I have not written in months. I wish I had a good excuse, but I don’t. There has been enough time and yes, I have paper and pen. The truth is, I just didn’t want to share what is going on in here. Before the pandemic, basic prison stuff was a bit much for most of you. We avoided or danced around the reality that I am an LWOP — life without parole — in a maximum security prison. My own mortality seemed a distant thought, so I still had hope that in time, I might be freed. Now, life is uncertain and the reality that “tomorrow is promised to no one” rings more true than ever. I have decided to share my reality with you.
In March, when the rest of the world shut down, so did we. Our world, already a smaller version of the world outside, became tiny. No school, no work, no programs, no groups, no church; basically we were only allowed out of our cells to eat. A new program schedule was issued. Each hall was given one hour of dayroom access to use the phone, complete prison forms, watch movies or television, and socialize. The next day, we would be allowed an hour and a half, then an hour the next, and so on. Every other day, yard time was given. Essential workers were to include certain clerks, kitchen crews and healthcare facility maintenance. Everyone else had nothing to do all day but to go stir-crazy.
We watched the news as COVID-19 spread. We’d see our hometowns mentioned. Were people we knew included in the rising numbers of the sick and ailing? My parents are in their late 70s — and I worried. My daughter is with people who are strangers to me — and I worried. Some of my family members work in hospitals — and I worried. Calls home brought news of family and friends being laid off. My heart aches for their changes in circumstance; I can’t tell them that I feel the impact here, too. In prison there is no living wage on the best of days. Prison wages in California have been stuck between $0.08 and $0.37 an hour for decades. Specialty jobs, such as California Prison Industry Authority jobs or the Joint Venture Program, are not options for those of us serving life without parole. Those jobs pay $1 to $3 per hour. Rumor has it that Joint Venture is closing and PIA will accept some LWOPs soon, but Covid has shut down PIA for months, though it’s slowly opening now.
Most inmates were not given “critical worker” status, which means we can’t work. I was a clerk at the college program. So we can’t work. We can’t file unemployment, which for me means I can’t get the $0.15 an hour that I was making. We have to depend on family and friends who are also being laid off in the free world.
The courts have closed, so all of our appeals are stalled. New evidence that could free me will not be heard in court for another year. Laws have changed to help correct unjust sentencing laws from back in the “lock ‘em up” days, but that hope of freedom is always just out of reach.
One good thing that is happening in the legal world is that the state is being forced to face these old, bad laws and account for the way they have us all packed in here like sardines in a can. COVID-19 spreads so quickly. Inmates and staff are both dying. These prisons are not equipped to manage a pandemic. So maybe giving a person with a four-year base sentence a 25-year enhancement is not a good use of resources. Maybe padding a charge to saddle non-participating accomplices with a murder charge when they were not even present at the scene of the crime is not a good use of resources. Maybe never considering parole an option for the growing and aging LWOP or extreme-lifers — those sentenced to 35 plus years — is not a good use of resources.
Now I, like the others I mentioned, sit with my asthma inhaler and state-issued mask in an eight-man cell and pray I don’t get sick. Our masks are made from the same cloth as our uniforms — functional, ugly and awkward. We risk penalties if we leave our cells without wearing them. So as we march to our one consistent outing, chow, we watch with foggy glasses as the officers gather together, their masks down on their chins, or hanging loose.
As inmates, we don’t leave prison. COVID-19 is out there. The only way it gets in here is if California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation staff or an officer brings it in. According to the CDCR website, as of Monday, August 3, 2020, 49 prisoners had died. Eighty-three have died in total through mid-November. Nearly 19,000 prisoners have been infected.
A legal declaration by Marc Stern, MD in March warned that prisoners cannot social distance inside California prisons. CDCR provided some sentence relief; of course, as with all relief laws in California, LWOPs were excluded.
Now I watch people leave prison for the sixth time in five years. I sit and listen to the news of another infected staff member or inmate. I do everything I can not to leave my cell, including skipping as many meals as I can afford. All the while, knowing I can’t escape COVID.
We sleep eight people on four bunk beds. We share a bathroom, shower and two sinks. Our latest yard captain tried to limit our access to cleaning supplies — during a global pandemic. We go to chow wondering if the risk of taking the trip is worth the latest casserole, with maskless cops wandering around, close to each other, spreading who knows what, only to be patted down as we exit, checking for any food we may have squirreled away.
Going to medical is a risk. Turning in a medical request is a calculated gamble. Is my migraine worth exposing myself to the possibility of contracting COVID, with my compromised lungs? Along with my asthma, I had pneumonia a lot as a child, scarring my lungs.
The inmates are restless when day after day, our program time is taken for “training,” or we are too short-staffed. Now we can’t go outside because the Creek Fire has left so much smoke hanging in the air that you can’t see the sun. So many of us have had to mourn the death of a loved one this year. You couldn’t mourn properly in prison before Covid, but now it’s worse. We get no visits, no visibility with family, limited calls, no video visits like the county jails have — we’re cut off. For most of us, no one here knew us before; no one knows the person I lost. There are no stories to share. No one cares or shares our loss. All they can offer are empty condolences.
Mental health services are a joke. Only emergency sessions were given for six months. If you needed to talk to a mental health worker, you risked being stripped, put in a velcro dress, and locked in a bare room. I am a cutter. A nurse who cared turned me in. Four months later, I was offered a consultation. I refused. No one asked to see a cut, to see if I tend to my own wounds. I was given the simple suicide assessment and rushed out the door because it was quitting time. If an inmate is in the office at 4:30 pm, they must stay until after count clears, between 5:00 and 5:30 pm, so staff would have to stay, too. To make sure everyone gets done in time, it’s best just to say, “I’m OK. I don’t want to hurt myself or others. May I go now?”
Our quarterly packages have been delayed for months. Employees at the vendors are down to skeleton crews. Our warehouse workers here are down to skeleton crews. Buildings cannot mix their inmates to pick up boxes, so staggered distribution causes more delays. We need boxes in order to have food, so we can stay in our cells.
The prisoners mix, but the contradiction in policy doesn’t seem to persuade the administration to allow us normal programming hours. Day laborers, janitors, PIA, kitchen workers, ducats (permission slips to move around) , all bring together prisoners from other buildings and yards. There is no way to social distance in prison. Using COVID as an excuse to lock prisoners in their cells 22-24 hours a day is just leading to increased mental instability and acts of violence.
Cut off from family, friends, the world, programs, and work, we sit and watch the social unrest of the world spill into these walls, just like COVID. A small part of me wonders if hope is a waste of effort. California sentenced me to no hope, so technically, if I die from COVID, it’s a form of sentence reduction. Every day I battle with myself, half of me wanting COVID to hurry up and come, the other half trying to do all I can to stay safe.
This is my COVID reality in prison.
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.