Photo by Milad B. Fakurian on Unsplash

I am a 48-year-old African American man with asthma confined in a California prison. Every day, while riots and unrest are happening in prisons around the world, I wake up at 3 a.m. I get dressed, I wash up, I put a mask over my face, I put on gloves, and I step out of my cell to go work in the main kitchen. Instead of sheltering in place, I go assist in preparing the morning meals for 3,600 other incarcerated people during this coronavirus pandemic.

I am housed in what can only be described as an incubator — under the worst-case scenario. I am a sitting duck waiting for coronavirus to be brought into this crowded prison, where I will likely be infected and possibly killed. Yet every day I still step out of my cell onto the frontlines of this pandemic; regardless of this unforeseen killer, regardless of the thousands who have been infected in prisons and almost 100 incarcerated men people who are dead. I still step out of my cell and I take on the dangerous task of feeding the population so the guards can focus on maintaining safety and security.

It is very hurtful to me that my humanity is unseen because of the past wrongs that I’ve done. It is difficult to see that the lives of my fellow incarcerated people are being thought of as unworthy of protection during this pandemic. That those incarcerated people who stand out on the front lines providing essential services behind prison walls everyday are being forgotten.

There are incarcerated people who risk their lives every day to make sure that people get fed. We make sure the prison hospitals, kitchens, day rooms and showers are cleaned and sanitized. We make sure custody staff get their offices cleaned and paperwork filed on time. We prune the flowers, water the grass and trim the trees. We make sure that incarcerated people who are older and physically handicapped or hearing impaired receive care. We help mitigate this pandemic.

Many of us work for free or earn pennies on the dollar for our services. At the end of the day, we are still called animals and monsters. We are still considered people too unfit for society. We are seen as just perpetrators of our past crimes even though many of us have undergone rigorous vocational, psychological and educational training in an effort to rehabilitate.

Many of us have been sentenced to life in prison and are now facing the possibility of death inside. But we continue trying to make amends for our past wrongs and reclaim our humanity. We haven’t given up on each other or our society. All we want is society not to give up on us.

During this coronavirus pandemic I believe the lives of those who are incarcerated should matter. We don’t have all the protective gear we need or receive hazard pay, but we contribute to the work. We put our lives on the line to ensure the health and well-being of others. Shouldn’t we also be recognized for risking our lives as essential service workers who are incarcerated?

During this pandemic shouldn’t our work qualify towards credits for extraordinary conduct? Shouldn’t our heroic acts, our bravery, and exceptional assistance in maintaining the safety and security of a prison be recognized?

In the end, our work enhances public safety and we would like to be recognized for our humanity.

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.

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Steve Brooks

Steve Brooks is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and San Quentin News, a newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns in PJP. Steve has completed two college degrees in liberal arts and social and behavioral sciences and plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in sociology.