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“My day-to-day has changed since this COVID thing came in
“Cut-throat COVID kills men and ain’t got no friends
“I spent 14 days in the gym and weren’t sick
“Life is strange in the pen with this epidemic
“The old going free but on the streets the young can’t breathe…”

“Yo, Tupac, how about you get off the gate and rest your neck,” some con said over the prison bars. 

The rap show was over. And here comes the arguing. Back and forth on the stockade bars all day and night. It’s always the same rhetoric. Who is going to clown whom the best? The men have nothing better to do than bid and bicker. It’s like this all the time in solitary confinement. The boredom of the coronavirus has the entire population like this because the general population being on lockdown just like the prison’s administrative segregation, the Hole. To my free-world readers, you know what the Hole is. The movies give a good enough depiction. However, the movies leave out the part that mental illness flourishes in modern prisons. Add a lockdown and COVID-19 and now you can begin to understand my planet. 

Most days I spend my time writing music and prose. Sometimes, I write letters to friends and family and seldom do they write back. The digital age is not friendly to me. The young have never written a letter in their life, and the old have not the strength. 

During the pandemic I have been slowly writing a book on how to practice Wicca while incarcerated. In addition to writing my book I spend countless hours writing grievances on Pennsylvania’s inability to accommodate my Wiccan faith. For a time prior to the pandemic, I had the attention of a civil lawyer. My Wiccan advocate writing was being published in Pennsylvania legal journals. Things were looking good. Unfortunately, the pandemic has muffled my bellows. 

Religious services for all faiths at Huntingdon Prison have been discontinued. Faith group leaders now broadcast services on the institutional TV channel. For religious traditions that do not have a faith group leader, the secretary of corrections, Mr. John E. Wetzel, ordered that institutions broadcast instructional videos. The department recognizes my Wiccan faith. Sadly, Huntingdon Prison does not play videos for the people of my faith. 

Equality is a big deal in America right now. I very much would like to jump in the fight with African-Americans, the LGBTQ community and others concerning equality. Three hundred and thirty years ago if you practiced anything pagan you would find yourself in deep peril. Our country at that time would crush, drown, or burn you to death for the charge of witchcraft. For my sake, religious freedom is much better in recent times for polytheistic faiths. Unfortunately, liberty has not fully followed modern Wiccan practitioners into the American prison system. The last battle against faith itself will take place in a prison cell. The good news is equality will win. We are living on the cusp of a new aeon where bigotry will wane. The Age of Aquarius is upon us. Current movements worldwide that support equalization will prevail. I believe in parity. The future of my faith depends on it. 

Strange times we are living in. Even stranger is mine as the prisoner. Serving time isn’t new to me. A lifetime of alcoholism infused with Aries rage put a lot of literal lacerations on my forehead. It has also put many years in a prison cell behind me. Nonetheless, I am gratefully healthy. 

From what I understand, the coronavirus is mostly deadly to the elderly with underlying health problems. This assumption is not to belittle the many youths scorched by this monster. I say this as a witness at Huntingdon Prison only. In the past 45 days, seven elderly prisoners have died. Never have I seen so much death in so little time. The administration says not all the deaths were COVID-19 related. This is what I’d say, too. After all, a prison will never admit that they lost control. Huntingdon Prison has been nicknamed “COVID City.” 

Accessing the medical department is done by filling out a sick-call request form. It costs a prisoner four dollars to be seen. Since COVID, if a prisoner has any flu-like symptoms, the charge is waived. This seems to be a way to encourage inmates to seek medical attention if they are sick. Interestingly enough, I know a handful of prisoners who have had symptoms of COVID-19 and recovered without notifying the medical department. 

Prisoners who seek help from medical authorities automatically get moved to a section in the jail where you are not allowed to have any inmate property for 14 days. I can’t afford a TV, but I do have a guitar. My religious books also sincerely comfort me. These things give me solace. To completely strip to a bare cell is a major deterrent for me and the men to report any kind of sickness. I would have to be gasping for air and shaking in perspiration to report anything. My cellmate and I both agree that we both had COVID-19 in early March. The two of us had symptoms of the virus at that time. Of course we told no one. There have been over 250 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Huntingdon Prison. 

Like all incarcerated men, I long for my freedom. To make parole, a certain amount of therapeutic programming has to be completed. I finished my programs well before COVID got here. My cellmate is in an alcohol and drug program right now. 

The biggest change in programming is the lack of group social interaction. Because prisoners don’t have access to online technologies, all course curriculum is in booklets and worksheets. These assignments are delivered right to the cells of inmates. In terms of recidivism and rehabilitation, the new procedure is horrible. It completely eliminates the teacher-student relationship. Most convicts are also illiterate or have reading and writing handicaps. These programs are built to aid recidivism and reform. The new method of presentation for these programs is a disaster, in my opinion. 

All of my programs were completed prior to the COVID invasion. I am lucky to be articulate. I’m up to see parole in October. Even with parole being granted, my trek through the confines of the razor wire jungle is still not over. I have a detainer in Louisiana. Most days I worry if I will make parole anyway. With the amount of grievances I have filed on religious inequality in Pennsylvania, it will be a miracle if I do. Even still, my future is uncertain because I don’t know if I will be extradited to the Parish Jail in New Orleans. This chapter in my life is unknown. As bad as I don’t want to say “unprecedented” in this essay, I must. It’s the new typical.

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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Harold Sanford Carter III

Harold Sanford Carter III is a musician and activist whose poetry has been published in the Journal of Progressive Health and Human Services as well as the American Prison Writing Archive. He was formerly incarcerated in Pennsylvania.