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It was March 14, around 10:45 a.m., when Bravo House—the unit where I have resided over the last five years — was placed on quarantine. Why? Because coronavirus made its presence known. 

It seemed someone had been identified as possibly having contracted the virus. The order came down; no one was to enter or leave our cell house. Everyone in our unit was quarantined in their cells while the rest of the prison population was allowed to go to school, eat in the dining rooms, participate in physical activities in the gym and yard and visit with family. That would later be determined to be the first mistake. 

A few days later, nurses converged on the cell house, taking readings from everyone, checking for fevers and oxygen levels, and the panic began. Over the next few days, Illinois Department of Corrections placed the entire prison system on level one lockdown. 

No one knew what was going on and it was pure panic. Men were abruptly cut off from visits, phones, and no one offered up any information to the inmate population. Humanity had long left the prison; after all we were offenders, and deserved everything we got. The atmosphere was like several officers had been assaulted and despite having the offenders who did it, they took it out on everyone as if we were all the culprits of the offense. 

I began to text a comrade at the Industrial Workers’ Organizing Committee to place information on a blog we had created called “Live From Lockdown, IL.” A blog to inform the public about the treatment of prisoners during this pandemic.

All of the sudden, nurses were everywhere and everyone was complaining about flu-like symptoms. Quickly several inmates were removed from Bravo House and placed in what is known as ASX House, once the house for those sentenced to die. I couldn’t imagine what was running through the mens’ minds, to be housed in what was once the death house, stripped of their property and placed on a more intense quarantine. 

It was almost two weeks before anything happened for prisoners in Stateville. The state received a donation of hotel courtesy soap. One bar was given to each man, and a few days later they brought us one mask to wear over and over again. That changed a month later, when we started to get one a week. But not much else changed. 

Once a week we started to receive watered-down bleach solution to wipe our cells down, despite it being said it would be given every day. Hand sanitizer was donated as well, but we only received it right before meals were brought to cells. That was the extent of preventive measures put in place. 

The whole idea of social distancing was totally impossible. I live with another inmate 24/7 and the cells are open on all sides with no proper ventilation. When a man coughs it travels throughout the cell house. The particles of COVID-19 move like the Angel of Death in the story of Exodus, and every week I would lie awake and wonder if it would pass over me. 

The Governor announced that Cook County Jail and Stateville had more individuals in one place with the virus than anywhere in the state of Illinois. The lockdown felt like it was disciplinary, tactical units were brought in, dressed in full riot gear. New guns that shoot rubber balls — my question was, for whom? 

There was no resistance, no unruly behavior, nothing. A few weeks into the lockdown, we started to get news through the wall, as names were yelled off: G. Jones, Big Rusty, Old Man Jessie and Big Fella Wilson all had died as a result of COVID-19. Big Fella Wilson was a buddy of mine, a classmate in the North Park Theological Seminary who sat right next to me. It hit me hard. I had made him a jailhouse cake a week before the quarantine that he shared with our class. He was just a great all around guy. He will be greatly missed. 

Many that I knew died over the month and I wondered if their families were afforded the opportunity to say goodbye. I know if I got sick and died no one would be there. I would transition. That would be it. Inmates who die in prison with no one to claim the body for burial are simply cremated and end up on a storage room shelf. It is not the vision I like, but certainly the most possible reality; having no one to claim my body or bury me. My only son, incarcerated, resides right above me. 

It is my prayer that everyone gets a decent burial and their loved ones get a chance to say their goodbyes. But I know it will not happen. And if someone’s family member should die they will not be allowed the right to attend, and if granted permission they will have to pay for security, $1,000 – $2,000. A man serving a life sentence is excluded. 

Now my temperature is taken each morning, as well as my oxygen level, by the National Guard. I’m supposed to get it three times a day but they only do it once. So my days are filled with studying, reading, and listening to the whispers of the day filtering news right or wrong, and questioning should I pass the information along. Despite this storm, I remain faithful that He’ll bring us all through, so we either get busy living or we get busy dying. 

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.

Kenneth M. Key is a writer, artist and occasional poet incarcerated in Illinois.