Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

While the rest of the world inches ever so slowly towards some sense of normalcy, life behind the wall remains at a virtual stand still. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, I find myself with an exorbitant amount of free time on my hands which I am finding more difficult to occupy. There are only so many crossword puzzles and readings one can do in a day, so I have taken to writing about my frustrating experiences during this pandemic.

At the federal facility where I am currently incarcerated, we continue to shelter in place and have been doing so since we moved from modified operations on April 13. Essentially, this means that we are on lockdown. As of this essay written on July 13, we have been locked in our housing units for more than 60 days with no end in sight.

Aside from a daily 45-minute recreation period, there is no movement allowed whatsoever – no education, no programming, no religious services, no work, and no Chow Hall. All of our meals are brought to our individual cells.

Having been incarcerated for more than nine years, I realize that there are other facilities which are regularly locked down for 23-hours a day. This is a low security facility and the anger, anxiety, boredom, and frustration brewing among the inmate population increases daily. Those of us housed here are not accustomed to these conditions. 

In order to fully understand the severity of the situation here, I must backtrack several months to my arrival in late January. Since then, this facility has experienced an outbreak of scabies, one case of chicken pox, several cases of pneumococcal pneumonia and now widespread COVID-19. All of which were initially misdiagnosed.

During the first week of February, I began exhibiting symptoms consistent with influenza fever, chills, body aches but much more intense. This was like the flu on steroids. I don’t recall ever being so sick in my life. Shortly afterwards, more than half of the inmates in my housing unit came down with an eerily similar illness, all experiencing symptoms that mimicked my own.

I did not seek care from health services because I knew that they would tell me to drink fluids and take Tylenol, both things I was already doing. At this time, no one including myself expected that COVID-19 had entered the facility. It took three weeks for me to overcome whatever illness I had, and even then I did not feel 100% recovered.

On March 13, the inevitable happened. Due to concerns over a COVID-19 outbreak, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced that effective immediately, all inmate visitation would be suspended, and no volunteers would be allowed to enter the facility. Although we had yet to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 here, the administration said we would nevertheless be implementing what they termed modified operations. They also encouraged us to practice social distancing. I’m not sure exactly how they expected us to achieve this here with over 700 inmates in the facility, and upwards of 80 men per dorm. Even our bunks are less than five feet apart, two men to each 20-square foot living space. They blamed us when we could not possibly comply with these guidelines. 

The trial run of these modified operations lasted less than two weeks before the administration realized that it just wasn’t working. Immediately, all programs and activities, including religious services and indoor recreation, were suspended. They began feeding us one unit at a time in the dining hall. We were all made to sit on the same sides of the tables, facing the same direction, leaving every other seat unoccupied, allowing for extra space between us. These measures were intended to slow the spread. I appreciated the effort, but over half of the inmates were already sick with something and I am fairly certain it was COVID-19.

 Citing his concerns regarding the rapid spread of the COVID-19 among the prison population, the United States Attorney General, William Barr, wrote a letter to the Director of the Bureau of Prisons dated March 26. In it he recommended that the Bureau expedite the release to home confinement of as many of the inmates who qualified. Whether the BOP ignored that recommendation or simply could not manage the logistics of that plan, I haven’t heard of anyone, who was released. To date, the only inmates I know who have been released are those who have filed motions with the courts.

On Mar. 28, I experienced a relapse of the flu-like symptoms that I had back in February. The following Monday at approximately 7 a.m., I had a seizure. Having been diagnosed over twenty years ago with a seizure disorder, I am familiar with the warning signs. But even I couldn’t stop the sudden loss of consciousness and I fell face first onto the concrete floor. I smashed my face, severely bloodying my nose, splitting my lip, blacking my eye and I injured my neck, the extent of that damage is still unknown.

I am forever grateful to several of my fellow inmates who promptly alerted authorities to my predicament. After being transported to the Health Services Department via stretcher, I was given a cursory examination. 

Initially, no one was wearing any protective equipment. After I confessed that I was having flu-like symptoms, and confirming that I had a fever, out came the masks, gloves, gowns, and face shields. After my examination I was escorted to a makeshift quarantine unit, and subsequently tested for COVID-19 . Three days later, I was told that I did in fact have COVID-19. Six other men were tested at the same time, all positive. The next day, the number of infected had doubled, and by the third day that number had tripled. 

The unit being used for quarantine had previously been shut down for over a year, part of a money saving downsizing initiative. This unit is one of four in the complex containing two man cells. Although many of these cells were initially uninhabitable, the administration still assigned sick inmates to live in them. Though I was not assigned to a cell with feces overflowing the toilet, mine was just as filthy with a thick layer of dirt and grime covering every exposed surface. I was given a bottle of watered down sanitizing solution and a roll of toilet paper and made to clean it myself. The clothes I was wearing at the time became soiled with my own blood, and it was four days before I was given a change of clothes or the opportunity to shower. 

Most of these prison cells were originally designed for single occupancy. But what was once space for one becomes space for two or more, simply by adding additional bunks. Having a single cell for any length of time is virtually unheard of. This was the case in the quarantine unit. When the numbers of the infected continued to increase exponentially, I was forced to share a cell with another infected inmate. Our cell measured 6-feet by 9-feet and contained a double bunk, a locker, sink and toilet. 

On Tuesday, April 7, after being symptom free for more than 72 hours, myself and 15 other inmates were released from quarantine and returned to our housing units. There the majority of inmates were once again sick themselves. Some so ill they could barely get out of bed. Within a week, all movement was ceased and we have been sheltering in place ever since. 

Although the warden of this facility issued a memorandum on April 16 requiring all inmates to report any symptoms of illness no matter how minor, to medical staff, most did not for fear of being quarantined. As a result, the spread of the virus gained strength and speed. At the time, no one was being tested unless they presented with symptoms, and all tested were positive. Shortly after the warden’s memorandum, the administration began to execute daily temperature checks for all inmates. 

Finally, on May 11, the warden announced that COVID-19 testing would begin for the entire inmate population. Everyone on my unit was tested two weeks later. We were informed via electronic bulletin that if we were not removed from our housing units and placed in quarantine, we could conclude that our test had come back negative. 

 On June 1, tired of our constant complaining that we could not possibly comply with social distancing requirements, the administration finally took steps to attempt to alleviate the cramped quarters in our housing units. They shuffled several inmates out and scooted a few bunks around, creating a minor increase in open space. Three days later someone within the administration decided to move in several more men, negating the actions previously taken. 

If anyone within the Bureau of Prisons were in any way serious about social distancing, the spread of COVID-19 and the health and welfare of the prison population they would have to reduce the prison population by half, and that hasn’t happened. 

 
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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Thomas Donahue

Thomas Donahue is a writer incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institute in Danbury, Connecticut. He is serving a 25-year sentence. In addition to writing essays about his prison experiences, he is also working on a memoir in the hope that it will help prevent others from making the same mistakes.