Life in the Time of Coronavirus

The Incarcerated Person Who Knows How Bad It Could Get

A new series about how this pandemic affects our lives, our loved ones, our work, and our way of life

Justine van der Leun
Published in
5 min readMar 19, 2020
Photo illustration. Image: Aitor Diago/Getty Images, 4x-image/Getty Images

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

This incarcerated person, who wishes to remain anonymous, is serving a 15-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in a southern U.S. state. The facility in which he is housed operates beyond capacity and has scarce medical care.

AA couple of months ago about 300 of us got sick. They took everybody 50 years old and over and moved them permanently to their own dorm. Whatever that sickness was—maybe a brutal flu—ripped through the rest of the prison. I had a high fever, hot and cold sweats, dizziness, coughing for hours and hours, nonstop. The treatment was nothing. I said, “I need medicine.” They said, “No medicine for you. Drink some water.” Everything in prison is: “Drink water.” My stomach hurts: “Drink water.” My head hurts: “Drink water.” I’m burning up: “Drink water.”

There were guys worse than me. They put them up on a floor that they previously closed down years ago because it didn’t meet living standards, even in here: peeling paint, no running water, pure filth. Then they locked the prison down with no notice. They didn’t tell us anything—just had everybody locked in their cells. Every three days, we came out for 20 minutes to line up and take a shower. It lasted two weeks. That sickness, whatever it was, cleared. But now we’re on lockdown again. No visits, not from family or lawyers. No planned medical treatments. There’s a new virus, they said.

Most people in here have no idea what’s coming. I have access to a phone, even though they’re banned, and I started telling everybody on my unit what was really going on in Wuhan. People were like, “No way.” I’m like, “Yo, look this up. You’re going to have all your answers.” Sure enough, the other guys with burner phones started Googling. They’re like, “Oh man, how did you know all this?” I’m like, “Facebook.” I’ve been tripping out on these videos from…