In prison, every law, policy or guideline is interpreted in whatever way that causes the most amount of discomfort to us incarcerated. Regardless of one’s beliefs about crime and punishment, the numbers indisputably demonstrate that such dehumanization contributes to recidivism because convicts are released worse off than when they came in. The Department of Corrections (DOC) doesn’t view prisoners as humans, their system is designed to teach us that we’re not, and their staff are highly trained in the art of reinforcing this point.
Still, some of my neighbors, suffering from Stockholm’s Syndrome, become pets to their captors. They can often be seen joking with guards and staring up with big, shining eyes, anticipating approval. I’ve always taken the opposite approach, seizing every opportunity to remind them that they’re little more than stakeholders in a modern-day slave-trade and that someday society will remember them with the same contempt that we now harbor for Confederate plantation owners.
When guards here in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) inevitably weaponized COVID-19 guidelines, I felt an obligation to jeopardize what was becoming a successful career as a novelist in order to expose a negligence that I knew would soon cost lives.
Six years ago, I sat in Seattle’s King County Jail with little more than an eighth grade education facing 30 years for a string of armed robberies. Having grown up in a culture that praised ignorance above academics and creativity, it took the monasticism of a jail cell for me to seek escape through writing. My first novel was written with a golf pencil on a few tablets of legal paper and passed around my living unit. The joy I found in the process, combined with the reactions of readers, reinforced a calling I had always felt. A few months later, I was sentenced to twelve years and sent to prison, where I became fully consumed by the craft.
When I finally began submitting my work in late 2018, I learned that most publishers were highly prejudiced against incarcerated individuals. My novel, “Highway Twenty,” was considered by Beacon Publishing Group, but they instantly retracted their interest when they learned of my living situation.
I stopped disclosing my status unless specifically asked. I published short stories in dozens of magazines and anthologies and signed book deals with multiple presses. My Twitter following grew, and authors I had grown up reading commented on my posts.
Then, COVID-19 swept the planet, and I sat in my cell, watching death tolls rise on my television screen. Washington State ushered in the first U.S. case, and a senior center forty minutes away had an outbreak that dealt death to dozens. Reporters claimed that one in five of all COVID-related fatalities occurred in long-term-care-facilities, but it was doubtful they had accounted for prisons even though they are by definition long-term-care-facilities. My neighbors and I have seen how even the common cold spreads here due to poor ventilation and close living quarters, so we knew that if the coronavirus came in, the majority of the population would have it within a couple weeks.
The complaints were minimal when visitation and all programing were suspended. However, the guards, being the only vessels through which the virus could come in, still refused to wear masks. Prisoners were also being de-incentivized to report symptoms, as any who did were taken to segregation, denied access to showers, and given only small rations of drinking water.
My wife suggested that it was time for me to enlighten the outside world about what was going on in my home, even though it meant exposing myself as a prisoner, because the only other option was to wait for people around me to die.
The resume I’d built as an author allowed me to publish with major news organizations, so I wielded the only weapon I had, which was my pen. Ultimately, however, it took a riot here to gain national attention before prisoners and guards alike were finally mandated to wear masks in the facility. Black Rose Writing, a publisher I had signed with, terminated my book contract four days after publication upon finding out I was incarcerated. Many of my readers unfollowed me on social media around the same time.
DOC began applying COVID guidelines in ways that, once again, put our lives in danger. The number of residents permitted in areas that allowed for social distancing was reduced, confining the population to the crowded living units, and soon, we were all sick. I experienced shortness of breath, an uncontrollable cough, and a sore throat that lasted a month. So did many around me, but we hid our symptoms. Numbers from an Ohio prison were being publicized in order to demonstrate that most carriers were asymptomatic. I wrote about our outbreak here in MCC, because I thought it was important to note that prisoners were likely concealing symptoms to avoid “the hole,” and that those numbers should be questioned.
Before long, exposing corruption and abuse of power, advocating for reform and giving a voice to the unheard around me became a full-time job. And though the people entrusted to micromanage my life fear transparency and don’t appreciate what I do, the feelings are mutual. I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
In fact, I’m going to make it my New Year’s resolution.
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.