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It was late afternoon, and there was a line of angry prisoners outside the sergeant’s office. His door sat agape, so when he finally glanced up from his computer screen, he sprung to his feet and exclaimed, “What the hell is this? Why is there a whole line of offenders at my door?”

One retorts, “It’s your office!”

Another asked about the number of people permitted to wait in line to use the phone. Beneath his facemask, the sergeant’s mouth could be seen preparing to form words, but all that followed was an awkward silence.

In movies about prison, the term, “fish,” is often used to refer to new arrivals. While that may not be the phrase of choice here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), it’s certainly fair to say that detainees have been “packed in like sardines” since the onset of COVID-19.

To curb the spread of the virus, Washington’s governor had confined detainees to their cells, where they have been forced to exist practically elbow-to-elbow most of the time. Each unit houses roughly 200 residents, and there are only 10 prisoner-accessible phones, which are perpetually occupied during the few hours their use is permitted. Until recently, only a maximum of three people were allowed to wait in line because there was nowhere to wait. The remaining 187 were required to remain locked in their cells.

Once an incarcerated individual was locked in his or her cell, the only way to be let out was to reach through the bars and adjust a sign that’s attached to the door, so guards could see it. More often than not, the door never opened because the phone lines were already full. This caused tension among the population, and fights broke out between residents. Eventually, in light of the extenuating circumstances, prison administrators issued new guidelines that allowed more access to resources — including prisoner phones.

But rather than answering the question about this new policy, the sergeant asked the inquirer why he wanted to know.

Somebody else explained, “Your officer is saying only three people can wait, and two of the phones are broken.”

“Then you all have to go to your cells,” the sergeant replied. “I’m not gonna side against my officer.”

Once the new guidelines were issued, it was mostly guards who had been working the units for years who resisted the changes. Their overall attitude was akin to that of somebody being told how to treat their own belongings. 

Before returning to his cell, where he’ll sit atop a metal bunk and think of his seven-year-old daughter who doesn’t get to hear her father’s voice on her birthday, the inquirer asked again about the policy.

“I said no,” the sergeant growled. “This isn’t a democracy.”

And though he’s right, it’s clearly not a dictatorship, either, because correctional officers (COs) were not complying with mandates issued by their superiors. Like at other prisons, the overshadowing reality at MCC is not that an elderly mother won’t hear from her son, or a wife from her husband, but rather that in this instant, a group of individuals has just been made aware that slavery was never truly abolished in the United States of America.

A change in the sergeant’s tone suggests that the time for discussion has ended, and angry faces turn solemn because whoever utters the next objection is liable to be taken to the Hole for noncompliance.

Most prisoners keep copies of their sentencing paperwork and often reread it upon placement in whatever facility they end up serving their time. These documents are misleadingly vague as to what the punishment of confinement actually entails. Those incarcerated in Washington State quickly learn that in most cases their treatment is subject to staff discretion, and decisions made with such discretion tend to be based on personal interactions rather than any set standard of policing. 

Those less able to (or less enthusiastic about) invoking the favor of their captors, seldom enjoy the luxury of quasi-fair treatment, which is bestowed on their more charming or manipulative neighbors. Moreover, with literally no policy in place requiring staffers to participate in the grievance program, there is no effective means by which to report them for misconduct.

Just before he left, the inquirer’s expression reflected a recognition of the futility of the situation. For a moment, the others lingered while the sergeant raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Well? What are you waiting for?” 

Finally, they retreated like animals to their cages. Once this reality has been thoroughly ingrained in them, some will be released — worse off than when they entered — back into a society which believes that slavery is the answer to crime.

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.

Michael J. Moore is a Latino writer and the author of the psychological thriller “Secret Harbor”; post-apocalyptic novel “After the Change,” which is used as curriculum at the University of Washington; and “Highway Twenty,” which was published by HellBound Books and appeared on the Preliminary Ballot for the Bram Stoker Award. His short fiction has appeared in various anthologies, journals, newspapers and magazines and has been adapted for theater and performed in the City of Seattle. His articles are published in HuffPost, YES! Magazine, CBS and the Point. He is incarcerated in Washington.