Two tears rolled down the left side of my face. Three more curved to the right. My cry is without noise. I was on the top bunk. My cellmate had just handed me a bag of cakes and chips that the prison awarded us. Apparently as a gesture of sympathy. Perhaps the administration was happy the inmate population did not riot.
But yet, my secretive weeping was brought forward from the kindness of my captors. The benevolence made me think of my 11-year-old daughter and my 76-year-old grandmother. As I sat upright with the treats at my feet, I remember thinking that I wish I could give the snacks to them. I was contemplating a worldwide pandemic in a daydream of sorrow-filled questions. Were my loved ones okay? Why have I come to prison not to be able to care for them? Why do I deserve this Martha Washington and crispy wedge while my family potentially suffers from COVID-19?
Lamenting is not a common practice in the razor-wire jungle. Especially at SCI Huntington in Pennsylvania. But convicts are human. We are capable of love.
Just yesterday the local media reported 38 staff members and 136 inmates as testing positive for COVID-19. The prison I’m in is a Petri dish of Coronavirus. Still no one here is dying — yet.
The biggest pains come from psychological anguish of not knowing what is going on. In retrospect of my lifetime, I have nothing to compare to this unprecedented experience. Hence my suppressed emotions.
I am pagan, Wiccan. My clergy has been the only comfort to me as I try to digest this pandemic. My priesthood has brought to light the historical similarity of the great influenza pandemic of 1918. In addition, I drink lots of green tea, consume small amounts of sage, and of course esoterically banish anything COVID-19. This is how I cope as a prisoner. Every convict’s reality is different.
Again, I’m not saying we are dropping like flies here. However, the infestation of COVID-19 at my prison is very real.
A deputy warden recently told the inmate population that four inmates have been hospitalized. All four of these men I know to be elderly. Interestingly, the focus in society seems to be on how the virus affects nursing homes. In my opinion, jails and retirement homes have a lot in common. When Corona knocks on the door of an elderly care center or thumps on the prison gates, COVID-19 has the same motive.
To stalk the healthy and young. To kill the sick and elderly. The public needs to be aware that prisons have elderly. These older people are treated like second-class citizens. Because of this, I believe the quarantine procedures in prisons are overlooked and defective. These are my notions living in a prison population of over 2,000 inmates.
About a week ago a bunch of convicts got transferred to various prisons in the state. The administration told us it was to better combat the spread of COVID-19. After the announcement was made, a captain-ranked officer walked the prison tier, I assume to retain order and answer questions.
I asked the officer, “What’s going on, Cap?” A question he had been asked a dozen times I am sure.
With sincerity he said, “The truth is we messed up. We are relocating a portion of the inmate population to other prisons to manage the spread of COVID-19. I can’t say I know how you feel. This thing has hit us all very hard. I have a 9-year-old daughter at home. I don’t want to bring it home to her. All I can say is hang in there man.”
The Captain walked away from my cell door.
Shit just got real…
What exactly is the quarantine protocol for prison anyway? Is it similar to nursing homes? Whatever my captors drafted up failed miserably. Do people realize the staff at my prison are responsible for the virus coming in the first place? My jailers were so concerned with locking down and quarantining inmates that they overlooked their own COVID-19 carrying mobility. I am literally at the mercy of my guards. Could this be an act of God? People are always looking for a scapegoat, could the rank and file over me have prepared better?
Are they sorry?
The cake and chips, free phone calls, free emails, extra food, free cable television (yes, we normally pay for cable) and the prison just let the inmate population order McDonald’s.
Is all of this out of the prison’s sympathy? Or is it their apology?
Regardless, I have been in solitary confinement-like status since March 30, 2020. Since this time my Eighth Amendment rights have been under fire. This is because of a two-week period of not being able to show and exercise. Lack of exercise and hygiene puts me at the mercy of my guards in the face of the Coronavirus.
I also see violations of procedural due process going on at my prison. My showers, recreation, law library, prison job, programs, and general population status was abruptly taken away. The administration at my prison never gave me a memo or notice that these things would be taken. I have been left in the dark completely.
Forty-five days without procedural due process. The prison does say things on the televisions. The problem is I don’t have a TV, and I can’t see that’s muted in the dayroom from my cell.
The prison has not officially told me the lockdown is because of COVID-19. Of course I know it is because SCI Huntington is swarming with it. However, it is against the law to ignore procedural due process. In these unprecedented times, the prison is smart for not providing me with a paper trail. The hard copies might help prove even more civil rights violations. To boot, I can’t even find out what my rights are. I haven’t had law library access in a month. The prison should have implemented alternative ways to access the library. Without notice they point their finger and I obey. I am left at their mercy. My only weapon is my pen.
SCI Huntington Prison was built in 1889. It doesn’t take a law book to see this old castle-looking prison is out of code. Truth is, this old stockade makes money. Prisoners make license plates, clothes, shampoo, stationary, and just a few weeks ago non-medical asks, antibacterial soap and medical gowns. Prisoners get paid 19 cents to 42 cents an hour. It’s cheap slave labor and completely legal. Best believe the state of Pennsylvania wants to keep this guard house open.
This 131-year-old prison has a serious problem with the lack of adequate modern ventilation. The ancient vent in my cell is 3 by 5 inches. It is filled with black mold and trash. No air blows inwards or out from it. The air in my cell is stagnant. I sneeze like hell in my corpuscle every morning.
But how is a lack of ventilation a health condition in terms of COVID-19? Perhaps it could linger longer. Above all, clean air purifies. Ancient elements have purgation dispositions. If I was COVID-19, I’d want to be in dirty air. I would flee from anything pure. Based on this theory, bad ventilation could breed the virus more so.
In conclusion, not knowing brings the most hardship concerning being a prisoner during COVID-19. Since I have been writing this convict thesis, two more staff and 12 more inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. There is trouble to come in the razor wire jungle. Pestilence is no stranger here. This place is like a castle and is very old. For now, this thing sweeps through the health of my captors, searching for a weak host to consume. If this plague casts its evil eye towards me, I cannot fathom. At the end of the day, I’m at the mercy of my guards.
Harold Sanford Carter III
SCI Huntington Prison
May 15, 2020
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.