member, every week, we can maximize the amount of work that we get done while minimizing the number of people who come into contact with eachother (and also respecting the 6-foot distance requirements.) It will take time to see if this can actually be done without people getting too physically close to eachother, but we think we can make conditions in our office safe enough to be worth the effort – and if we could catch up on our cue of letters, we could make life a lot better for people who are dealing with the pandemic while (still!) incarcerated.
(If you have previously volunteered with us and are interested in joining one of our current trial shifts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Availability is likely to be very limited.)
As we all know, it’s been a really strange time. Unfortunately, conditions in the US look to be worsening as time goes on, so we don’t expect to resume full operations anytime in the near future. Our work may be, quite frankly, critical to the sanity of many people incarcerated in the US – but our volunteer community is in no small part composed of retirees and/or immunocompromised people, and we aren’t willing to risk our long-term survival for the sake of short-term productivity (even if that is becoming the social norm.) No matter who you are, we hope that you’re doing what you can to stay healthy and sane! If you’re classified as an essential worker, or if you’ve been forced back to work before conditions are truly safe for you to do so – our heart goes out to you, and we are so sorry for the position that you have been put into. This is a globally traumatic time and we hope that you are accordingly kind to yourself, and to your community.
Finally, please keep in mind that pandemic conditions are much, much worse for incarcerated people right now. Prisons are not well-ventilated spaces; prison staff have not responded consistently – or, in some places, at all – to the threat of Coronavirus; and incarcerated people are not given the tests, protective equipment, or sanitizing materials needed to take appropriate measures. As of the time that I’m publishing this, there have been over 50,000 confirmed infections in the US prison system, with nearly 600 deaths. (Approximately 1 in 40 people in the US prison population have tested positive; 1 in 83 of them have died after testing positive; approximately 1 in 3,300 people in the US prison population have died due to C19.) To keep track of how Coronavirus has impacted US prisons, I recommend watching this page from The Marshall Project.