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I have a lot of reasons to be angry with the Bureau of Prisons. They moved me from my home in the state of Illinois all the way out to North Carolina. Some suit up the system decided all care level three inmates have to be housed in a medical holding facility. I take Coumadin, a blood thinner medication, for an artificial aortic valve and therefore had to leave a one-man cell with a window and go to a three-man cube in an open dorm, far away from home. 

The dorms are grossly overcrowded. The showers black with mold, the water unsafe for human consumption. This is where they house sick people! I made do until late 2018 when working at Unicor, a prison labor program. I got so light headed that I couldn’t safely sew any more. I was sent to medical and told that I was probably beginning to get the flu. They gave me a three day work release pass, told me to rest and take in fluids. I have no memory of the next two days. 

Other inmates told me later that I got so sick that I couldn’t eat or drink. I stopped making sense and eventually wasn’t able to speak at all. It wasn’t until I lost control of my bowels that a corrections officer got involved. A group of inmates loaded me into a borrowed wheelchair and  carried me down from the second floor. I was rushed to an outside hospital and checked in with a fever of 106.4 degrees. My organs were shutting down while nurses packed ice bags over me. I was suffering from a bad bacterial blood infection. There was a real possibility of death. 

I pulled through but suffered a stroke, a heart attack and a pool of blood in my pancreas. After ten days in the outside hospital, I was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) for six weeks of intravenous antibiotics and recovery. I got back to the dorm feeling pretty good. I couldn’t seem to build up the endurance to jog like I did before I got sick. I was told that was normal after a stroke and a heart attack. I thought the crisis was over until a routine test uncovered more trouble. 

An echocardiogram showed that there might be a problem with the blood flow through my artificial valve. A more detailed CT scan showed that the bacteria had killed the flesh my valve was sewn to and it had slowly sloughed off, leaving the valve floating freely. Pressure forced blood around the valve and caused a huge aneurysm. I had to have open-heart surgery (my second) to replace the valve and repair the damage exactly one year after the infection. 

The surgery went well, but one of the blood cultures came back positive for bacteria causing me to go through another six weeks of antibiotic therapy at the FCI. I wound up seeing the positive culture as a good thing because the Low Security Correctional Institution — otherwise known as the Low — was going through a big flu epidemic. Sick inmates were being sent to the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU) to be separated. I did not want to get the flu right after open-heart surgery. Unfortunately, I did not miss the pandemic that was getting ready to crash through the U.S. and the world. 

I returned to the dorm at the end of February 2020. We had no cases of COVID-19 at the Low. The chow hall was eventually shut down and all work was reduced to a few inmates. We were doing well, but the Bureau of Prisons wanted to tighten the noose. 

There was a town hall in March to tell us that all phones, computers, and TVs would be shut down and commissary was no longer available. The Bureau of Prisons said all those things spread COVID-19. This did not go over well at all. The first two objectives of war are to cut off communication and supply. We felt like they had just declared war on us. 

We tried to plead that we all had family that might at any moment get COVID-19 and die and we wouldn’t even know. No one was listening to us. We were told to go back to our cubes, but we were not done trying to reason with the staff. There was no violence at all and I never heard any inmate threaten violence. But that didn’t stop a SWAT-like team dressed in full combat gear from rushing in, setting off two concussion grenades and screaming for us to get down on the ground. 

They selected one of the more vocal inmates, a Black man, and shot him a dozen times with pepper spray balls from paintball guns. Pepper spray filled the small 155 man dorm. I lay my still healing chest on the hard tiles, a washcloth over my mouth, coughing. Guards yelled, “If anyone moves, they will be shot.” I couldn’t help but take note that the entire SWAT team were White good ol’ country boys, high-fiving and having a good time. 

Even after all of that, we still had zero cases here at the Low. The SHU was filling up with sick inmates from the two mediums and the camp. Then toward the end of March we got a new inmate in our dorm. We all thought that was pretty odd because there was not supposed to be any inmate movement throughout the system. He was apparently a self surrender who spent two weeks quarantined in the SHU before being released into the general population. The problem with that was the SHU was full of sick inmates. They tested the newcomer before releasing him, but got tired of the long wait and let him go before receiving the results. 

Three days later, he was rushed back to the SHU. His test was positive. The damage had already been done, though. Inmates started getting sick, some sent out to hospitals. Medical started checking our temperatures twice a day. Over 40 inmates were pulled out of my dorm. 

I had to wonder to myself how the Bureau of Prisons could spend thousands of dollars in the last two years to put me back together. Then gamble it all just to fill one more bed. When was the quota for the executive bonuses to kick in? Once the Bureau of Prisons finally did mass testing I came back positive, along with over half of the inmate population (over 600 positive cases). Luckily, I only had one day when I felt really sick and three or four days when I was just feeling off. I feel guilty about that when I think of the 23 inmates so far that have died from COVID-19 here at Low. 

Am I angry that I got the bacterial infection? No. It’s something I could have caught outside of these prison walls. Doubtful, but possible. Am I angry that I got COVID-19 in this unhealthy environment? No. I broke the law and got myself put into prison. That’s my fault, mine alone. 

What I am angry about is watching all these older men suffer and die even though Congress passed the Cares Act months ago. That Act should have let these men go home long before the virus started running rampant through America. 

Men like Mr. Greg Chung. An 83-year-old former NASA rocket scientist suffering from lung cancer. The man was fluent in nine languages and sang Italian opera while wiping down inmate phones for his prison orderly job. 

For three days I saw him tell the medical staff that he was having trouble breathing. Every time he was told that it was normal for his condition. Finally, on the third day after the medical staff left, a couple of inmates encouraged Mr. Chung to tell the Corrections Officer about his breathing difficulties. The Corrections Officer chastised him for not telling medical staff before they left. Mr. Chung was sent to medical by the put off Corrections Officer, and we never saw Mr. Chung again. He died of COVID-19 a few days later. 

It pisses me off to think if he didn’t have yellow skin, slanted eyes and a Chinese accent, he might have been taken more seriously. Maybe he would have gotten to the hospital sooner. It might not have made a difference in the end, but at least he would have had a better damn chance. The man had a nonviolent offense. He was in his 80s with lung cancer and he was no danger to the community. He didn’t deserve to die with his wrists and ankles to a hospital bed. He was a quiet, kind, gentle genius of a man. He loved his family and the United States of America. Despite all of that, he was branded a felon and died a terrible death. 

And I’m angry. 

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Donald Peppers

Donald Peppers is a writer incarcerated at the Low Security Correctional Institution in North Carolina.