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At the turn of the second decade of the third millennium, news spread fast. The bold injunctions against China made her a walnut in the jaws of a nutcracker. Most people in the United States didn’t think the outbreak would reach our shores — it’s happening “over there.” I didn’t give it a second thought and kept doing what inspired me: writing for a growing organization designed to give me a megaphone. I found my voice with Exchange for Change. Finally, someone wants to hear me, and I had much to share. 

Allow me to get back to the point. This world named the new menace COVID-19. A coronavirus like no other. All of us in the U.S. and the colonies of exile — American prisons — didn’t think it would spread so fast, so far. The first case in our country seemed small. The government got involved, ensuring it was isolated. Whew!

This particular day was cool and the rain unexpected. It came just as suddenly as the virus. Two days into the deluge, someone in our dorm complained to the staff that he was having a hard time breathing. Shortly after he was sent to medical and examined, a team of nurses showed up. We had already adopted the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), so we felt immune. But in a closed environment, social distancing is impossible… unless we are all locked down. A condition worse than stay-at-home orders. Roommate conditions can be bad, but in this crisis it’s a horror.

On or about May 26 my vitals were taken, and I had a slight one-degree fever. No problem. That’s what I thought. Later that evening, when I rose from the day room bench, a negative g-force pushed me back down. I can’t believe we pay for that feeling at theme parks. 

The following day the “team” showed up again. My temp read 101… The nurse did the nurse thing and knit her brow, touching my forehead with the back of her hand. I can’t remember the exact day or time, but the group of us with fevers were moved to this facility’s first isolation dorm. The end of May, and what I thought may be the end of life, came quickly. Friday — May 29, this is an exact date embossed in my mind — I was swabbed for COVID-19. A novel idea for a novel virus.

The swabbing was uncomfortable. The nurse had told me as much: “This is going to be uncomfortable, but try to relax.” Right. It took a year to swab my sinus. Tears were automatic. At this point I was feeling pretty bad. The following morning I was awakened by a rap on the cell door. Two people dressed in PPE garb were exchanging words and glances. I stepped to the window.

“Mr. Hue?” the tall Hispanic man said.

“Yes?”

“Your test came back positive for the virus. You have to stay here at least 14 days.” (I discovered later he was a physician.)

“Really!?”

“Yes, 14 days.” He left with his associate, a female nurse, without a reassuring word.

The symptoms I was experiencing seemed to amplify after the news of the results. It wasn’t mental, I assure you. For five days the room spun. If I rose to use the water closet, my head spun one way and the room the other. The food was delivered but not needed. My body agreed and jettisoned the pounds. I heard taking a breath was hard, and it was the primary symptom after the virus bloomed. I didn’t want the nurses to know it hurt to breathe, so I controlled the shallow rise and fall of my chest. Moderate pain erupted when I inhaled to fill my lungs. I didn’t want to be on a ventilator, so I put on a mask and fooled them. People on ventilators were on COVID death row.

Depression. You don’t know the depth, unless, isolated in a prison cell, you feel a sentence has been passed in courts, not of earth. Purpose. You don’t feel the despair of being without one, unless, isolated in a prison cell, you feel you’ve been laid off from life. Suicide. The choices you made, which broke the law, were really just a self-imposed death wish.

The nurses and officers placed themselves at great risk. Someone had to take temperatures. Some had to count and feed us. I was positive I didn’t have a purpose, until I saw the staff. They probably despised us, but I was thankful for them.

I eventually recovered. We were released from quarantine 23 days later. Subsequent lockdowns, quarantines and delays have interrupted this facility. Several inmates, and as far as I know one nurse, perished from the virus.

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.

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J.H.

J.H. is a writer incarcerated in Florida. His high school literature teacher published his first poem in a journal for Seminole County. Nearly 30 years later, Ms. Susanna, an instructor for Exchange for Change's creative writing course, encouraged him to pickup writing again. Now in his 50s, he finds the possibility of realizing his dream to be a writer uplifting. He has asked that his full name be withheld.