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San Quentin Chow Hall. Photo by Eddie Herena.

At the start of the COVID-19  pandemic a huge hubbub happened here at the California Institution for Women (CIW).

Our Chow Hall consists of three seating areas of tables with four attached seats. Usually, officers are relaxed and let us sit where we want, and because the tables are so small and there are so many tables crammed into each area, we can usually sit two to a table. 

When mandatory social distancing was announced, six-foot separations were implemented in prison, too. Yet, when we went to dinner, the officers were herding everyone into one seating area filling all the seats at each and every table. This forced us to be shoulder to shoulder, packed in like sardines. 

I asked the officer, “What about social distancing and six feet?” I was curtly informed I could either go sit down with everyone else as directed or dump my tray and leave. 

I chose to leave. Hey, I’m 68 years old and I’m high-risk medical. I can’t afford to catch that bug!

On my way out, I asked one of the three GODs (Guards On Duty) why they were doing this to us. The first GOD said, “We’re not doing shit to you — you got yourself sent to prison.” Then the second GOD added, “You’re probably better off in that mess hall then standing in front of us.” Meanwhile, the third GOD gave a mock cough. All three laughed. 

I shook my head, told him they were probably right, and headed back to my dorm. For over a month, twice a day, breakfast and dinner, they packed the women in, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. I continued to refuse to go, and, as the quarantine dragged on, I was joined by more people. Hey, I lost 10 pounds — not too shabby!

What were they thinking? I couldn’t help but wonder if this was California Institute for Women’s way of solving overpopulation. The word culling came to my mind.

When COVID-19 first reared its ugly head, I felt very secure. We were isolated as a whole from the outside world, except for the prison employee. For us to get COVID-19,  an outsider would have to have brought it in. They eventually did and still do.

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.

Alyce Ann Copeland

Alyce Ann Copeland is a writer incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California. Alyce said she does not consider herself to be a professional writer but loves telling and writing stories.