The cellblock I live in is like every movie you’ve ever seen about Alcatraz: a towering wall of 160 barred cells. Four tiers, each with 40 cells. But the cells here at Washington State Penitentiary are older than the ones at Alcatraz because the state built this prison 112 years ago. Each of these 6-foot by 9-foot cells are double bunked — after all, this is the age of mass incarceration. The cellhouse comprises two of these cellblocks, 320 cells in total.
The pulse of the prison passes through the cellhouse, which I see and hear in a way that only someone halfway through their fourth decade of incarceration can.
Re: WSRU Precautionary Quarantine
Today the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) confirmed that an employee working at the Monroe Correctional Complex-Washington State Reformatory Unit (MCC-WSR) has tested positive for COVID-19. The employee last worked on March 8, was tested on March 10 and received results back today. MCC is placing WSRU A and B units where the employee worked into precautionary quarantine/restricted movement for 10 days, until the 14-day quarantine period ends. Since this is a precautionary quarantine, additional protective equipment (PPE) is not required.
I spotted the notice on the cell floor when I opened my eyes at 5 a.m. I sat upright on the bunk, switched on my lamp, and read it. The superintendent’s photocopied initials headed the proclamation. Inside the walls of prison, that makes it more binding and absolute than the states of emergency declared by the governor and president.
I wasn’t surprised. After all, the first recorded case of coronavirus in the US was admitted to a hospital fifteen miles from the prison. It wasn’t a matter of if coronavirus would get into the prison but when.
An hour later, when the cellhouse lights blinked on at 6 a.m., a chorus of grumbles rose around the block as others dragged themselves up from their bunks to get ready for work and found their copy of the notice. The grumbling gathered momentum until a guy on a tier somewhere above exploded in a torrent of full-volume curses. He told the guards who rushed to his cell that he was scheduled to be released from prison that morning. The guards let him know that he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Three days later, however, I realize that I hadn’t heard him yell for a while. They must have done something with him — or he must have resigned himself to his fate.
The first day of the lockdown, the guards let us out of our cells for just twenty minutes. Over the ensuing days, that has since stretched to 30 minutes. They allow us out ten at a time and, when the cell doors open, we tumble out onto the tiers to use the telephone and shower.
Outside the cells, we’re confronted with the difficult-to-reconcile fact that we were quarantined while the guards weren’t. The prison is so short-staffed that many of the guards are working mandatory overtime shifts in unquarantined sections of the prison. At the end of their shifts, they return home to their families and community.
The irony is that the guards try to stay as far away from us as they can when we’re out of the cells. But — IT WAS ONE OF YOU WHO DID THIS TO US! WE SHOULD BE TRYING TO GET AWAY FROM YOU! None of us, I think, have to worry about guards searching our cells anytime soon.
At the end of the first day of lockdown, guards handed us a second memo from the superintendent through the bars of our cells.
SUBJECT: Health Update
Your health and well-being are of the upmost importance. We continue to follow the Department of Health and CDC guidelines in taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of our [sic] Incarcerated Individuals.
Please take care of yourself.
It’s the beneficent framing of that last line that gets me. The first lesson that an incarcerated person in any prison in America learns is that you have to take care of yourself. When you’re pushed through the gate into one of these places, you either find a way to survive, or you don’t. The one thing you can count on in here is that no one is going to do it for you.
Jokes abound in the cellblock when someone coughs or sneezes. I’m conscious that it’s gallows humor, which is necessary in prison. It’s certainly necessary in this prison where the medical director was fired last year for negligence and lacking the appropriate credentials, and where the deaths of ten prisoners are currently under investigation.
Medical staff accompanied by a guard appear twice a day for a mandatory temperature check. Yesterday, the staff person removed the plastic thermometer sleeve she took from my mouth and, with the same gloves, slid a new sleeve in place for the next person. I didn’t complain or point out the imprudence of her action, as I imagine a free person would because — like so many others in prison in the U.S. — I’ve been in here too long. I’ve come to expect to be treated this way.
I wonder which one of us will get sick first.
Mr. Yi is 77 although I doubt it will be him. He runs five miles in the Yard every morning and does a couple hundred pushups a day. He’s kind of a badass.
Bill, on the other hand, is 78 and nearly died when guards put him in the Hole last year. He has leukemia.
Everyone in the cellblock is speculating about what will happen when one of us shows signs of infection. The consensus among those of us who’ve been around is that guards in hazmat suits will take us to the Hole. I mean, they can’t take us to the infirmary. Prisoners with cancer and suppressed immune systems are there, and the ventilation ducts between cells are connected. Of course, the prospect of the Hole is likely to preclude anyone from volunteering to report symptoms.
“You guys are off lockdown.”
That was the announcement over the PA system on Monday, at 9:32 a.m. when a guard let us know the quarantine was lifted. I knew — or at least I hoped — the announcement was coming because medical staff had ceased to make rounds and check our temperatures days earlier.
The cell doors racked open and we poured out of the cellhouse en masse. All of us had spent the preceding two weeks confined in cells hardly big enough to turn around in, doing everything we could not to touch or brush against one another and breathing each other’s air.
We wandered out into a different prison than the one we knew before the guard with coronavirus showed up for work and got our cellhouse put on lockdown. Groups and organizations were no longer allowed to meet, and volunteers and sponsors (i.e. free people) weren’t allowed in the prison. All educational activities and courses were canceled. Religious services were discontinued. Friends and family couldn’t visit until further notice. Prison, even at its best, doesn’t feel tolerable — this unmitigated prison feels less so.
However, I can’t help but notice that a long line of prisoners still queued up in the morning at Gate 7. They are workers waiting to be processed through to their work stations in Correctional Industries. This doesn’t surprise me — nor should it surprise anyone else. After all, if the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement weren’t enough to abolish the kind of labor exploitation that still happens inside these walls, there isn’t any reason to believe a pandemic, or even an apocalypse, will.
On Tuesday, in an attempt to implement “social-distance” protocol, prison administrators put a 150-person limit on how many of us can go to the Yard. This, of course, meant several hundred people in the courtyard shoved and fought to get to the Yard gate. Those who made it there had to place their hands — and whatever virus may be on them — on the bars of the turnstile in order to push through and get into the Yard. And everyone in the Yard shared eight phones situated 18 inches apart.
On Wednesday, in another attempt to social distance, guards directed us to sit one person to each four-person table in the chow hall. However, they still made us line up in close single-file order, forty to eighty prisoners at a time, to pick up a tray at the serving line window. Before we left the chow hall, we closed ranks again to drop off the trays and grimy plastic eating utensils at the dish pit where prisoners wash them by hand; the prison removed the dishwasher several years ago to save money.
On Thursday, administrators reopened two antiquated cellblocks comprised of former disciplinary-segregation cells (i.e., the “Hole”) that have sat vacant for nearly 20 years ever since the state built a $50 million long-term solitary confinement facility. An undercurrent of grumbling circulated through the population when guards moved parole and community-custody violators into the cellblocks after local county jails, trying to bring down their populations in preparation for the onslaught of the virus, refused to house them. All of us behind the walls know that if anyone was going to bring the virus inside, it would likely be one of those prisoners plucked fresh off the streets.
Tonight news passed from cell to cell on my cellblock until finally it reached mine: another guard and prisoner tested positive.
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.