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

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 China. I was stunned. It took me three days to get over the fact that this is truly happening. Then I learned that it was in Washington state. I’m like: This is going to get real bad, real quick.

How will they contain it here? The Bureau of Prisons figured out how to take a one-person cell and jam in three people. The top bunk is two feet from the ceiling. You have to slide in and out, like a coffin. We’re technically supposed to be allowed our own brooms and a spray bottle with sanitary chemicals to keep our spaces clean. But two weeks ago, they did a sweep and confiscated them all. Now, if we want to clean our cells, we have to check those items out. I don’t feel comfortable using a broom that’s not my own; it could be used to clean the day room, another man’s cell, the showers.

In this building, we have 136 men touching everything: rails, doors, door handles, computers. There are 20 men who touch the phone before me. The building is infested with mice, cockroaches, and rats; in the basement, there’s a stagnant foot-high pool of water. You get sick easier because you don’t get the vitamins you need; your immune system is weak. Crushed apples in the morning and meat substitutes. The trays aren’t washed right and are covered in fungus. When a big boss comes for an inspection, they throw away the trays and bring in a new set to make it look like they’ve been using those all along. But usually, you have to grab that moldy tray from a guy serving you out of a kitchen covered in dirt with no air conditioning. He’s dripping sweat, screaming to his friend, spitting all over the food. A couple days ago, they brought in oranges, at least. I hadn’t seen an orange in a year and a half.

When they finally posted notices about the coronavirus, they just said everyone needs to wash their hands and stay clean. How? Even at medical, where the doctor works and people with health conditions stay, the sinks don’t function properly, the bathroom lights don’t work, there’s no hand sanitizer in the pump, no paper towels, only a little black clump of soap. You will not find a restroom in this prison — not in medical, the chapel, the gym — that’s not broken. When you flush the toilet in any common area, you’re not going to scrub down and dry your hands. The only thing you’re going to do is rinse them. And consider yourself lucky if the water works.

For personal use, they give us three small bars of soap a month and one roll of toilet paper a week. Usually, those bars get stolen and resold, so we have to buy our own soap at the commissary for $1.80 a bar. Toilet paper? $8 a roll. I’ve been here going on two years, and still don’t have a job because there aren’t enough available. But if you do have a job, you get paid $7.50 to $20 a month. If you don’t have money, you don’t have soap or tissues.

Once somebody gets sick, it’s a domino effect. It’s only a matter of time before one of these COs [Correctional Officers] brings that virus in. And when it hits this place, it’s going to hit hard. Who will help? If someone has a heart attack in here, you have to kick the door to get staff attention. Then other people will start kicking, a team effort. One guy got sick a while back—choking on his own vomit at three in the morning. His cellie was banging on the door. Nobody’s calling. Nobody’s coming. The cellie grabs the tiny phone that he has hidden, dials 911. Next thing you know, they bring the ambulance in there, pull out the paddles. The dude still dies. He only had two weeks left on a 21-year sentence. And his cellie goes to the Hole because he had a phone and called the ambulance.

Yesterday, after they made the announcement about the virus, I saw them bringing a 60-inch TV and a bunch of mattresses up to that third floor, the one that’s not livable, the one where they kept the sickest before. Then they called lockdown. From our cells, we watched as they brought in 11 new people. They put them up there. They’re keeping them isolated. Waiting to see if they get sick.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Author, journalist. Nosy by nature.

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