COVID & Prisons: Observations from Behind the Razor Wire
Even with my release date approaching, the spread of COVID-19 in prisons means that there remains the very real possibility that not only myself, but many others may not make it out of here alive.
The outside public may raise an eyebrow at this statement, and to an extent I understand why. Their reaction might be, ‘Do the crime, do the time – along with everything that comes with it.’ Granted, prison isn’t intended to be a steel and concrete paradise. From the moment you wake up to the time you close your eyes you can expect to be perpetually stressed, depressed, anxious, isolated – a whole range of negative emotions. But does that mean that we should be subject to a form of roulette that could be tantamount to a death sentence?
Most casual readers of articles concerning incarceration in the U.S. are aware that there is an overcrowding issue in their jails and prisons. The facility where I am housed is no exception. FCI Petersburg Medium has a population of 1,500 spread among three buildings containing twelve housing units of 120 men each. We are housed two, sometimes four to a cell about the size of a handicapped parking space, with a toilet and a sink thrown in. Remaining socially distant is out of the question. Despite the feeling of sitting on a powder keg, prison strangely felt like a sort of protective bubble from the effects of the pandemic raging unchecked on the outside. I never would have perceived it in that manner before.
In mid-September 2020, the first cases were reported in the building furthest from ours. There was a heightened tension in knowing it had finally arrived, yet it was still this nebulous thing that felt like a problem of the outside world. The outer defenses had been breached, but some of us are still safe. We wonder at the fate of the others – who has it? How many? Did they recover or not? Official answers are few, and it seems deliberately so. They do not want to create a panic, so rumors abound.
We immediately enter into a lockdown period, meaning complete cell confinement save for a ten-minute shower three times a week. This experience is psychologically taxing, however it is a reasonable precaution. I am struck by the fact that during this period, none of us are tested for symptoms despite a memo proclaiming daily testing. This is a disaster in the making, but with protocol typically disregarded by staff in day-to-day operations, it does not come as much of a surprise. After fifteen days, we are allowed a degree of freedom once more, to collect our meals, to venture outside … with a sense of foreboding. I found myself wondering, ‘is it too soon?’
Eight days later, on the 6th of October, more cases were reported, this time in the building next to ours. Still a separate place, but nearer now. The feeling it evokes could be compared to hiding from someone with no possibility of escape, and being able to hear each footfall resonating ever louder as they close in… it is unnerving. The protective bubble has turned into its opposite, and we are trapped. We are immediately placed back on lockdown. I didn’t have a chance to let anyone know why I won’t be calling anymore, so I hope they will infer the reason why and not be overly alarmed. Thoughts such as ‘Am I still being thought of? Do they care?’ become amplified, as anyone who has experienced being alone with your thoughts in isolation knows it can be challenging at times. I begin mentally preparing for the days ahead. I look forward to any word from the outside.
Twenty days in, and suddenly, voices emanate from the ventilation system: In the unit above ours, we are informed that someone is showing symptoms. It is here. They have moved the affected person to a separate cell for monitoring, but it is still in the same unit. We all continue to breathe in and share the same recycled air. Is there nothing else that can be done? There is less talking now. My cellmate and I cover up the vent as a precaution, but it does not block out the sound of muffled coughing that has now begun in earnest somewhere above us. I don’t know what will come next, but I’ve prepared for all eventualities.
As Revolutionaries and Communists, we must organize and agitate our fellow captives to demand that our health, safety and human rights be respected by the prison and medical staff. A tall order, knowing that our oppressors are here merely to collect a paycheck and the additional hazard pay that has undoubtedly accompanied these lockdown measures, but a just fight during these trying times.