The Monroe Correctional Complex here in Washington state was erected before the Spanish influenza claimed more than 50 million lives worldwide. A walk within its living quarters gives the impression that its designers either knew little or cared little about the prevention of infectious diseases among its occupants. Rows of 40 cells — with bars, rather than doors — are stacked four tiers high, and a few feet from them stands a massive brick wall. The ventilation system is ancient, so the temperature inside usually matches that of outside.
After MCC became the first prison in the state to report confirmed COVID-19 cases among the incarcerated, I knew it was inevitable that I would eventually contract it. It wasn’t just because the building is akin to a petri dish, promoting the rapid spread of every illness that finds its way in, but because prisoners have been dissuaded from reporting symptoms to such a degree that a civil rights attorney recently spoke out on a local TV station about the conditions.
Then the coughing began to ring out at night. During the day sick residents encouraged each other to stay in their cells. Meanwhile reporters quoted numbers of supposedly asymptomatic carriers from an Ohio prison, but they never seemed to factor in the lack of incentive for prisoners to report symptoms.
These numbers were politicized and used to make a case for states to ease restrictions without anybody ever asking the incarcerated community for their perspective on the topic. A few weeks ago, the projected U.S. coronavirus death rate went up to roughly 130,000. I couldn’t help but think maybe we should have been allowed to be a part of the conversation.
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.