Life in the Time of the Coronavirus

I Served 22 Years in Prison and Was Just Released Into a Pandemic

Vanessa Santiago departed as the virus began to spread through the prison. The outside world had changed in ways she was unprepared for.

Life in the Time of the Coronavirus is a GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.

Vanessa Santiago, 40, was released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on March 30 after serving 22 years in prison. She is currently living in a short-term studio rental in Syracuse, New York, as she waits to move to Florida to rejoin her family, but parole obligations and travel limitations due to Covid-19 have forced her to put off these plans.

On March 30, 2020, I got out of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s maximum-security prison for women. I went in at the age of 18 and walked out two days after I turned 40, into the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis.

Before my arrest, I lived a fast-paced life. I started having sex for money at 14. From then on, I stripped, schemed, and partied every day. At 16, I was put out on the streets by a 28-year-old man. I got young girls working for me, like a little madame. I searched for power, didn’t care for acceptance, wanted people to fear me. I was addicted to sex and violence. I had no morals.

Don’t misunderstand me: I wasn’t born cold-hearted, and I’m not that way now. As a kid, I squeezed everyone in a bear hug. But I remember being four years old and sitting alone at 3 a.m., waiting for my mom. From the age of seven until 13, I was sexually abused by multiple family members. I shut down. I was sent to a school counselor who also molested me. He molested other girls too. He got a few years’ probation. He didn’t even do time.

After that, I ran away. From 13, I lived on the streets or in group homes and juvenile facilities. My mother didn’t protect me. My father died in an accident at his welding job. The school system didn’t help me, and the justice system failed me. I dissociated. I had no compassion, no connection to humanity. I was in that mindset when I took the most extreme action: I killed a person.

During my early years in prison, I said: “I don’t have kids, so I don’t care what happens to me.” But when, after a time, I really reflected, I had to admit I hurt people because I was angry and in pain, and I believed I deserved to die in prison. I started to change my behaviors, to take classes, to learn who I really was. I tried to nurture other women. I thought about my victim, how I had taken her from her loved ones. I met a free man, and we began to correspond. We got married. He inspired me to be better, to want a different future, to want to accomplish something. I read the Bible. I prayed. In 2019, I went before the parole board, explained my past and how I’ve changed. I owned up to what I’d done. On March 9 this year, I got the letter: They were letting me out.

Suddenly, my release was imminent. At the same time, I was watching on the news how the coronavirus was spreading. By mid-March, the prison stopped family visits with no warning. Then we noticed the maintenance men were in our units every day, fixing everything. Usually, a toilet or an ice machine can be broken for months, years. But they were preparing because they knew they weren’t coming back. They knew we would be locked down.

I was bewildered by the self-checkout at Walmart. And how do you stand in line? In prison, we always had to be close. Now I have to be six feet away from everyone?

People had been getting sick, one here, one there. The civilian who ran commissary tested positive. We stopped getting our items regularly. People started smuggling stuff around the prison, from unit to unit, to survive: coolers, frying pans, food, soap, toothpaste. With the virus, it got extra chaotic because guards didn’t want to touch or search us. They still found ways to dehumanize us, acting as if we had the disease. But they were the ones who brought it to us.

Then people were plucked up because they had contact with someone sick. They were quarantined on their own unit or in medical, and often nobody knew what happened to them. Back in February, I started vomiting, had diarrhea, lost my sense of taste and smell. They put me in a room with three other people. I don’t know why they were there, except one had diabetes; for all anyone knew, I could have given them Covid-19 or gotten it from them, but we were never tested. I made a mask out of pantyliners and tried to stay away from them. Because I didn’t have a fever, I was sent back to the general population after one night. Over the next month, more and more people were getting sick. I started panicking, thinking if I didn’t get out soon, I may never leave.

On March 30, I stepped out onto the street, holding a bit of legal paperwork, two books, and my medications. My husband was there. He wore his own mask but hadn’t brought one for me. He was holding some gum and some sunflower seeds like I requested. Then he drove me five hours to his place. There wasn’t even a little space for me in his dresser. He wouldn’t give me a dollar or explain how to do anything. Last time I was on the streets, I was a child, a child who didn’t follow any of the rules. So I didn’t know how to open a bank account, pay a bill, use a smartphone or a microwave. Didn’t know my own bra size. I was bewildered by the self-checkout at Walmart. And how do you stand in line? In prison, we always had to be close. Now I have to be six feet away from everyone? I didn’t know the regular outside rules or the new Covid-19 rules.

I was mostly stuck in a house with a person who didn’t want me. I felt lower than I have in 10 years. I started missing prison. I stayed wide awake for the first three days, lost and lonely. Then I got a room at the Econo Lodge. When I couldn’t afford that, I found a temporary studio rental.

I’ve been out for three weeks now, trying to figure out my next move. Parole rules stipulate you need to find a job or be in school, but there are no jobs, so I’m pushing forward to study. And I need to get to Florida, where my family has relocated, but again, it’s complicated by parole and now the travel ban. Meanwhile, strangers mostly have shown me the ropes: how to use a key card, how to work a borrowed laptop. I’m exploring the internet, learning Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. It’s exciting and addicting. I write little posts and try to reconnect with people.

I’m also fighting for those I left behind, working on clemency petitions to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for my friends. I keep in touch with their families, but we’re all in the dark. If you get taken to the prison medical unit, they won’t let you make calls or check emails, won’t give you a pen and paper, sometimes no soap and no shower, just your food shoved through on a disposable tray. One woman who has Covid-19 and asthma was so terrified, she kicked down the door so she could call her mom. So many of my friends in there are innocent and suffering from underlying health conditions. It could be a death sentence for them. I would have given them my place to go home, but that wasn’t an option. So I gave them my word I’d try to help.

Even while I worry for them, every day is a little better for me. I accept that I’m free, even in this room. After all, I can walk out if I want, stay up until midnight, talk on the phone until I fall asleep, buy an ice cream cake at the store, see my nephew celebrate his birthday live on a video call. These are the luxuries you don’t have in there. Sometimes, I watch kids playing basketball with their parents in their driveway nearby. It’s beautiful. People say this isolation is like a prison, but it’s not. In there, you never have the chance to see something like this, to maybe even one day be a part of it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Author, journalist. Nosy by nature.

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