Photo of Sing Sing Correctional Facility by Peter Greenberg.

At 58 years of age, I’m always up before the sun rises. I make prayer and then a cup of coffee, all before 5:30 a.m. Over the years, my internal clock has reset itself. Early to bed, early to rise. I live a rather solitary existence in the midst of 15 hundred other souls, keeping my own company most of the time. My routine rarely ever varies. But life no longer feels routine, even as others maintain their routines and act as if little has changed.

Life on the outside seen from this side of the wall has a surreal quality as so much of what civilians take for granted is not possible here. Prison is a kind of bubble where one lives free of the demands, responsibilities, considerations and freedoms enjoyed by most Americans. But COVID-19 knows no boundaries and it has burst the bubble I live in, permeating this place with its invisible, deadly presence.

COVID-19 is an opportunist and any host will do. I feel a constant, weighty anxiety clinging to me like humidity in a rainforest. It slowly swallows me as my thoughts feed anxiety’s demands. I use to wake up in the morning and either turn on the TV to watch Eyewitness News or listen to NPR on the radio, but somewhere in the reporting, they’re going to mention the hundreds of people who died the day before, discuss new human vulnerabilities to the disease, stoking my sense of fear, and remind me that having antibodies may not be a guarantee against re-infection.

Now it’s killing children! Nothing said on the news is curative for COVID-19 or my anxiety. So I no longer turn on my electronics until the evening, as I must consume bad news in measured doses. I move about my cell resignedly, ruminating about my situation in the early morning quiet, periodically punctuated by someone’s coughing. That coughing seems louder, sicker than coughs of the past. I wrestle with my anxiety until “ET,” a contemporary and the hot water porter, comes out to do his job. He stops by my cell every morning and greets me, whether or not I put my bucket at the gate for hot water or not. Hearing his voice rescues me from myself, for a little while, granting a brief respite from the implacable reality of being incarcerated in the era of COVID-19.

I have a lot of things on my mind, from my tenuous recovery from COVID-19 and possible long term health issues caused by the disease to the safety of my family. All of these things create a visceral anxiety that I try to mask from others with what I hope are flat expressions. I’m 6’4, 300-plus pounds. Hiding chinks in one’s armor is a full-time occupation. I feel alone in my concerns, though I know I’m not. I am in the autumn of my life, my concerns are always time sensitive.

Most of my fellow prisoners seem unconcerned by the grave circumstances we are living through. I listen as young men loudly debate sports, reality television, women and baby mama drama, pontificating with conviction. Perhaps there is something to be said for their often coarse, indelicate (possibly feigned) apathy. How do I communicate my concerns to the fearless and selfish abandon of youth? I walk around with my homemade mask, trying to keep my social distance as they socialize mask-less, mano y mano, contrary to social conventions necessitated by the times we live in.

On March 30, 2020, a Monday, I notified a Correction’s Sergeant that I was feeling unwell and pretty sure I had the coronavirus. I had symptoms (hot flashes) probably a week before things got scary. In my acute phase, I had a headache, cough, fever, body aches and an extreme feeling of malaise. When I realized I could no longer taste or smell anything, my worst fears were realized. There was no doubt I had coronavirus. Between the infirmary and the quarantine unit the facility created, I spent 15 days being monitored and medicated with Zithromax and Tylenol in a medical setting reminiscent of a sanatorium.

I had what I now know were relatively mild symptoms, but the experience was no less frightening. While recovering, I was always worried I would take a turn for the worse like I’ve heard reported on the news, like has happened to a few prisoners right here. Those concerns still sit patiently in the recesses of my conscience somewhere. The prospect of dying alone in this loveless place would be the system having the final say about me. I still have a lot to do and I can speak for myself.

“Death is nothing new here. There’s a murder every once in a blue moon, and guys die of natural causes with some regularity, but when it occurs it is no less disturbing, forcing me to consider my own mortality and take stock of my life.“

After testing positive for COVID-19, being discharged from both the infirmary and quarantine and being placed back in my assigned cell, my sense of relief would become a bipolar experience. A week after being back in the block, the hot flashes in my chest re-occurred. They occur as quickly as lightning. The psychological effect instantly induces intense anxiety and fear. I talk out loud to myself and beseech my Lord to help me heal. I find myself monitoring my breathing with paranoia until I fall asleep, waking the next morning feeling fine.

I have had several of what I call, “strikes of lightning.” The last time always seems worse than the last. Usually those strikes occur just once in a 24-hour period, as if the disease is reminding me that it is still with me. But the last time the disease was angry, stomping around inside my chest as if it had decided to take full possession of me. I had a fever accompanied by a headache. I was on the toilet most of the night and was awake the entire night experiencing an unwell listlessness. I was prepared to make another trip to medical the following morning. I fell asleep shortly after the 6 am count and would sleep all day waking up that evening feeling restored. Fifty days later I’m still feeling residual symptoms.

I won’t say I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m just thankful for each day that passes without symptoms. I think most of the population here is positive, but the only way to know is to test us. The only way to get tested right now is being sick enough to be admitted to the infirmary. The exact number of prisoners infected with the Corona Virus in New York may never be known. Several prisoners have inquired about antibody testing, but a straight answer has yet to be given.

I have chronicled most of what I’ve experienced over the last two months in my journal and in a series of e-mails. I’ve been critical of Governor Cuomo and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision about a host of things. From the Governor’s daily briefings, and his pivoting commentary whenever he is questioned about the 41,000 prisoners under his care and the impact of COVID-19 behind the wall, to the response here at Sing Sing, which has been behind the curve at every step and in some areas just plain irresponsible.

Contrary to what has been posted on The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s website since mid-March, they just issued masks here in Sing Sing, and those were donations by the Marshall Project. We were issued another mask about a week ago. I have been equally critical of my fellow convicts who, by and large, won’t wear the masks or social distance, while witnessing some of us get sick and sometime die.

Prisoners are playing ball, sharing cigarettes and giving each other ‘dap,’ ignoring the warnings posted on the bulletin boards and the news. Like I said, we live in this bubble where the real world always has a surreal quality and rarely ever applies to us, and when it does, it cast us in the most disparaging light. It’s ironic that the public is now experiencing some semblance of the loneliness and isolation that is for us the norm. But comparisons aside, things are different now and what is being said on the news is vitally important, especially here, given our sardine can existence.

Few officials are coming in the block and giving us updates about what’s really going on here. Memos are posted updating the heavily politicized CDC guidelines, of which many of us won’t or can’t read. We are conditioned, inured of degradation, sickness and death, and the warnings are almost counter intuitive to a people who not only distrust others, but ourselves as well. We are all cynical and suspicious. Many of us are so desensitized to the suffering of others and see life from a fatalistic and existential lens, sticking to base rhythms and routines, harassing loved ones for money, food and sneakers on the phone, chasing chemical escape, reading novels, losing ourselves in fantasies of big scores to come, or congregating in the yard as it is reminiscent of being on the block. The silver lining, if any, we’re likely developing herd humanity due to the aggregation of positive COVID-19 cases in the facility.

Even though I feel powerless here, the writing always empowers me. Even in the face of this faceless monster, COVID-19, there is validation of all human life in prose. I have been mission driven in chronicling my experiences and observations since my release from quarantine. I try to be as fair in my writing as possible while honoring the passion I feel about the circumstances I find myself in. Someone else will have to measure my objectivity; I’m in too deep.

I was never upset about the consistently cold meals during my time in the hospital and quarantine. They gave me a space to convalesce, provided me with medication and checked on me twice a day. I didn’t expect more than I received. I also imagine the medical staff harbored their own fears of infection, questioning the merits of treating hardened criminals. I never expected any empathetic nursing care replete with the warm smiles I might receive in a real hospital. They did not disappoint.

My disappointment rests with both the department and what has happened to others, as well as our collective apathy about masks and social distancing. Hopelessness is also epidemic. More than a few prisoners have lost their lives in the past few months. Death is nothing new here. There’s a murder every once in a blue moon, and guys die of natural causes with some regularity, but when it occurs it is no less disturbing, forcing me to consider my own mortality and take stock of my life. The frequency of death now has increased exponentially and it’s just plain scary. The rumor mill has the facility with up to seven COVID-19 fatalities. Those facts — or rumors — don’t match our collective response.

The officers themselves don’t social distance among themselves, but put their masks on when they come into contact with us — as if we infected them! Many of them were out, are out, with the infection and are mandated to return to work 72 hours after they are physically able to do so, probably still infectious upon their return. They complain they are treated no better than us.

Over a million and half Americans are infected with the Coronavirus and over ninety thousand dead, forty percent of those dead are people of color. Those statistics make social distancing a no brainer. In here we seem to employ the Trump methodology, forget the science, go with your gut because everything else is fake news.

Many here have weathered COVID-19 silently in our cells. I hear random snatches of self-reported accounts of undocumented infections. We are all a human stew writhing in a giant petri dish. In this closed space of hard surfaces and poor ventilation, we’re all exposed to increased viral concentrations and the governmental response seems to be, ‘Too bad.’

No matter what, I’ll continue to wear my homemade masks and maintain my now 6-foot square. I’m a survivor and I will do what I must to keep on surviving. Infected while already sheltered in place. #Prisoner’s Lives Matter Too.

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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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and currently incarcerated in New York.