This ongoing COVID-19 emergency has created a new reality for all of us: a lockdown. But I have a lot of experience with it. I was released in late January from San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area after serving 28 years for second-degree murder.
During my imprisonment, I was locked down because of racial violence; locked down for massive flu inoculations and tuberculosis tests; locked down to prevent the spread of Legionnaire’s disease; locked down for visits by celebrities and politicians; and locked down because of fog. Sometimes it felt like I was locked down on the whim of prison officials.
I had about 60 days of freedom and joy after leaving San Quentin before the world pandemic began to intrude into my life, and state officials ordered people to stay home. I was able to go to the social security office to get my benefits, visit local employment agencies, visit music stores, even stop at an ice cream store for a scoop of Rocky Road ice cream. I was smiling all the time because I was happy to be able to enjoy life again. When I told people that I had been recently released from prison, I was surprised to get some heartfelt “welcome home” assurances.
When I was released to a transitional housing facility in the Los Angeles area, I thought lockdowns were a thing of my past. I really felt free.
Prior to my release from prison I was aware of people getting sick with COVID-19 in China and that country’s efforts to stymie the spread of the disease. In America, many people viewed the lockdown of Wuhan as draconian. But I agreed with the Chinese government’s decision to isolate the province and shut down the market, where someone was believed to have contracted the virus from an animal.
I had expected our country to also intrude on life with lockdowns and quarantines. Some guys in my facility dispute the seriousness of the pandemic by comparing statistics to the annual flu season death toll, but I know this mandate is for my own well being.
At my transition home, we have been given cloth masks to wear. Before entering the facility, we are required to thoroughly wash our hands at portable washing stations. When we enter the dining hall, we are required to wash our hands regardless of how clean we think they are. We have been advised to keep space between us during mealtimes, so we now only sit two to a table instead of four. The daily morning gatherings have been put on hold. Group activities have been severely curtailed. All interaction with parole agents have been moved temporarily to the phone. My parole agent has not come around demanding a urine sample since the beginning of my parole, and I have been told not to visit the parole office.
But I couldn’t have anticipated the other ways that the restrictions would impact me. Under the terms of my parole, I’m supposed to find employment. I’m licensed by the state as an X-ray technician, but I’m not working because I know I would be taking chest X-rays of COVID-19 infected patients sooner or later, and that would put other residents at risk at my 150-person facility. My dad and mom, siblings and three adult children live in Lompoc, Calif., but I have not been able to see them.
I’m also concerned that the lockdown could be a tool that is used and abused by government officials. In prison, it seemed too many problems were managed by invoking the lockdown. Many of them felt unneeded and overly long. The lockdowns sometimes created more problems than they solved.
Still, I am truly grateful to be in the free world during this crisis. I feel lucky to have a cell phone to call my friends and family, internet access, and a cheapie computer — all things that California state prisoners are not allowed to have.
My friends at San Quentin have told me in letters that visits are not allowed by friends or family, and there are no education programs or work. They eat all meals in their cells and are not getting much yard time for fresh air and exercise. The prison calls it a modified program, but they said it felt like a lockdown. Prison doublespeak. My friends are angry and terrified because they are held two to a cell 24 hours a day. They cannot socially distance themselves from each other. They are sure that COVID-19 is headed their way.
Prison life has taught me how to isolate myself. It is not a big deal for me to wear a mask. I am hopeful this lockdown will be my last, but I’m afraid it may not be. I believe this pandemic is merely a practice run for the world. I expect there will be another worldwide pandemic lockdown. Hopefully America will be better prepared.
In the meantime, I intend to keep my promise to the parole commissioner that he would not have anything to worry about with me. After the conditions of my parole are met I hope to be returning home to Santa Barbara County.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.