During these crazy times of COVID-19, life has been turned upside down. People are watching their loved ones die of this insidious disease, watching their livelihoods evaporate, wondering if they’ll be able to pay their rent, feed their families, or having to make the hard choice between eating or lifesaving medications. This leaves me to feel like what I have to say just might not be that important, but this is what being a prisoner is all about. Being indoctrinated into a lifestyle, a mindset that leaves you to believe that you don’t matter.
Today, I would like to tell you I do matter.
You may be wondering who I am and why you should care about me. Many would say I am an inmate and a number of other derogatory or demoralizing labels that strip me of my identity and my humanity and allow me to be categorized as an undesirable or to be one of the forgotten men and women of our great society. I wish I could convince you that occasionally that I am a good, kind, caring human who deserves the same kindness and happiness you wish for your loved ones and yourself. I know this is probably unlikely. But hope is a strange thing, so while I have your attention, will you let me share with you a small glimpse of what it is like to truly not matter? And maybe, just maybe you’ll help me continue to find reasons to hope for something better than just to exist.
For several weeks now, every channel on TV have been exploding with frightening news of COVID-19 and death rates from around the world.
March 13th: The DOC informs us that visiting privileges from our loved ones are being suspended until further notice. Then we begin to see reports and warnings on the news about social distancing, wearing masks. We then begin to notice officers wearing face masks and telling us to stay away from them, yet it’s business as usual for us inmates. Being forced into the chow hall, 300 at a time, sitting elbow to elbow. Inmates coughing all around us, including those serving the food. 100 plus guys in the gym, yard time and programming with outside contractors continue with no concern for social distancing as we sit inches from one another.
March 20th approximately 10:50 AM: We are ordered to lock into our living quarters, which house 78 inmates living and sleeping in 6-man dorms, in extremely close proximity to one another. A set of locking doors confine us to a hallway that is 80 feet long by 8 feet wide and includes a communal bathroom. It will be almost a week before someone from the DOC informs us about the reasons for the lockdown and several weeks before we can use a phone to call home to check on our loved ones and let them know how we are. The DOC fails to inform us that COVID-19 was already in our prison. Several correctional officers and inmates were sick and testing positive for it.
Advisories are being made daily by the CDC and local government about using disinfectants to combat the spread of COVID-19. No one in authority seems to care about how the living spaces of the inmates were or were not being cleaned, in particular, the communal bathrooms. It will be weeks before a group of inmates can get gloves and cleaning supplies to clean the bathrooms ourselves.
At any given time, there are 20 plus inmates piled up in the hallway working out in groups, sitting on the floor playing games or simply congregating, with no one from authority caring whether or not we were social distancing. During this time, several inmates in my unit are displaying symptoms of COVID-19. When they complain of being sick to DOC staff, they are told to return to their bunk and forgotten about. When the DOC can no longer turn a blind eye and has no choice, they remove those inmates to a segregation (solitary) unit. As other inmates become sick, they refuse to report their illness to DOC staff out of fear of being locked in a segregation (solitary) unit.
Over the next few weeks information is sparse. We are hearing rumors from various officers about several inmates in ICU on ventilators that are most likely going to die. Then the news informs us that inmates are dying from our facility; a total of 5 men die. Several inmates are told to call home due to a loved one dying. However, no one is checking on anyone’s mental health until several weeks later, which was nothing more than a courtesy check in. It’s business as usual.
Throughout this time, we are simply told to line up in the hallway, standing inches from each other, to receive chow and medications, which are being brought to the units. There is no concern about social distancing or the issuing of PPE for us inmates. However, every nurse and correctional officer is wearing a mask and gloves at all times. They allow one person at a time to move beyond the locked doors to receive chow and/or medication.
April 25th: All inmates are issued one single, one-time disposable use mask and informed that in 2 weeks they will be issued a new one. Anytime you are out of your 6-man dorm, you must wear a mask. This is 6 weeks after our initial lockdown, and countless inmates have already been removed due to sickness.
April 26th: We are informed that an outside agency will be conducting COVID-19 testing for the entire prison population at this institution over the next few days. The unit I am housed on is tested on the 28th.
May 1st: Approximately 75 state inmates tested positive. Some are asymptomatic, like me, and are forced to move into two temporary quarantine units where inmates with symptoms were moved weeks ago. Medical comes to the door every day and asks, “Any issues with breathing, chest pains?” and a nurse takes your temp and O2 readings three times a day. Many of us are forced to move into a 2-man cell with other inmates who had various ailments of COVID-19 from full body rashes, to heavy coughing, to vomiting. Many of these issues were ignored by medical and the DOC until the inmate was moved into the quarantine unit. While we are housed in these units, we are locked in a cell for 23 ½ hours a day, allowed to shower every 3 days with no outside cell movement.
May 6th: I know of an inmate who had been begging medical to do something to help alleviate his rash and excessive scratching all day and night for weeks prior to being placed in the quarantine unit. Their response is to put him and his cellmate through the ‘Scabies Protocol’, despite his cellmate having no symptoms after being forced to quarantine together for days. This requires them to pack all of their property into trash bags and have the bags locked in a room for 3 days. They will be issued a set of new clothing, linen, pillow and mattress and forced to take 6 pills of Ivermectin twice over the next two weeks. So, for three days they were in a quarantine within a quarantine.
May 11th: It has been 54 days since we’ve felt the sun on our faces. Today we are informed that each unit separately will receive yard time for 1 hour twice a week.
May 14th: I am informed by medical that I am cleared. However, I am one of several inmates who are forced to live with a cellmate still experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 after being medically cleared to return to their housing unit.
During the month of May approximately 30 inmates are seen by the state parole board for a hearing. Some of these men have been waiting a year or more for an opportunity to be seen by the parole board. Many of these men are elderly, have underlying medical issues, and are back in prison on technical non-criminal parole violations. Even though many of these men, including myself, have addressed issues related to their incarceration, we are summarily denied because we haven’t paid our pound of flesh. This decision flies in the face of recent SJC rulings regarding inmates with underlying medical conditions that put them at risk during COVID-19 and are back on technical violations.
I am just one of many inmates who suffer at the hands of an oppressive and abusive governmental agency. It baffles me how such a great society like ours can turn a blind eye and allow me to be stripped of my humanity and treated as a persona non grata. If nothing else, I just ask that you remember this quote spoken by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but how it treats its criminals.”