Fishkill Prison is an hour north of New York City and has a population of 1,600. As I write this, the prison has over 110 confirmed COVID-19 cases and five deaths. These statistics make this prison one of the biggest hot spots in the New York State prison system. The prison responded to COVID-19 in March by suspending all visitations and programs, and ending all activities.
The restrictions made me feel like the prison walls were closing in on me. And I wasn’t the only one. Earlier in the day, a routine argument in the housing unit escalated into a pointless fist fight that ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Life inside prison is like a microcosm of the outside world. Domestic disputes increased. The doomsday preppers stocked up on ramen and peanut butter and hoarded toilet paper. Some staff and inmates started wearing masks early on and were never far from a bottle of hand sanitizer while others made a show of not wearing a mask and referred to the pandemic as the Big Hoax. Still others promoted conspiracy theories. And just like in the outside world outside, we became familiar with the term essential worker.
Both guards and civilian staff supervise inmates. The bulk of the work in most prisons, which consists of feeding, cleaning, teaching, assembling, and maintaining is performed by its inhabitants. I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought to just how vital some prisoners are to the prison operation. Without food, tensions would boil over, so all the kitchen workers are essential. The same goes for the mess hall workers who serve the food, clean the tables, and replenish pitchers of water.
The Inmate Liaison Committee, which serves to communicate issues between the inmate populace and the prison’s executive leadership, is also essential. This is an elected body of prisoners, who many of us believe to be completely ineffectual, other than changing the flavor of ice cream in the prison commissary.
But at the height of the pandemic the ILC visited each housing unit to deliver updates on policy and local infection rates, town crier style, from the facility’s administrators. The news they brought wasn’t good, but it was something, a scintilla of information in the dark void of Covid-19. Additionally, the commissary workers, an incarcerated analog to the supermarket cashiers and stock keepers, work side by side with civilians. As a result, many commissary and civilian workers became quite sick.
In many ways, the most essential of all prison workers are a small cadre of porters, men who distributed cleaning and disinfecting supplies. It’s true that without the kitchen staff we’d be forced to subsist on peanut butter and jelly. But the porters, who you would probably refer to as janitors, were very essential workers inside this prison. Three times a day they delivered bleach and hand sanitizer, though the distribution didn’t start until one month after the quarantine began. The porters’ deliveries undoubtedly helped save lives here in Fishkill. Not only did they distribute disinfectant, but when a housing unit became quarantined for 14 days because of COVID-19 cases, they helped deliver food to the unit and removed bags of garbage.
When someone tested positive, the porters would be tasked with packing up the infected guy’s belongings, disinfecting his living area, and transporting the bags of property to “The Box,” which are isolation cells in the Special Housing Unit. This is where positive and suspected COVID-19 cases go for 14 days.
Understandably, given the amount of exposure to the virus, several porters became very sick and had to be quarantined themselves. But the job had to go on, so men volunteered (and sometimes, this being prison, were volunteered) to fill the newly vacated positions. Thankfully, none of these men died, unlike frontline healthcare workers. Several porters who were exposed multiple times did become life-threateningly ill. Still, each day they went to work and risked their lives. These men were given minimal personal protective equipment, only latex gloves, and non N95 single use masks that they would use for weeks on end. At most they were paid at 25 cents per hour, but the majority made 15 cemts.
By contrast, the work I did was seen as inessential. Having worked as a peer counselor since 2010, I have learned that the Department of Corrections does not take its mission of correcting and rehabilitating those in its custody very seriously.
Friday, March 13, 2020, was the last day for all of the prison’s rehabilitative programs. GED prep classes were put on hold, as were the vocational training shops, drug and alcohol counseling, aggression replacement classes, and reentry workshops. At the time, I was facilitating two workshops: Parole Preparation and Financial Empowerment. I was also a sort of traffic manager in the weekly orientation for new arrivals to Fishkill. With the courts shut down, the criminal justice system became bottlenecked in county jails as men and women waited to be tried or sent to State Prison. Without a full-time job and several extracurricular activities and volunteer programs, the pandemic drastically changed my routine. I suddenly felt acutely aware of how slowly time passes.
For most prisoners, the hardest part of incarceration is being isolated from our loved ones. We make do with visits, which we cherish and replay in our memories. Being able to feel a loved one’s hand, sharing junk food from the vending machine, and hugging goodbye means the world to us. And for those who don’t get visits, there are the volunteers who willingly trek into a place that all of its inhabitants dream of leaving, participating in faith groups, higher education, theatre programs, and writers’ workshops. These programs allow us to feel like humans for a few hours, not just ID numbers. COVID-19 took all of that away.
So, I found essential work of my own — to keep myself and those around me safe and sane. I listened, both to what was said and what was not. When an outgoing man became quiet and withdrawn, I made it my business to keep tabs on him. I checked in periodically throughout the day and let him know I’d always be available should he want to talk, which eventually he did. I helped peers see the pause of the pandemic as an opportunity to work on side projects and enjoy a respite from interacting with the wider prison population. I cooked elaborate meals for a pleasant crew of diners. We established new routines like watching the world news and competing at Jeopardy.
COVID-19 underscored just how interconnected the world is. Each of us have seen our lives change drastically, even if it’s been in different ways. Heroes have emerged, likely and unlikely. They are the ER nurse from Indiana who travels to Brooklyn to volunteer during the height of the pandemic, or the man in a neighboring cell who took bleach to quarantined housing units. People step up.
We learn about ourselves in times like these. And what we have learned, even as this virus continues to spread throughout the world, is that all of us have essential work to do: to endure, to persist, and to help others do the same.
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.