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I’m a student of words so I understand that they hold power. Yet hearing the last two words in the first announcement on the afternoon of March 13th, 2020, shocked me and hurt my soul. Not because they were defamatory or evil, it was because of the collective groan from 32 men at the same time as we word these words: “Starting at this very moment all visits are canceled.”

We, the incarcerated, look forward to four things to get through our sentenced time. 

  1. Canteen Where we can get food items, hygiene products, email credits, tablets, music for tablets, movies, hobby projects and or Special Orders. Special orders are where a fundraiser is held and we are allowed to order food from outside vendors like Pizza Hut, KFC, or some local restaurant.

  2. Phone calls 

  3. Mail from family and friends. 

  4. Visits. 

These are not in any particular order. For everyone the order could be different. The money in my canteen account is vital to my daily goings on. It’s used for everything from buying food, to mailing supplies and to getting email credits. For me visits would be second behind canteen. So hearing those words were a shock to my system. I was expecting a visit from my 17-year-old son, the first in over a year. That’s when the pandemic became real for me. Visits calm people’s emotional state in here, which helps create a safer environment. As music calms the savage beast visits soothe the hearts of the incarcerated. 

In the next few days those two words “Are Canceled” were often heard. The next day all leisure time activities were canceled. Two days after that all recreational activities were canceled. Hobby classes and library visits were cancelled. All computer lab times were canceled. All the things that relieve stress and anger were taken away. Then we were given watered down explanations, which creates a powder keg of violence. 

Watching the nightly news I see domestic violence, child abuse, divorce and alcoholism are up. I see the same in here. Fights between decade old friends, arguing with loved ones on the phone, and the staff are agitated and irritable. They are overly cautious or callous in their treatment of inmates.

I’m in a secure minimum facility with about 740 inmates. Our segregation unit is large and holds inmates from the two surrounding work release centers. Since the pandemic there have been more fights, manufacturing and drinking alcohol, using or selling drugs, like Oxycodone, Percocet, Xanax, or Warfarin. I saw a man get drunk and slit his wrist because he lost his mother to COVID-19. He couldn’t go to the funeral because they aren’t doing any transfers for fear of spreading the disease throughout the prison. 

The prison system as a whole is on lock down which is a good thing. But the lengths to keep this place COVID-19 free is ridiculous. Late April I received masks, though they were optional for us and the guards to wear. The only mandatory time to wear a mask was when going to Health Services. Which was a good thing since they come in contact with the community outside as well as the small community in here. They make us do social distancing yet many of us have not gone anywhere in a very long time. There has been no institution-wide testing, only quarantine if you have two or more COVID-19 symptoms. 

If for whatever reason I was to go to the hospital I’d be quarantined for 14 days. They check you every three days to see if there is any change. Yet the transferring officers who are at the same level or higher of exposure as I am are not required to be quarantined but merely have their temperature checked. They’re the real risk factor. These officers walk around the institution possibly being a carrier and infecting the populace of this institution. 

I am COVID-19 respectful. I am an African American male over the age of forty, who is overweight with high blood pressure and a family history of cancer. I take extra precautions daily. I don’t think that I’ve washed my hands this much in my entire life. I wear a properly fitted mask and social distance whenever dealing with staff. They’re the ones who have access to the world outside these fences. 

I thought my son was safe from being infected. He lives in Glendale, Arizona, a small town outside of Phoenix. With the country opening up and the mass protests going on, the number of infected people skyrocketed in Arizona. So now I’m more worried than ever, especially with him being socially conscious. 

Most of my family is located in Chicago, Illinois, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, two of the worst hit cities in the Midwest. So I pray constantly for my mother and grandmother who are 60 and 79 respectively. They both have hypertension and respiratory issues. I’ve lost several family members since the pandemic started. I can’t say for sure they all died of COVID-19. It seems like all deaths these days are blamed on COVID-19 complications. True, some of them had heart, kidney or liver problems but they all couldn’t have died of COVID-19. Not being able to go to their funerals was the worst part. The only reason I couldn’t go was because the institutions are not doing any non-essential movement of inmates, and funerals are non-essential. 

Depression has tried to set in since the pandemic and seems to be of Biblical proportions. Seeing the strength of the few who endeavor to go on in the midst of this harsh new reality of life gives me hope for a greater day. A day when we will all be happy and healthy. Even the Department of Corrections has seen that the pandemic has adversely affected a lot of people. They give us two free 15 minute phone calls a week to check on our loved ones. We also get five free emails a week and one free stamped envelope every two weeks. This helps with the trauma of this ordeal and gives some relief. There is anger and frustration due to this unprecedented new way of life. 

These are unusual times and I pray that more people wake up and take precautions. COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire. We must self-check and take precautions or more lives will be lost. I cry inside at every needless death. Whether these deaths are from the pandemic or brutality at the hands of those who took an oath to protect and serve, they are needless. 

My mother took a trip to Houston to attend the funeral of George Floyd. She wanted to be a part of a historic moment in our country’s history even in the midst of a Global pandemic. That affected me mentally and emotionally, as she’s an African American woman over the age of 60 with numerous health problems. She said “I had to be there pandemic or not!” This touched my soul. 

This is a moment to reflect on what you have done with your life and what impact you have had on the world? As for me, I feel I’ve done more good than bad. I will continue to do more. Even incarcerated people can do much good for the community as well as the world at large. For everyone has the ability to do some good for another. Teach as if you’ll live forever, live as if you have no tomorrow, and love as if you’ll never love again. This is what I take from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Darius "Ali" Williams

Darius “Ali” Williams is an African American writer incarcerated in Wisconsin. He is a Muslim, father of one son, writer, tutor and college student.