On the night of March 13, 2020, the Monroe, Wash., prison I am caged in was placed on “quarantine” lockdown status. Until that evening, most prisoners didn’t realize their lives could be impacted by the coronavirus epidemic that was gaining prevalence in the media. Washington state was said to be an early viral epicenter, but an outbreak in the prison seemed unlikely.
Family and friends of prisoners were concerned about conditions in the facility. We prisoners were very worried about our loved ones, wondering how vulnerable our friends and family may be, whether any had already fallen ill, imagining worst-case scenarios where the social order collapsed entirely. It can be maddening knowing you are completely powerless to protect the people you care about, unable to provide for them or assist them in any way. We can’t even comfort and assure them. Sometimes we’re lucky to even be able to contact them at all.
Prisoners who were already in the punitive-segregation units (for perceived rule violations) didn’t even know a epidemic was developing in the outside world. They are in their intentionally empty cells 23 or 24 hours a day and have minimal contact with guards.
The next morning the paranoia and panic in the prison began. The chaos was under control, but imaginations were running wild. Could all visitation have really canceled? Indefinitely? That’s unheard of in a prison system that prioritizes visits. (Washington may be the only state left that allows family conjugal visits in trailers.) All programs and activities were canceled, and no volunteers would come in. “Community involvement” was a major benefit of the prison’s location. Meals were brought to the cells. Prisoners were getting worried. But no one in the prison appeared to be falling ill, so the health risk seemed minor. The lockdown felt like an arbitrary over-reaction.
Washington has one of the lucky penal systems that allows prisoners to purchase televisions, radios and e-mail/music gadgets. Those with a device were able to track the progress of what surprisingly quickly became a pandemic. But many have no money and can’t even get a prison job. Phone calls and letters were still permitted, but not all prisoners have anyone left to call and write. For instance, lifers notoriously lose all their loved ones as the years and decades drag on. Some prisoners do not speak English and have only sporadic opportunity to communicate. The Monroe prison is primarily a medical facility because of its proximity to hospitals. There are, as in every prison across the country, a large number of mentally ill inmates, many of whom had difficulty understanding what was happening.
As the weeks passed, officials occasionally passed out memos. Initially, they stated only one guard in the prison had tested positive for COVID-19, but not one prisoner in the entire state. (Not that anyone was being proactively tested.) By April, several inmates in a neighboring Monroe minimum-security camp had COVID. Inmates were terrified and families were outraged. A sit-down demonstration in the yard was heavily covered in the media. Fear of riots led the primary facility to lock down, and even temporarily shut off email communication that night. As of mid-May, none of those fears ever materialized. Despite rising tensions and unbearable stresses, the prisoners have been surprisingly patient and civil. (Apart from the standard selfishness and usual heightened Darwinism, of course.)
It is impossible to know how many, if any, prisoners here now have COVID. Some weeks later cloth masks were provided, and even staff were required to cover up. Wearing the masks became mandatory for all. But several people have caught the common cold, suggesting the lockdown and masks aren’t going to matter much if there’s an outbreak. Prisoners hide every cough and sniffle, despite this being allergy season, for fear of being placed in punitive segregation conditions for COVID-19 suspicion, under the guise of “medical isolation.” Not surprisingly, some inmates are pointing fingers at each other. A few guards refused to wear masks, which was widely seen as suspicious considering they usually just happened to be the very guards who despise and harass prisoners anyway.
The facility is a century old, and windowless, with inadequate ventilation and plumbing. The entire design is woefully inept, with overcrowding and bottle-necked hallways. There are four tiers of 40 cells in each of four units, and the cell-fronts are open bars rather than solid doors. This allowed a staff member to conduct temperature checks in the early days of the lockdown.
The public is usually unaware of how different a prison system can be state to state. Or even from prison to prison. Conditions vary wildly, from draconian (the punitive default) to progressive (typically rare and fleeting). Most penal systems have been corrupted by privatization and profiteering interests. The vast differences are one of the myriad reasons some state prisons have had 95% viral outbreaks and others have been completely spared.
Many prisoners are accustomed to disciplinary or administrative segregation, maximum-security custody, and temporary lockdowns, as well as myriad other forms of isolation and punitive confinements. More often than one would imagine it isn’t always a result of the prisoner’s actions. But a sustained, system-wide, imposed shut-down in segregated, isolated punitive confinement conditions is unprecedented in most penal systems. And now the administration is implying this lockdown is a “new-normal,” that it will likely continue for the rest of 2020. Which is highly suspicious, when the prisons are already constantly trying to increase security by imposing punitive maximum-security conditions on all the prisons anyway.
Prisoners generally have no voice. Washington prisoners had so little recourse to protect their basic rights that an Ombuds office had to be created, partly because the official channels such as a grievance program were laughably useless. Trivializing the life and death problems of marginalized disenfranchised communities is nothing new. But it can have deadly consequences in unusual circumstances such as a global pandemic.
It is widely known prisons never have adequate medical care or mental health services. Many prisons also serve atrocious meals with very little nutritional value. Washington has long come under fire for medical issues. A penal system that has trouble taking care of preexisting chronic conditions, and ignores colds and skin problems is scarcely equipped to handle a dangerous pandemic like COVID-19.
“Corrections Industries” is in charge of such services as meals and optometry, meaning the two hot meals are usually comprised of beans and noodles, the cold meal is a daily horse’s diet of oats and apples, and eyeglasses are only prioritized for those with the money to purchase them. Starvation and malnutrition leave prisoners weak and vulnerable to illness, as do freezing living units with inadequate fresh air, and no drinkable water in the cells’ sinks. Prisoners are also weakened by unnaturally-prolonged stress and duress, chronic depression, and sedentary inactivity. The country’s prison populations are also aging, with record numbers of infirm elderly inmates. Prisons may very well be decimated by Corona.
Medical care costs money, and prison systems such as Washington have diverted their budgets to staff salaries, and entered into privatized, profiteering monopoly concerns, all while charging the prisoners for everything the state is supposed to provide themselves. Washington prisoners are forced to pay mandatory medical co-pay fees, all postage costs, “crime victim compensation,” “cost of incarceration,” TV fees, and unlike almost every other prison system in the country, they must buy their own soap, toothpaste, razors, shampoo, and even aspirin, as well as literally everything else except for toilet paper. The prison system has a state budget, and selected federal funding, so why must it also take so much money from impoverished prisoners and their families? Where exactly is all the money going?
Within the penal system, all the usual stereotypical remedies for prevention/recovery of something like colds and flu are denied to prisoners in most facilities — “juice/warmth/rest/medications” the medical staff glibly spout, the mantra becomes a cruel joke, a barbed taunt when we hear prison staff inanely babble it, when they know full well the rules prohibit any such remedy (juice and fruit “can be used to ferment alcohol,” we rest only when permitted — when not at a mandatory work assignment or other designated occurrence, units are kept cold to place inmates in an induced state of stupor so they are more easily controlled — huddled under a blanket wearing all their state-issue clothing, one has to purchase all medication — limited to weak drugs like aspirin which can’t be used to “get high” — and bizarrely, one must know two weeks in advance they are going to fall ill to place the order).
Unfortunately, the lockdown appears to be a misguided imposed reaction to political pressure generated by the public and media, rather than a genuine concern to protect prisoner’s health and lives. (The staff are no more vulnerable than out in the world in their daily lives, potentially exposed to thousands of strangers.) Prisoners can ONLY catch COVID-19 from staff that bring it in. The quarantine and “social distancing” diatribes don’t mean anything in prison, an overcrowded, open-cage petri dish of disease, where most prisoners are forced to have cellmates they cannot choose, where people are crowded together in endless lines for all necessities.
There is no valid reason prisoners couldn’t be kept healthy and safe, or given meaningful activity and edible meals, or allowed the same constitutional legal rights all Americans should have. A pandemic should not be exploited as a means to further the final solution of oppression of the poor and undesirable through mass incarceration and segregated isolation.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.