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This week, all the inmates at Sing Sing — and probably other facilities that meet the criteria — received the news most prisoners have been waiting for. The visiting room will reopen on August 5, 2020, after being closed since mid March this year. Visits will be scheduled by appointment only, reduced from six hours to two hours, and children one to three years old are not allowed. Each visitor must undergo a temperature check and be required to social distance in the visiting area, significantly reducing visiting capacity. I am sure there will be requirements we are not yet aware of. Even with the coronavirus raging unabated throughout most of America and the country in a state of turmoil, politically and economically, the opening of the visiting room represents a return to normalcy here, albeit an attenuated normal.

COVID-19 infected scores of us here and the “official” death toll here at Sing Sing stands at five. Like most Americans, we are resilient and carry on. We are also distrusting and suspicious, given to any conspiracy theory making sense of our time and space reality. We were given masks after the virus had its way with us and testing has been limited to those with symptoms and inmates fifty five years and older. The whole of the population is reported to be tested soon. “Tested soon” is prison-speak for something other than “tested soon.”

Masks are mandated anytime we leave the block for other destinations in the facility. Masks are also required when utilizing the phones in the blocks and yards. And social distancing is mandatory in communal showers. However, there are other congregate situations, both in the block and other areas, which totally mitigate social distancing protocols. In the instances where social distancing protocols are breached, both inmates and staff are responsible.

All the preventive measures put in place face subconscious — or maybe not so subconscious — opposition from the population for at least three reasons I hear or deduce. One, by the time the facility instituted masks and social distancing, the worst of the infection was over here, creating a false sense of security by those untested and not sick, uninfected or asymptotic. Two, we have received mixed messaging from TV, as well as a diversity of opinion from family, friends and even some officers and staff regarding the efficacy of masks and social distancing. The mixed messaging from the White House and other opinion brokers has created an epidemic of mixed messages writ large, fomenting uncertainty, exhaustion and complacency. Three, hopelessness is the main ingredient of fatalism. I have heard a couple of guys state, “…if it’s meant for me to get the virus and die, F#$! it. But I ain’t wearing no mask.”

On Wednesday, July 30, 2020, New York Public Radio reported that Fishkill and Greenhaven Correctional Facilities saw spikes in COVID-19 infections. In response to the outcry from both inmates and loved ones to release aging inmates, the New York State Department of Correction and Community Supervision has designated Adirondack Correctional Facility, in the northern tier of the state, the State’s geriatric facility. Some inmates 65 years and older have been moved there. In their most recent newsletter, the organization RAPP (Releasing Aging People in Prison) reported that they are sponsoring a bill in the New York State Assembly to make every inmate 55 years and older, with 15 years served, eligible for release consideration by the parole board. One inmate shipped to Adirondack has tested positive for the COVID-19, stirring the always boiling communal pot of cynicism among inmates about the motivations of our keepers. Most of the inmates sent there did not want to go, especially those inmates housed here with loved ones who visit from New York City. Sing Sing is 40 minutes outside New York City. Adirondack is 10 hours away.

Sing Sing — its original building now a museum — was erected in 1825. It’s an old and decaying facility and a repository of dust and dirt, but there have been increased efforts in the prevention of infections on hard surfaces. Porters walk around with bleach solutions spraying and wiping surfaces. Floors are swept and mopped at least once a day, sometime twice a day with bleach. Hand sanitizing stations are readily available for inmate use when returning to one’s cell from anywhere. We have been issued masks several times and two bars of soap have been issued to everyone who wants them each Sunday morning. The staff are required to wear their masks at all times. Precautions beyond that are on us. 

Looking through my sometimes foggy lens of objectivity, overall, New York and its citizens have done a great job of fighting COVID-19, even though the state was slow to get started when it came to its prisons. I have been critical of Governor Cuomo when it comes to New York’s prison population, but in hindsight, I believe New York State Prisoner’s have benefited tremendously from Governor Cuomo’s leadership with regard to the pandemic as it applies to the state on the whole. Continued vigilance and social distancing protocols must continue as if New York is still at the peak of infections. Overconfidence and complacency is a companion enemy with this ubiquitous disease. New Jersey is starting to see spikes in infection and travel between New York and New Jersey for work and play occurs daily and is voluminous.Staff and prisoners both have a common concern when it comes to COVID-19, each person must take responsibility for themself as well as their neighbor. Social distancing and how well we do it, both here and out there, determines whether divided we fall or united we stand.

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.

Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.