Photo by Olli Homann; Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

My name is Aaron, and I am the youngest of four boys. My father is a Vietnam veteran, and a retired coal miner, and my mother was a homemaker. I was an industrial union painter for fourteen years and a father to one son.

I am currently incarcerated in Illinois. The state’s prisons were put on an administrative quarantine on March 20. In mid-April, the state mandated that all staff and inmates (when out of their cells) wear a mask. Every Saturday, staff — or inmates, when some staff are being lazy — pass out KN95 masks to each inmate, but only after staff was authorized to remove the bendable nose-piece used to mold and shape the mask around your nose. Our top doctors and mask manufacturing companies state that removing the bendable nose-piece ruins the integrity and protection that the mask was designed to provide.

How can any prison official, warden, director or governor, in good conscience, remove the bendable nose-piece from our masks and sleep at night? You ruin protective equipment that could save my life, when hospitals, first responders, nurses, and other health care workers like my sisters-in-law go to work praying they have enough PPE to get through the day.

On July 15 from our chief of programs sent out a memo with directions on how to properly put on a mask: by shaping or molding the bendable nose-piece around your nose. I assume the programs chief and director are unaware these pieces are being removed (I’m still waiting on a response letter from the programs chief). This all looks great on paper; however, most staff, including the nurses passing out medication, wear their masks around their necks.

Since March 20, we have been locked down for 23 and a half hours a day, seven days a week. Every day, 10 inmates receive 30 minutes to shower, use the phone, etc. There are always two hours left on each shift that inmates could utilize for more dayroom time, but we do not. They take 10 inmates at a time for 30 minutes to the yard (every 12-15 days) on an almost five-acre yard. Wow. That is social distancing! Somehow, if you go to segregation, you receive two hours of yard time, six days a week, with up to 10 inmates at a time in a 24’ x 24’ cage.

Our number one warden retired months ago — I guess nobody got the memo — and that position remains open. Each prison should have a sympathetic and caring leader during this pandemic. But in six months, not one of the three wardens have stopped by our cells to check on our well-being, nor has a mental health worker. Not one nurse has gone cell to cell to take our temperatures.

Prisoners also have family members going through hard times during this pandemic. When suicide rates are at alarming numbers on the outside, imagine the mental strength you need on the inside. Our heartbeats are the same as the next person’s, and I would say we breathe the same air, but we do not. The architect designed this prison with no access point to clean our vents. We have dust balls full of dead skin, etc. big enough to fill multiple dumpsters. It is appalling to know that COVID-19 is capable of sticking to these dust balls, and we have no way to clean our vents. Nothing like breathing 30-plus years of who knows what.

The only good thing is that Personal Property, Commissary, and the Law Librarian will deliver items to our cells. For some reason clothing has been shut down, even though hundreds of inmates are due their yearly boxes: socks, towel and washcloth. Why the acting warden will not allow the clothing department, with three inmates working daily, to bring us our clothes like the Property, Commissary, and Law Librarian departments are allowed to do is beyond me. We are still putting wear-and-tear on our clothes by wearing and washing our clothes. Hundreds of inmates are a year and a half or more behind on receiving their clothes.

Our barbershop has remained closed, even after Governor Pritzker allowed barbers and salons to open months ago. Healthcare officials warn people in Illinois Department of Corrections facilities against sharing trimmers, clippers, razors, etc., since those are ways of contracting HIV or Hepatitis-C. Now it is okay to cut hair, knowing we do not have the proper cleaning supplies to clean our personal trimmers.

Our counselors’ response to our grievances is that our health and safety are the prison’s number one priority. This prison has a funny way of showing they care about inmates’ mental, physical, or psychological health. It is extremely sad that in a country with alarming numbers of prescription drug addictions, prisons would rather feed offenders psychotropic drugs to put a Band-Aid on depressed inmates.

Experts like Dr. Fauci continue to express the importance of nutritious meals to help boost our immune systems, but for some reason our vegetable garden was shut down. Our garden crew has only four inmates working in an acre-and-a-half-sized garden, but due to “social distancing,” our warden shut it down. But two horticulture students planted and maintained hundreds of flowers in front of administrators’ offices, healthcare, etc.

Illinois County Jails sued Governor Pritzker over an executive order halting the transfer of inmates from county jails to Illinois Department of Corrections facilities. Prisons are now accepting inmates who have been sentenced from county jails, who I am sure are being housed with people fresh off the streets. Our prison has had multiple transfers every week for about a month now. These inmates are housed in the prison’s receiving wing, and must be quarantined for 14 days.

Since all 40 cells are connected to the same ventilation system, this “quarantine” does not work. For example, if 10 inmates arrive on week one, and the following week, 15 more arrive, then it would be safe to say you should start the quarantine over, right? Not here. Rush them in, brand them like cattle, and move them out to population so we can overcrowd an already overcrowded system.

Illinois still has thousands of inmates with two years or less on their sentences; inmates who are doing their parole; or sex offenders, some of whom are up to six years past their out-date because parole stipulations have made it impossible for any inmates, especially indigent inmates, to meet. Yet Illinois would rather chance a massive COVID-19 outbreak rather than let people walk free.

When inmates go on medical writs, they are returned to their cells after a temperature check. The only time an inmate will get quarantined is if they are at the hospital for longer than 24 hours. I must have missed Dr. Fauci’s report about how COVID-19 will not infect you if you are at a hospital for a couple of hours or less. Two hours or 24 hours, you should be tested and quarantined for 14 days.

To top things off, our dayrooms have fans or blowers that draw air from the outside, blowing hot air inside the building. It’s a great opportunity to smell hundreds of mens’ odors, thanks to our backwards system. Nothing like chancing a very small COVID-19 virus that you can not see, floating around 24/7.

During this pandemic, I have felt like one of the abused dogs you see in the ASPCA commercials, scared for my life. If America is a country that is forgiving and built on second chances, why do we feel left out? The news media reports on COVID-19 deaths 24/7, but inmates get 15 seconds of coverage. Please help thousands of offenders get that second chance by walking out of prison — before COVID-19 takes us all out through the morgue.

 
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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Aaron

Aaron is a writer incarcerated in Big Muddy River Correctional in Ina, Ill. He enjoys sports, farming, exercise, food and a good laugh. He says he misses his friends and family and is thankful for their support. He is publishing under his first name only for fear of reprisal.