Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

Coming to Washington D.C. from a small farmer’s town in Belgium, it felt like I entered a whole new unknown world. As a butterfly who morphed, fluttering its wings for the first time, I believed that I was invincible from my dangerous lifestyle. “Whatever happens to other people ain’t going to happen to me,” became my motto. 

But viruses don’t discriminate and COVID-19 is no exception. I found out the hard way.

When the virus that struck Wuhan Province became newsworthy, not many people paid attention. China is a long way from here. When Dr. Li Wenliang, an optometrist, raised the alarm over a new SARS like virus on social media, very contagious and deadly, ears started to perk up. Dr. Li got arrested for spreading “false information” and causing panic. 

In early February 2020, the eye doctor, 34 years old, died of COVID-19. My interest began when Italy became Europe’s epicenter for the virus. The virus, in no time, brought back vacationers spread all over Europe. I became very concerned as my family and friends are living in Belgium. 

Our gated community — if you can call it that — has an official name: the Everglades Correctional Institution. Built in the early 1990s it has two open bay style dormitories bordering a large quadrangular area where canteens, barbershops, and a captain’s office can be found. There are six butterfly style housing units, each divided into four quads. All together these are the living quarters for over 1,850 residents. At ECI we are called inmates or convicts; both are negative expressions. Positive thoughts bring positive results. 

Some of the educational GED classes, and other programs are facilitated by paid staff, but most are taught by volunteers. In early March, the DOC cancelled all visitations and volunteer access. For a few weeks, residents facilitated classes and programs to the best of their abilities.

The first sign of seriousness came when the administration closed Section 1, which houses all of the essential buildings; education, chapel, barber school and medical classification buildings. Following CDC guidelines for social distancing in prison is an oxymoron. The DOC came up with their own guidelines and now feeding us took hours, as each quad went separately. Residents sat two at a table, went out together and back together. We also received face masks, made with the same fabric as our uniforms. They are made of heavy, hot material and for people suffering from asthma, COPD, or other respiratory illnesses, the masks made it hard to breathe. Protocols were drawn up to ensure the safety of residents and staff alike. But as the saying goes rules are meant to be broken and so are protocols. 

The first sign of trouble came when the protocols were disregarded. One stipulation dictated that a resident going to an outside hospital, regardless of the duration of the visit, will be quarantined upon his return to the institution. Joe returned from the hospital over the weekend, and neither security nor medical placed him in quarantine. Instead, they allowed him to return to his D dorm housing unit. In the days following his return pandemonium broke out. Some residents developed high fevers, a few became violently ill. The entire D dorm was placed under quarantine. 

Meanwhile, in the dorm I resided in (E dorm), the quarantine quad now became the isolation quad, and those with symptoms were housed there. On May 29 E dorm was also placed under quarantine. While in quarantine, we could come out of our cells but had to remain in the quad. The following Monday everyone at this institution received their first COVID-19 test. If I could have recorded this event, America’s Funniest Videos would have plenty of hilarious moments. 

If you can’t go to the chow hall, then the chow hall will come to you in the form of a bologna, cheese or peanut butter sandwich. An emergency quarantine menu and canteen order form was initiated. Residents’ temperatures were taken twice daily. In order for the quarantine to be lifted, the entire quad had to remain fever free for 14 days. A mission impossible situation as our quad resembled Grand Central Station with residents moving in, and others moving out. And it was during this period that the donkey stumbled over that same rock! I was too cavalier about wearing my mask, about washing my hands, I felt for the second time, invincible. Until…

In the fourth week of my quarantine, I experienced something unusual, our prison food didn’t taste so bad! When I remarked on this phenomenon someone yelled, “Fool, you got the symptoms!” All jokes aside, this disease is nothing to laugh at. 

On Thursday, June 24, I lost all sense of taste and smell. When walking up and down the stairs I became winded, I had to gasp for breath, my legs felt as if they weighed a ton. Overall I felt as if I just finished running a marathon. My fever was just around that threshold of 99.6. If I was under that number I was safe to stay. Going over meant the dreaded isolation quad. 

That nightmare started the following Monday. On June 29, I got moved to one of D dorm’s three isolation quads. That afternoon, I received my second COVID-19 test, but unlike 33 days ago, this time I knew I was positive. 

An isolation quad is run differently. I was locked up in a cell, but had a cellmate. July in Florida weatherwise is hellish. It felt like temperatures of 105 degrees, with almost no ventilation. The small cells turn quickly into hot, steamy saunas. While the cell doors remain locked, there is no access to cold water. The only water to drink came out of the sink. I felt like I was a dog. The chow hall food, which I unfortunately started to taste again, was now delivered to our cells. Through the bean flap in our cell doors, the nurses came to take our temperatures and check our blood oxygen saturations. This new twist would turn out to be very relevant to me. 

A person is allowed out of his cell for about 20 to 30 minutes a day to shower, and to access the JPay kiosk or phone. 

The test results came back after a few days. Those residents who stayed in the quad were positive, and the others were moved back to the quarantine quad. After five days, my temperature returned to normal. In order to be released from isolation, I had to be fever free for 14 days from the day the results came back. 

Entering my fourth week in isolation, some residents got released and moved to open population. With each passing day that I remained locked up, I became more frustrated. Here I was fever free for 18 days, however each time I would ask the nurses about being released, I heard “I don’t know!” 

A resident who had been to the outside hospital informed us that the blood oxygen saturation value was also considered. That number must be 94% or higher. If it dipped lower, the 14-day waiting period was restarted. As I could hardly walk more than 20 steps without being short of breath and becoming exhausted, my oxygen levels were far below the threshold. That became the point in time where I started to ask the why, the merits, or the common sense of this isolation. If everyone was positive and we all mingled, would we exchange each other’s virus? Could I give another person my virus so he has two of them? 

It is a fact that after two or three weeks without a fever, the virus is no longer in the body. However, my low oxygen saturation level kept me locked up in my cell. Why? 

Medical did not examine me, nor did they offer any treatment to improve my saturation. No breathing treatments, no inhaler, nothing at all! Finally after 42 days in isolation, I got released. It had been three months since my skin had felt the sun. 

In conclusion, I do hope that the FLDOC has learned some valuable insight during this first wave. Scientists have predicted a second wave. These first experiences should help improve some of the living conditions for those entering quarantine or isolation. The DOC’s motto of “lock them up” when a problem arises can’t apply during this pandemic. Officers should not treat isolated inmates as if they are in confinement. Communication and providing information is essential, not only to those inside an institution, but with families who call or email seeking updates about their loved ones. 

Medical has to address how COVID-19 affects other medical needs for example, inmates with HIV, high blood pressure, respiratory illnesses, diabetes, etc. Believe me, I have learned my lesson and will not stumble again. Wear a mask and wash your hands.

 
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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Rudy Vandenborre

Rudy Vandenborre is a writer incarcerated at Everglades Correctional Institution. He was born and raised in Belgium and was a member of the Belgian Armed Forces. He came to Washington, D.C. in 1986 to work at the Belgian Embassy before being sentenced to life in prison for murder in 1989. His story “Sheet Wappering in the Wind” was published in Exchange For Change’s “Don’t Shake the Spoon” anthology.