Illustration by John Kazior

“Left in the Dark” | Covid Behind Bars

April Harris, Christopher Blackwell, Corey Devon Arthur, Darla Jones, Felix Sitthivong, Joel Castón, Olethus Hill Jr., Patrick Stephens, Wesley Williams

Almost as soon as the Covid-19 pandemic was declared, writers rushed to narrativize the social experiment that was “lockdown.” Some of the reports, including those on the risks undertaken by workers newly deemed “essential,” have felt necessary and urgent. Others less so, like the slew of navel-gazing “quarantine diaries” produced last spring. (One prominent novelist compared her experience sheltering in place in her Los Angeles mansion to “doing time.”)

Less visible to those on the outside has been the experience of incarcerated people — those unable to maintain any semblance of social distancing and effectively abandoned, behind bars, to the ravages of the virus. We invited writers in prison to contribute short reflections on the past year-and-a-half — how prisons handled the pandemic, how prisoners responded, and the mental, physical, and emotional hardship they have faced. 

To be slammed down in prison is normal, but our treatment this past year has been inhumane. From the start, we were treated like we had an infectious disease, even though the officers were the ones bringing COVID in to us — we don’t go anywhere. Meanwhile, not being able to move around freely in our unit, since we were banned from even going outside, started to weigh heavily on us. We couldn’t shower, use the laundry, clean our cells, or make calls when we wanted to.

Losing phone access brought on a lot of anxiety as the daily report of deaths continued to increase. We prayed our loved ones would not be in that percentile. My peers and I were frustrated by the lack of communication and unanswered questions.I often questioned the official Covid numbers. I wondered how much was fear-mongering, whether the death toll included deaths unrelated to Covid. Then the census came about, and I thought to myself: this isn’t a pandemic; this is a population control tactic. Without adequate information, it’s been easy to develop a lot of conspiracy theories.

I’ve also questioned the motives behind giving inmates the vaccine before people on the street. Prisoners have historically been used as lab rats, which made me very skeptical. This year, it seems to me, officials used the pandemic as an excuse to slow prison releases: we’ve had no access, since March 2020, to the various programs that in normal times would have allowed us to earn time off and go home early. Now, the world is opening up. Why are prisoners still left in the dark? 

Darla Jones, California Institution for Women, California

In May of 2020, Covid-19 had invaded Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York State. I wasn’t just a prisoner there. I was the Chairman of the Inmate Liaison Commission, tasked with voicing the will of the inmate population to the prison administration.

The death toll in our prison had risen to five before any of us knew what we were dealing with. We prisoners, rebellious by nature, fought back. It wasn’t enough. But Covid-19 alone couldn’t break our spirits — it came on top of racism, abuse, and injustice, and drove us into fatigue and hopelessness. After repeated defeats, the prisoners looked to their leader for a sign. They were ice grilling me.

I’ve been at the bottom for a long time, almost a quarter century. I am accustomed to fighting while hurting and losing. This time, I felt like I was drowning in other people’s fear and depression. I couldn’t even offer them hope. 

Death had diminished the prisoners’ morale, and the prison administration threatened to reverse all the gains the ILC had fought for: late night recreation for seven days a week, as opposed to the standard three nights a week, unlimited access to all outdoor recreational porches, relaxation of petty rules, bleach, sanitizer, and face masks. There was a time when we called these victories our “servings of survival.” They weren’t much by free society standards, but they meant everything to us. 

We had contested the prison officials for these amenities and won. We weren’t giving back a single scrap. We all knew there were more battles before us to be fought, but we consumed everything in sight. We dined upon crumbs like a feast. 

Corey Devon Arthur, Fishkill Correctional Facility, New York 

I have been incarcerated for twenty-four years. On May 12, 2020, I was informed that I had tested positive for Covid-19. That first night, eight women including myself were told to pack a few things — we were being sent to isolation. A few minutes later, two men in astronaut suits came to escort me out. I felt like a leper as the other women hit their doors to wish me well. I was kept in isolation for thirty-two days, which I documented in what I called my “Coronavirus Chronicles,” a detailed, hour-by-hour account of how the California Institution for Women handled solitary confinement, Covid-positive inmates, and mental health concerns.

At that time, over two hundred women in the US had already succumbed to this deadly virus. Once I returned to the general population, I was not the same mentally or physically. I felt ostracized and my breathing was off. My lungs had been compromised. Anything from black pepper to perfume would trigger a deep cough. A silent fear that prevented me from alerting the staff because they would have considered my cough a “Covid symptom,” and sent me back to isolation — back into the mental and physical torture chamber. 

I met many women who were experiencing the same symptoms and the same fears. We came together to compare notes and offer suggestions. A new camaraderie, unlike anything I’d seen before, was born. We helped one another heal the scars that Covid had left behind.

The mental health toll on this population has been astronomical. There have been so many different lockdowns during this pandemic, some of which made sense, and some of which did not. I often became confused as to what the rules really were. Sometimes it was doors closed and no movement. Other times, doors open, but we weren’t allowed to come out. Showers only, no phone. Phones only, no showers. Come out for twenty minutes a day. Then, come out all day but lock in at 6:00 p.m. One day chow is brought to your door. You’re yelled at to not come out of your cell. The very next day you’re yelled at to come out and pick up your chow. The inconsistency was truly amazing — it took skill and precision to be able to create so much confusion. 

During the pandemic multiple women tried to kill themselves. One lady across from me set her room on fire, staring at me calmly with flames rising behind her. To help me cope with the trauma, they gave me a piece of Hello Kitty coloring paper. Surviving this pandemic behind these walls has tested our resilience, faith and perseverance. Although some of the damage will be permanent, I am grateful to have survived. My dear friend here did not. Covid took her. Today I am fully vaccinated. I did not want the vaccination, but the fear of going back to isolation was greater than my fear of the vaccine.

April Harris, California Institution for Women, California

Being in prison during the pandemic, I’ve experienced uncertainty, panic, anger, fear, hopelessness — and sometimes hope. Not hearing from a loved one, knowing they could be dead, would make me physically sick. What will stay with me is the sense of how vulnerable we are, and how dependent on each other.

There is almost no way of socially distancing when you’re in an environment where all movement is done in groups. To go into the yard, hospital, mess hall, school, or work, we have to be lined up in two rows, side by side. We use the same phones, spoons, and trays. I felt that no matter what I did, it was only a matter of time before I got Covid-19.

When I did get the virus, I feared for my life because I knew I would not get the same care I’d get if I were free, and I didn’t want to die in prison.

I had no control over that, so I was very thankful for the nurses, who did what they could do to help me recover. I realized that I needed the help of the nurse the same way someone else needed me to wear my mask, to protect them from the virus. It’s not up to us if or when we die, but it is up to us to love and protect each other from the harm we can cause. 

Wesley Williams, Bare Hill Correctional Facility, New York 

Lock-in, this is a standing count! Chow time! These are the constant buzzes inside a carceral space. It’s a world I know all too well, having lived in sixteen different facilities. Sentenced to a mandatory 30 years to life term at the immature age of eighteen, I’m used to confinement. Normal life as I once knew it was disrupted long ago, and then came Covid — an even greater disruption.

The institution was swiftly placed in a forced lockdown. It’s a sad reality that happens too frequently in detention centers across America, so I wasn’t particularly alarmed. When faced with a disruptive life event, I must make a choice: give in to pessimism or bravely embrace the power of optimism. In this instance, I chose the latter. Instead of pouting in my cell, I escaped to the Wonderful World of Psychological Nirvana (WWPN). I converted my tiny cubicle into a tropical island. There I did yoga, feeling the breeze of the Caribbean island embracing me. I buried my head in the sacred texts of Holy Scriptures. I stimulated my mind with the “Futures and Options” study guide by the Institute for Financial Markets. I stilled my thinking with mindfulness meditation.

Sure, fear lurked in the background, but I transmuted the energy into a renewed determination to live. I wasn’t afraid of dying from the deadly virus; instead, I feared never having a chance to implement the ideals that kept me alive. Until the re-birth of freedom takes place, I remain quarantined in my WWPN bubble. ¡Libertad me llama! Freedom is calling me.

Joel Castón, The District of Columbia Jail, Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to put the last year in context; it feels as if the days blended into one long period, refusing to follow the normal structure of time. There are moments I was forced to experience that I will carry for the rest of my life, moments I haven’t been able to fully process, as we remain in the thick of the pandemic behind steel doors and razor wire.

When the virus ripped through my living unit, I witnessed longtime friends being abducted in groups and hauled off to solitary confinement. Rumors flew about the devastating experience, and we waited to be confined ourselves as each round of tests were taken. By the end of it, over 90% of my unit contracted the virus. Those weeks reminded me just how different our experience is from that of others in society. While they were taken to hospitals to receive medical attention, we were taken to cold, empty concrete boxes and locked away from everything, including our loved ones and the treatment we deserved as human beings.

Meanwhile, safety measures were weaponized, our loved ones lied to and abused, and medical treatment nonexistent until it was too late in most cases. Knowing you live in a world where your life doesn’t matter makes it impossible to feel as if you belong. The last fifteen months have reaffirmed that I am an other, my life is worth less than other people’s lives, that I am seen as a burden. We must continue to fight for the equality of all people — that is what the pandemic has taught me.

Christopher Blackwell, Washington Corrections Center, Washington

One year after the pandemic hit, we were finally able to have a small graduation ceremony for the class that earned Master’s degrees from the New York Theological Seminary. Because of the pandemic, no family or friends were allowed to celebrate with us, not even our friends from the Seminary. It was an entirely in-house affair — reminding us, once again, of the increased isolation we were forced to endure.

Even by the middle of April, most of us had not been vaccinated for Covid-19. Given the political incentive to pretend that we did not exist, the state found it unnecessary to offer vaccinations to those of us living in this particular type of congregate housing. This was despite guidance issued by health experts and the CDC recommending that people in situations like ours be placed high on the vaccination list.

The advice was not issued to prioritize the lives of incarcerated people. The theory was that by protecting those most likely to come in contact with the virus, we could significantly decrease chances for the infection to spread. Protecting the most vulnerable was the best way to protect others. New York officials seemed to have forgotten that we are still a part of the human community — that what happens to us happens to them. They’ve forgotten that incarcerated lives matter too.

Patrick Stephens, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, New York

Life for everyone this past year has been stressful, to say the least, but for me and most other incarcerated individuals, it has been hell on steroids.

This past year has taken — and continues to take — its toll on me mentally, physically and emotionally. I’m currently at a level 1/2 facility that, before Covid, allowed one to “’freely”’ move about the compound throughout the day. Now, my movement is heavily constricted, and I’m confined to my dorm for 22-23 hours a day. It’s as if I’m being punished for something that’s not in my control. And since the court system is moving more slowly now, we’ll have to wait longer for a chance at early release. The ripple effects of Covid within prison are just as devastating as the disease itself. 

Olethus Hill Jr., London Correctional Institution, Ohio 

A year of Covid has been anything but pleasant. I was forced to face my own mortality when I got sick in January. Since then, I’ve probably thought about death more than I have my whole life.
I’ve dealt with every emotion this past year: anger at Washington State’s Department of Corrections for their negligence and indifference; fear for my health and my family’s safety amid the rise of anti-Asian violence; confusion every day I leave my cell, and every day I’m not allowed to leave; sadness and anguish because although I’m only 30 minutes away from my family, the rules that keep us separated make it feel like we’re a lifetime apart; gratitude to have found an amazing woman who loves me despite my chubby cheeks; grief from losing an elder whose compassion still inspires me to this day. But most of all, I’ve had to deal with guilt.

My best friend was murdered back in 2017. He was only 31 years old. I guess I’ve never fully healed from the loss, and I probably never will. While I was sitting here struggling, I realized it didn’t matter what I was going through: I could sit here and complain until my face turned blue, and my boy doesn’t even know what the fuck Covid is. He’s gone. 

So as the ’rona put our whole world on pause and inconvenienced many aspects of our lives, I surprisingly still feel blessed. I’m still alive to enjoy my favorite TV shows and eat my favorite foods. I can still tell my family I love them. I can still laugh until my eyes tear up and take the opportunity to cry for real. And I still live to fight another day. That’s more than I can say for my homie and all those we’ve lost this year. Goddamn, I’m either really messed up in the head right now, or this first dose of Moderna’s really got me going through it.

Felix Sitthivong, Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Washington