Raul told me that on March 19 he had coronavirus symptoms he wishes he had never reported. Raul is not his real name. He asked to have it changed to a pseudonym because he was afraid of retaliation from the Department of Corrections.
We sat at a table in the recreation yard at the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) here in Washington State, watching the sun set while he recounted what happened to him through a cloth mask he has been wearing for over a week.
“I was scared that I had the coronavirus because I was coughing, and I had chest pains, so when the guard walked by my cell that night, I told him I had a medical emergency,” he said.
Raul and I live near each other in the Washington State Reformatory (WSR), one of four institutions which make up the Monroe Correctional Complex. I’ve often seen him struggling to communicate with guards because he doesn’t speak English well, and most of them don’t understand Spanish.
When our unit was quarantined on March 13 after a correctional officer tested positive for COVID-19, it never occurred to me that Raul might be in his cell panicking with nobody to explain what was going on. He knew about the coronavirus, but because he watched the news on Univision, he was more informed about the state of the rest of the world than that of the prison in which he lived. The quarantine was equivalent to a disciplinary lockdown, which allowed us thirty minutes out of our cells daily for a phone call and a shower. Raul had no opportunity to speak with anybody who could shine a light on what was unfolding.
After declaring a medical emergency, he was removed from his cell and escorted to the E-unit in Twin Rivers, the facility next door where residents showing symptoms of COVID-19 were being housed.
“E-Unit’s been closed for ten years,” he told me. “The guards use it only for training, but when they took me there, it was full of people being tested for coronavirus.”
One concern about where we live is that the structure is over a hundred years old with poor ventilation and bars rather than the metal doors found in newer prisons. I asked him if it was like that in E-Unit.
“No. We had doors, but it was really cold, and some cells had two people in them, and everybody was there because they were being tested. So if one person in a cell had the virus, he would give it to the other,” he explained.
Raul didn’t have a cellmate. He said his room had two beds and no widows aside from a sunroof. He wasn’t allowed to have his personal property, and all the books being distributed were written in English. Unable to watch the news or distract himself from his fear that he might have the deadly virus, he curled up on his bunk and listened to the rain tap against the overhead glass.
I told him that sounded suspiciously like being in the Hole.
“It was worse than the Hole, man,” he said. “I’ve been to the Hole, and at least there you get to shower every day, and you come out of your cell to use the phone and exercise. In E-Unit I wasn’t even allowed to shower for the first week.”
He described a moveable phone station, which was wheeled to the cell fronts once daily, so individuals could reach out of the 12-inch rectangular pass-through on their doors to make collect calls. Raul’s loved ones were often at work during his allotted phone time and unable to answer.
“It was stressful because I was afraid, and I couldn’t even talk to my family to tell them I was okay,” he said. “They gave me a pencil and crossword puzzles, but no paper or envelopes, so I couldn’t write letters.”
He also said he was thirsty all the time. “The water from my sink was brown because the pipes hadn’t been used for so long, and I was afraid to drink it,” he added.
When he informed a guard about this, the guard shrugged and told him to just keep running the water until it lost the color. Raul heard others who had been there longer than him complaining about their sinks which still hadn’t begun to produce clear water. He knew he would eventually be forced to drink it, or he would succumb to dehydration and possibly death.
His symptoms subsided his second day in E-Unit, but a nurse told him he would have to stay for fourteen days.”I wasn’t even sick,” he said. “Other people there were, and I was afraid I would catch it by being there, but they wouldn’t let me leave.”
He told me that at one point, a nurse from the outside came in to check temperatures, but she had an anxiety attack and had to be escorted out. Two days later, another had a similar experience. He said he thought, “If these were medical professionals, and they don’t feel safe here. Why should I?”
Eventually, somebody contacted a family member about the living conditions. What Raul didn’t know at the time was that a lawyer from Colombia Legal Services brought the issue to light on a local television station.
The next day a sergeant walked into E-Unit yelling, “Okay! Who’s the troublemaker?” and after five days of drinking whatever brown substance was coming from his sink in order to stay alive, Raul was given a pitcher of water and two paper cups.
“Man, that guy was really mad that he had to give us water,” Raul recalled. “After I drank the whole pitcher, they would only fill up the two cups, so I had to stretch it out, and I was still thirsty all the time.”
Eventually, in the best English he could muster, he filled out a kite (a mode of communication between prisoners and DOC staff), and gave it to a unit officer.
He told them he felt like he was being discriminated against because they wouldn’t give him anything to read in Spanish. “I was so bored and stressed out, I was going crazy,” Raul said. “I just needed something to take my mind off it all. Everybody else had books, but there was nothing for me to read.”
After Raul’s first week, AM/FM radios and ear buds were given to everybody in E-Unit. The reception was sketchy — he had to set his on the top bunk in order to get stations that were often staticky, but he said it provided a bit of much needed distraction. At some point he was given a book in Spanish. Though the title seemed to have been chosen with no regard for content or enjoyability, he knew it was the best he would get. He focused most of his attention on the day he would be released back into the general population.
Even though they had told Raul he would only be there for fourteen days, he ended up spending 17 days in quarantine. That was longer than some people have spent in the Hole for assaults and other major rule violations. “What made it worse was that they wouldn’t tell me when I could leave,” he said.
When he finally emerged, he was lightheaded. As he told me this, I wondered if he was merely overtaken by a sense of relief that he made it out alive.
Three days after he re-entered the general population, a riot broke out in the Minimum Security Unit. Our prison was the only Washington state prison with confirmed cases among the incarcerated population, and most guards were still refusing to wear facemasks. Over 100 demonstrators were offered food from McDonald’s to enter quietly into quarantine, a bribe which they vehemently refused. Non-lethal weapons were deployed, and all modes of communication between prisoners and the outside world were temporarily cut, allowing the Department of Corrections complete control over what information was released to the media.
Because it was the first prison uprising in the country over COVID-19, the incident gained national attention, and only then were correctional staff at MCC mandated to wear facemasks while at work.
Still, symptomatic residents are afraid to come forward. Some of my neighbors have said if they get sick, they’ll conceal it and wait for it to pass. Others are convinced they can sweat out a virus and planned to go to the gym and exercise until they’re healthy again. Most of us don’t want to go through what Raul did, but we wonder how DOC administrators can overlook the dangers presented by this lack of incentive to report symptoms.
Once Raul finished talking, we sat for a moment and gazed out at a scene that neither of us could have believed was possible a few months ago: a yard full of masked prisoners, nearly indistinguishable from one another.
I thanked him for sharing, and asked him to choose his pseudonym.I saw the hint of a smile form under his mask just before he told me what he would like to be called.
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.