The cellblock goes unnaturally quiet, and I feel an eerie tingle pass through me as a dead human being, surrounded by prison guards, rolls quickly past my cage on a gurney. One backward-jogging guard pumps his hand violently into the victim’s chest, and while the pumping lacks the rhythm of genuine CPR, the sight of an apathetic prison guard even bothering is a sight I’ll never forget. I catch a glimpse of the inmate’s face, and it seems obvious that any effort to save him is in vain. His face is a stale gray, so slack it appears devoid of muscle. He looks like he’s been dead for months, rather than minutes.
It’s the first time they’ve taken this route with the gurney, but it makes sense as we’re right across from B-4 cellblock, where they’ve been storing the infected. Our back door leads directly outside, where the ambulance always arrives.
We use tiny shards of broken mirror poked through the chicken wire that covers our cages to take in this sobering scene. No one would confess it, but we’re scared. Even the sunny optimists among us know our turn to battle COVID-19 is coming soon, and there’s no escape.
There is a major difference between the public veneer — aka. public relations — and what the government actually thinks. The truth is only in their actions. Texas, along with her Confederate sister states, have always run the most austere and inhumane prison systems in North America. Texas is saliently proud of its antipathy, believing that harsh punishment is a crime deterrent. As prisoners, we know that our lives have less value than what they think of as real people — that we’re a financial liability. We know this. And though it wouldn’t be politically correct to say so, this state’s record of actions make it clear that it wouldn’t mind culling some inmates.
Texas will maintain its public veneer and go through the motions of pandemic prevention, but no reasonable person would believe that they care about protecting “criminals.”
But even if Texas possessed a humanitarian spirit and believed we were worth saving, we’re piled on top of each other in a poorly ventilated human warehouse. There’s just nothing they can really do to protect us. Our infection is imminent regardless of the preventative measures they employ, and barring a vaccine we’re all, every last one of us, going to be exposed to the virus. We’re completely helpless, and that’s scary.
We’ve all heard that it’s the elderly and infirm that have the most to worry about, but the dead person we just saw roll by didn’t look very old. Then, even among people who recover from COVID-19, it has been reported that some end up with organ damage, and that this disease is so new that scientists know little about it or its long-term effects. We may have better odds of survival if we’re under age 65, but it’s still a game of Russian roulette.
Men aren’t good at expressing fear, even to themselves. We’ve been brainwashed by our culture to believe that such feelings are a weakness. But taboos against human nature aside, we’re feeling fear in our cages, not just for ourselves, but for the people we love. We dance around our fear in numerous ways, pretending it doesn’t exist, attempting to deceive each other and ourselves. But even in these solitary cells, where we can’t see each other’s faces, we subtly expose it. Some guys become more animated, unable to cease their nervous chatter. Some use bravado and gallows humor. Others get short-tempered, lashing out at the smallest infraction. Some rediscover religion, and start preaching and praying. And others, like me, go starkly silent. Withdrawing deeply within ourselves.
I’ve been buried in society’s septic tank for a quarter of a century, and I rarely buy into its herd norms about how people should look, feel, and be. But no one completely erases the indoctrination of a lifetime, so I beat myself up for feeling fear I’m not supposed to feel. My mind attempts to compensate by running reassuring thought loops, or tries to distract me with unrelated babble, but even without dead bodies rolling past my cage, there are constant malignant reminders to feed anxiety.
Unlike some prisoners, I have no family or visits, but there are still people — out there and in here — that I care about, and this pandemic has hurt every one of them in some way. Despite the high survival rates, you just don’t know when someone precious might be stolen from you, by COVID-19 or not. This helplessness is always the worst part of incarceration, the inability to protect our loved ones or even ourselves. This pervasive impotence haunts our thoughts, leeches our hope, and invades our sleep. The constant stress weakens our immune systems, and subtracts years from our life expectancy. The only feeling that is worse than helplessness, is being helpless AND afraid.
Time passes and COVID-19 has taken over the Wynne Unit. It’s like a ghost town. No visits, hot meals, clean laundry, phone calls, or any other movement common in prison. So many guards have been infected here that they’re borrowing guards from other units just to maintain a skeleton crew. Colored lights from the ambulance reflect against the walls several times a day now, and the men in the cages surrounding mine are sick, some of them seriously so. Even our relative isolation hasn’t protected us from the spread, and the death toll continues to rise.
A good-hearted man named Nealy, who once showed me a great kindness, was found dead in his cage. No one even knew he was ill, which is typical. Hundreds of us are infected but refuse to tell our captors because we don’t want to be punished. B-4 cellblock is the hole, home of the solitary confinement that Texas claims, publicly, no longer exists. If you report sickness, you’re going to B-4.
Nealy knew that, and as a veteran prisoner, he knew that the quality of healthcare in prison is far inferior to that of real people, so why bother? Even the prisoners who are so sick and scared that they’re compelled to tell are mostly refused COVID-19 testing unless they have a fever of more than 102. Everyone who reports their illness regrets it, so most of us keep our mouths shut and ride it out in the cage.
Most of the men here with me in high security (G-5 custody) have recovered. I may be the oldest prisoner on this cellblock. I feel a guilty relief that while many of the young men around me suffered some serious symptoms, I made it through with a mild cough.
Time passes and Texas uses a fraction of the gift from the federal government to do mass testing of prisoners. But the delay makes them look good, because hundreds of us, perhaps thousands, had the virus and recovered weeks ago, so we test negative. Michigan, with a far more humane prison system than Texas, unwisely did mass-testing early, making them look bad because of all of the positive tests. That Texas will put a good spin on its low percentage of positive tests angers me, but like most men I know, I’m just glad to be alive and unpunished for contracting COVID-19.
Many of us believe we’re immune now, and whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure it matters. There’s still a great deal of worry about the people we love, but the exaggerated fear of an invisible, deadly virus attacking us in our cages is gone. And that’s far more important than the truth.
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.