As I awoke to the blare of my cell’s intercom announcing morning count, I thought of the new virus ravaging Asia. It sounded like other viruses we’ve seen: H1N1, Bird Flu, Swine Flu.
Weeks later, the first Coronavirus (COVID-19) case hit New York. The virus was spreading through the world, and progressed rapidly from epidemic to pandemic. It overtook many people quickly, namely the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.
One day, during my law library session, the prison instructed all inmates to return to their respective living quarters. The following day they shut everything down indefinitely: GED and high school classes, rehabilitation programs, and religious activities. Now, we can only interact and eat with people in our housing units, and no more than two people can sit at a table together.
I am in close contact with my family, though telling them that visitation was discontinued was difficult for us all. From inside, we watched the virus toll climb on the news, alarmed at the speed by which it was spreading.
One day, a correctional officer was said to have contracted the virus while on vacation, but as a result was only quarantined for a week. Before we knew it, an inmate dietary worker contracted the virus and we were all put on lockdown. Though there were rumors at least sixteen people had COVID-19 SCI Fayette, this was the first confirmed case.
PPE masks were distributed, but not stressed on the prison’s information channel. We were told we would be issued five disposable masks per week but only received one. The following week, we received two DOC-constructed masks. We were allotted 20 minutes of personal time, which we could use to either make a phone call or shower.
Many correctional officers order us to wear masks but discard their own protective equipment amongst each other. They are our only contact with the outside world.
We eat cold or room temperature meals. We breathe recycled air with no kind of filtration or ventilation system. We’re prevented from exercising and, because of the effects of COVID-19 on the judicial system, cannot work towards our freedom.
After a few weeks, COVID cases, along with the economy, plummeted. Blue collar Americans saw their funds dwindle. Still, the DOC sold bargain sneakers at exorbitant prices and raised our commissary spending limit from $80 to $100. Maybe they’re trying to make up for the five free phone calls, four extra envelopes and five free emails they have given us per week.
Many of us were turning our attention to legal studies as a way to try and earn our freedom back when an emergency broadcast displayed police brutality for all to see. We watched the Minneapolis Police Department savagely kill George Floyd. Suddenly, the pandemic was overshadowed by an outcry for justice. Justice for all the lives lost by this indecency. Justice for Black lives.
Some states are seeing infection rates decline. There’s progress to be hopeful about. But in many places COVID-19 is still on the rise. Police violence against Black Americans continues to climb, too. So we must continue to fight for justice — for the protection of lives on the inside of prisons and out. Black lives matter.
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.