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How Prisons Handled The Spanish Flu

April 22, 2020 4.2k views12 items

The influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919, also known as the Spanish Flu, devastated the world, taking the lives of anywhere between 50 and 100 million people. In the United States alone, around 675,000 people lost their lives. Propelled by WWI, no institution was spared from the outbreak. Ford Motor Company in Detroit, MI, documented more than a thousand cases of influenza among its employees in March 1918, while the California State Prison at San Quentin dealt with over 500 sick prisoners in April and May.

Official statistics about the total number of prisoners infected with or passed because of the Spanish Flu are scant, but historians trace the disease's origin in America to army camps and prisons. Some local newspapers and journals documented conditions at their jails and prisons, but thanks to 1917's Sedition Act, the US federal government granted itself the right to censor any information it believed would hurt the war effort, the Spanish flu included. Similar oversight rules in other countries curbed public access to information about the pandemic.

As the influenza raged on, there were no standards for combating outbreaks in prisons, and correctional facilities were left to figure it out for themselves. Their disparate responses led to variable experiences for incarcerated people. While some were given tools to survive the pandemic, others were provided no protections against the fatal virus.

  • Photo: National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    San Quentin Spread The Flu By Holding Movie Nights And A Track Meet But Also Provided Masks And Limited Visitors

    Located north of San Francisco, San Quentin Prison dealt with three outbreaks of the influenza in 1918: first in April, then October, and finally in November. Long before the Spanish Flu appeared, resident physician Dr. Leo Stanley noted the unhygienic environment at the prison in 1913, writing:

    The ventilation was abominable, the beds were crowded together, air space was extremely limited.

    The disease arrived with a sick inmate transferred from a Los Angeles jail on April 13, and it quickly infected many of the 1,900 incarcerated men there. Stanley noted in his journal the spread was likely caused by a Sunday tradition: movie night.

    At the height of the disease's transmission, near the end of April, Stanley painted a dim portrait of life in the San Quentin hospital:

    The records show that whereas ordinarily only 150 to 200 men call each day at the hospital for treatment, consultation, and advice, on these days 700 and 750 appeared.

    After this outbreak subsided, a new inmate's arrival instigated a second in October. In November, the annual Thanksgiving track-and-field meet caused another resurgence. At this point, the prison implemented safety measures, such as giving inmates face masks and limiting visitors.

  • Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection / Library Of Congress / No Known Restrictions

    At Sing Sing, Sick Prisoners Got A Special Diet, Were Isolated, Couldn't Have Visitors, And Had Employees Devoted Just To Them

    "There has not been a death in Sing Sing from Spanish influenza," Sing Sing Prison Warden William H. Moyer shared with The New York Times in February 1919. Prison officials at the facility, located 25 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, imposed strict quarantine guidelines at the first whisper of a pandemic in order to safeguard the nearly 1,100 inmates residing there at the time.

    An estimated 10 percent of the population caught the influenza, and all of the sick recovered because of rigid measures put in place early on. After men transferred to Sing Sing from another facility showed signs of influenza, prison doctors A.O. Squire and A. Kosseff established an isolation ward where sick inmates were monitored 24 hours a day.

    In addition to bed rest and medical treatments, the sick were also placed on special diets. According to The New York Times article:

    The diet, as long as any temperature continued, was broth, milk, custard, cocoa. After the temperature went down to normal, a special soft diet was given in addition to the liquid diet -- an increase of eggs and milk, with an easily digested soft food. After the temperature had been normal for three days, the full diet of vegetables, meats, soups, and desserts was given.

    The staff also followed a routine cleaning schedule to keep the prison and isolation ward sanitized.

  • Massachusetts' State Prison Banned Chapel Services And Musical Practices

    At the state prison in Charlestown, Massachusetts, prison officials enacted strict measures in early October 1918 in order to quell the ballooning outbreak. At the first of the month, a quarter of inmates were infected. Nearly 160 men were treated by the prison's physician, Dr. Joseph McLaughlin.

    As reported in the Boston Globe on October 1:

    The prison hospital has 50 patients and the rest are confined to their rooms. They are on a diet, and three times a day their temperature is taken and medicine is given them as prescribed.

    Officials also cut labor hours and banned all visitors for two weeks. According to the article, "chapel services, orchestra, band and choir rehearsals have been discontinued."

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sick Sinn Fein Prisoners In Belfast Received Special Treatment So British Authorities Would Avoid Negative Propaganda

    The political turmoil that defined the world landscape in 1918 accelerated the spread of the influenza virus. When World War I entered its final stages, Ireland remained a battleground between those who wanted to retain allegiance to the United Kingdom and those who wanted freedom from it. The left-leaning Sinn Féin party represented the latter view, and it actively opposed British rule, landing many of its members in jail as political prisoners.

    Influenza reached Ireland in waves between June 1918 and April 1919, infecting an estimated 20% of the population. In October 1918, newspapers reported 100 members of Sinn Féin held at a Belfast prison were sick with influenza. Those infected were quickly treated by doctors, leading some Sinn Féin members to claim the British authorities did not want to affect public opinion by letting the prisoners die under their watch. None of the inmates in Belfast perished.

    That wasn't the case in another prison where Irish political prisoners were held. When a countryman named Richard Coleman died in a Welsh jail in December 1918 from the Spanish flu, Sinn Féin held a funeral procession for him through the streets of Dublin. As stated in an Irish news report at the time:

    Mr Coleman’s death comes as a 'painful shock to the Irish public,' according to Darrell Figgis, who has raised concerns about the welfare of other Irish prisoners in British jails. 'There are others suffering from the influenza scourge, and unless something is immediately done we shall probably have further victims,' he wrote in a letter to the Irish Independent newspaper.

    All of these events culminated in Ireland finally declaring independence from the United Kingdom in 1919, a status its countrypeople fought hard to maintain in the following decades.