Reporter: Can you state your name for the record?
Antoine Murphy (AM): Antoine. But the State calls me “Murphy.” I go by MRF (Murph).
Reporter: So, MRF, where are you currently housed, and how did you get wind of the coronavirus pandemic?
AM: Despite my age, I’m currently residing in a juvenile facility.
Reporter: Why is that?
AM: They think that housing 40 year olds with teenagers and 20 year olds will stop the violence that at Prairie Du Chien Correctional.
Reporter: I get it. Please continue.
AM: The rug was snatched from under me. I think it was March 13, a Friday no less. I left my job early, so I could enjoy the privilege of a pastoral visit. On my way to the chapel, I observed floods of fellow incarcerated Americans heading in the opposite direction. “MRF you might as well head back to the unit,” someone said. “They shut down chapel and sent the visitors out. Your pastoral visit is cancelled.” Everything changed after that.
Reporter: How so?
AM: Panic and pandemonium. School was shut down. Library, too. Everybody got sent back to the unit, except rec, which is the lifeblood of this place. Memos were put up, and announcements were made. No more visitors. No more programs or groups. No more religious gatherings in the chapel. The all-star basketball game was postponed (their way of saying cancelled). No more haircuts — the top part cuts itself, but the sides and the back definitely need a barber. But nope, DOC (department of corrections) would rather see me with a doo-rag with a hole in it … more like a bird’s nest on top of my head!
Reporter: You’re funny.
AM: Thanks. Anyway in blink of an eye, we were no longer allowed to play basketball, let alone touch one. They are still locked up to this day. Catch with a baseball lasted a couple weeks then it was banned along with the whole softball season. The only physical activity allowed now was weight lifting, after they moved each machine six feet apart. Plus ping pong, elliptical, calisthenics, frisbee, bocce ball and horseshoes.
AM: I know, right. On top of that Recreation got broke down from five units at a time to just one. Which for me was great because it was less chaotic, way less loud. Well that lasted all of a week then more changes were made. We went from level four to level three.
AM: From what I gather, the lower the number, the more vulnerable the spread/risk for COVID, which a guy here kept calling “Corone-us.” So now they split the unit in half. Twenty-five people on one side of the hallway were designated “yellow-green,” 25 or so people across the hall were designated “pink and blue.”
Reporter: Tell me more.
AM: It’s all in the details. They went so far as to tape little square pieces of construction paper to our cell windows.
Reporter: What color is yours?
AM: Blue. Since that Monday, we have been moving in halves. Only one half is allowed in the dayroom or at Rec at a time. Yet oddly enough we are all allowed in the chow hall! They just call us in by halves. “Unit 4 yellow-green. Chow!” Three to five minutes later, “Unit 4, pink and blue. Chow!” Once in the chow hall, they put a row of tables between us. I guess it’s so we do not have contact with them so much. However, this goal is blurred as we share a common bathroom.
Reporter: Take it there’s no social distancing in there!
AM: Course not. Mind you it’s not even a big enough bathroom for all that. Four sinks, four stalls with half-doors. Of that, three are urinals and the fourth is a little waiting room for the shower which houses two shower heads. But normally only one person showers at a time. Works for me. Still, there are and always will be those who kick it with the other side for the sake of “friendships,” food or just to get cool points for breaking the rules.
Reporter: What other measures has the Wisconsin Department of Corrections taken?
AM: They took bags full of greens that were decommissioned and turned them into masks.
AM: It’s slang for the green scrubs/khakis that Wisconsin State prisoners are clothed in. Anyway, the masks were nothing to cheer about.
Reporter: Yet were you required to wear them?
AM: Not at this point, but the memo clearly indicated that at any time you can be ordered to wear it or to remove it. There hasn’t been any COVID cases in this facility, so no mask is needed. I am grateful that they blessed us with four surgical masks. I’ll wear mine if the virus reaches here. I’ll wear my green ones sometimes, but they’re definitely uncomfortable.
I tip my hat to the nurses and healthcare workers. I don’t know how they do it. After 20 minutes, I take mine off for a breather. Mind you, I have yet to find a way to sport them that doesn’t fog my glasses up with hot breath. Yikes!
Reporter: Have they given you anything else?
AM: Because visits have been voided and the DOC swears they support family support, we all get one free envelope every two weeks. For those of us with open email accounts, we get fifty cents of emails.
Reporter: How many emails is that?
AM: Five. Each email costs us ten cents to send, and our loved ones have to purchase $10 worth to be able to correspond with us electronically.
Reporter: Anything for the phone?
AM: Yeah. Each incarcerated American in the Wisconsin DOC got blessed with two free phone calls. But no blessing comes without curses, so to speak.
Reporter: How so?
AM: In this particular instance, everybody and their mama could get on the phone. Things got more cut throat. I’m surprised I ain’t got a scar! Heaven knows, my encouragement to police ourselves didn’t go over well with the self-proclaimed “alpha-males.” So, lo and behold, the police policed us via a phone list. Now, you gotta sign up for the phone at seven in the morning and pray you get to make it on there more than once! Course people invent ways to cut corners and manipulate the system.
Reporter: They do it out here, too! Has the DOC given you all anything to ease the tension and the monotony of prison life?
AM: Before the pandemic became a pandemic, we were allowed to purchase Girl Scout Cookies.
Reporter: Girl Scout Cookies in a mens’ prison!?
AM: Same thing I said. But it’s been going on for decades. No matter how people and organizations feel about criminals, most agree that our money is just as good as non-incarcerated money. I thought the cookies came from the canteen vendor, but according to legend, some staff members are selling them to us on behalf of their daughters’ Girl Scout troops. Go figure.
Reporter: Who knew? So, how much do they cost?
AM: Five dollars a box. They were supposed to be delivered the last week of April, but the delivery got pushed back to the second week in May. Of course they made sure to practice social distancing rules — masks and all — to ensure contactless delivery. And to get our money further, there’s an ice cream fundraiser, but the deadline just passed.
Reporter: Did you get any?
AM: “Bunny Tracks” and “Banana Split” and “Cherry Chocolate Chunk” piqued my interest, but I decided to stand down kinda because of the price — $3.50 — and kinda because I was hoping to be outta here by its June 16 delivery date. Had it been pizza, I mighta woulda chanced it.
The chief coping mechanism was the babysitter.
AM: You know, the babysitter, the TV. Yup. To pacify the prevalence of adolescent aggression, we were given the privilege of movies. Picks by the chapel during the week and new releases on the weekends.
Reporter: How’s that going?
AM: It’s not, not for me personally. I’m not really into TV. I’m more of a nerd. I’m more focused on the tasks at hand.
Reporter: Which is?
AM: Get the hell outta here and live the life I was always meant to live. Destiny.
That’s why I so appreciated the three podcasts the program supervisor played starring Scott Balcerek and Common (and a few Latino actors who did time and now live amazing lives). I’m next.
Reporter: When will that be?
AM: Lord knows. July? December? I believe before the year is up. Because of COVID, I had to do my fifth parole hearing via tele-visit. It’s definitely not the same as face-to-face contact. And of course there was less to talk about because all the programs I was participating in were on pause. Some even ran their course. The 10-week gardening program ended after two weeks.
Reporter: If you don’t mind me asking what did they (the parole board) they say?
AM: Well, “they” is actually “he.” And he said I have to do another eight months in prison before seeing him again and that he was going to endorse community custody.
Reporter: What’s that?
AM: Work release.
Reporter: When will you be leaving?
AM: That’s a whole ‘nother story. The DOC shut down transfers! Well, not all. I’ve come to find out that only people blessed to relocate are those in the Earned Release Program (ERP). Rumor has it they might start transferring small groups of one to three people on vans. I’ll take it.
Reporter: Speaking of “take,” what’s your biggest takeaway from this pandemic and you as a person?
AM: I’m kinda ashamed to say, but for whatever reason — maybe it’s because of prison, maybe it’s because of my intimacy issues having grown up without hugs and experiencing love so much, I prefer shallow relationships.
Reporter: Intriguing, please explain.
AM: I just don’t know how to love, not so much in a romantic sense but in a general human sense. I know how to not harm my neighbor by not robbing and shooting anyone else (sorry Warren, sorry I shot you), but how to intimately deal with someone’s soul escapes me.
For example I’m cool blessing a homeless person with $20 or whatever, but to invite a homeless person into my home is a whole ‘nother level of love.
Reporter: I think I’m the same way.
AM: Aren’t we all! We can do a bunch of good works for pats on the back. But even those are shallow. Invite a homeless person to live with you and see how much ‘love’ it takes to love that person. See how much putting up with him or her on a daily basis hurts and drives you stir crazy.
Reporter: Why the homeless parable?
AM: Well, I have a homeless cellie. Homeless in the sense that he lives homeless though he has a roof over his head. Which means he has some practices and nuances that are super hard for me to deal with. From unhygienic hygiene practices to his upkeep of his side of the room: unwashed bowls reeking of food, clean and dirty clothes just balled up and strewn everywhere. Some in bed with him. Then he’s an addict who can’t sit still. In five minutes, he goes in and out of the room at least ten times. His sleep schedule is uncanny. He sleeps all day, and he’s up all night, sometimes walking around the room! And he also lacks social skills and respect for personal space.
I don’t mean to talk about him. I’m just trying to illustrate the similarities between prison and the house arrest imposed on the world by COVID. Both forces you into intimate relationships that’ll probably drive you nuts, probably get sick of people pretty quick — whether it’s a loved one or a stranger, or three strangers for roommates like my situation!
Some turned to domestic violence, but that’s not who I am. I liked people better when I could get away from them and not have to be bothered with them 24/7. I miss being able to get the hell away from people who get on my last nerve. Groups and going to church allowed me an escape route. Somebody talking to me about something I don’t wanna hear about. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I gotta get ready for church!” Somebody needs my help — “I would, but I gotta go to forgiveness group.” Somebody wanna spend time with me — “I would, but I got this Bible study…”
Reporter: Seems I’m guilty of the same thing. Work is my escape valve, my excuse. “I’m researching a story on the internet!” Now what?
AM: Now, it’s just figuring out how to lovingly deal with the parts I don’t like about people and the parts I do like. Lately, I’ve been verbally confronting it, i.e. things people do that trigger my pet peeves. But also I’m taking a look deep within myself, and I’m doing my best to walk in wisdom.
Reporter: How so?
AM: By realizing we all have unchangeable pieces of ourselves that are inherent in who we are. So I have to learn to overlook certain things like the way people eat, sleep, laugh, walk, talk, and things of that nature. More importantly I have to “die to self” after all. Maybe I’m not the easiest person to live with either! So I have to do my part and put others before me and serve them the best I can during and after the pandemic. Lord knows shallow relationships/friendships just won’t cut it anymore. Amen.
Reporter: Good talk.
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.