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After a miserable summer without air conditioning at Western Missouri Correctional Center (WMCC), Fall 2019 arrived and was a welcome reprieve from the smoldering summer heat. As winter approached, I began wondering whether my cell would be warm or bone chillingly cold. I didn’t know what to expect, since I had just transferred to WMCC from Crossroads Correctional Center (CRCC) after an incident May 12, 2019, where 50 or more offenders tried to protest but ended up destroying CRCC’s food services. 

When the winter weather did arrive, my cell was actually pleasantly warm. However, around the first week of January, something besides the winter weather hit WMCC like a whirlwind. At first, I heard a lot of guys coughing and thought it was funny, because the majority of them refused to take a flu shot when one was offered to us. But a week later, I woke up with a sore throat. And the next day, not only was my throat inflamed but I began coughing, too. It was a dry cough, one that made my lungs burn, as if I had been inhaling flames like a dragon all night. Several guys complained of coughing up blood, while others walked around the wing with toilet paper stuffed up their noses. 

Then WMCC became quiet, almost as ominous a feeling as the scene described in “In the Beginning,” from Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” album. Other than the muffled coughing fits coming from inside the cells, there was no noise; no movement. Guys didn’t go to recreation, didn’t hang out playing cards or slamming dominos, and didn’t walk to the chow hall. Instead, they declared medical emergencies and were placed on quarantine status, where meals were delivered to their cells. 

My neighbor, Dean, came out of his cell and said, “COVID-19 is mean and makes you feel sad. I’m worried about Fritz. The Grim Reaper is at the door. Fritz hasn’t gotten out of bed or eaten anything for at least three days.” (He made a full recovery.)

“Yes, it does,” I said. 

During my 24 years of incarceration, I had never seen so many people at one time confined to their cells due to being sick. I seriously thought they were faking. After all, I myself didn’t feel bad enough to declare a medical emergency, even though I was chewing Halls cough drops like candy and eating fingers full of vapor chest rub to suppress the coughing fits. (Yeah, I know the warning label says not to eat it but desperate times call for desperate measures.) 

This went on for a while before the headaches, difficult breathing, and fever started, making me feel weak and unable to resist the urge to lay in my bunk. However, after a sleepless night, something told me it would only get worse if I continued to lay in bed. So, I forced myself to get up, took some aspirin, and then sat outside my cell on a plastic foot stool, and read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” while my nose dripped continuously, making me change the tissue stuffed in my nose every twenty minutes. 

The strangest thing about the virus was how fast it mutated, spreading from offender to offender again (or seemed to), just as soon as our immune systems developed antibodies to fight it off. When the symptoms started to subside they would return all over again. The virus had some “hang time.” The only positive outlook was the virus did weaken with each mutation. But not before it took the lives of three offenders, I believe.

The Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) only confirmed one death due to COVID-19. The others were said to be from “natural causes.” And even when the cat was out of the bag MODOC still denied COVID-19 spread through WMCC. Instead, they bragged that there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at WMCC. To date, we haven’t been tested but are scheduled for nose swab testing in late July. 

Since then, I’ve made a full recovery but WMCC continues to milk COVID-19, and continues to be irresponsible. And that is not just in here but in every institution. In June, my friend B.C. wrote me from The Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) in Missouri, stating:

“The train of COVID-19 bullshit keeps barreling forward. We’re still under the so-called Viral Containment Action, doing the five-cell rotation for our wing time, twice a day. There’s some hope that next week’s nasal swabs will yield results that allow ERDCC to go to something resembling normal operations. I don’t know what to expect or think. This is supposedly the only facility in Missouri doing such an extreme maneuver to keep the virus at bay. So far, we haven’t had any positive test results, but I just know that there will be a few, probably false positives, after they stick their probes up everybody’s nose. I pity those guys who have to go into quarantine for no reason. (Here’s hoping they double-test anybody whose results come back positive, just to be sure they don’t have to spend two weeks in isolation, with no outside contact with the world. You heard what happened at SECC, right?) All of this wouldn’t be so bad, except none of the staff wear masks or work to exercise any kind of social distancing procedure from each other or from us. Separating and isolating the prisoners doesn’t make any sense unless you’re also making your employees take certain steps. How fucking hard is it to put a piece of fabric over your face? A Herculean effort, apparently.”

Although COVID-19 is mean, it is not meaner than our immune system which will fight it off. For me, the difference was taking aspirin for the fever and staying out of the bed no matter how bad I felt. It worked for me — if that’s what I had. Some offenders are skeptical. We may never know for sure. 

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.

Zachary A. Smith is a writer and artist incarcerated in Missouri. He has studied law for over 20 years and has earned a paralegal degree with distinction from Blackstone Career Institute. Smith is the author of the “Smith’s Guide” series.