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It’s been quite a while since COVID-19 first came to Stateville. I’m sure many of you hoped that things had gotten better over the past six months. I had hoped the same thing, but things have gotten worse. Much worse.

About a month ago, another guy was sent to the outside hospital with breathing problems. He was put on a ventilator, and he later died. Another death due to the indifference of the Stateville staff. His name was John Doran. He was the 19th guy to die of COVID-19 here at Stateville, according to my count.

My job is as a painter. My crew and I go all over the prison to paint. We have a lot of work. The prison is on lockdown, but I am one of the few that are out and about because of my job. I see all the corrections officers (COs) and administrative staff who don’t wear masks. I see all the staff who come to work sick. One CO, who I know well, was not wearing a mask and was sick. He was working Gate 5, the gate through which all COs pass to go in and out of the prison. The officers’ dining room is on the other side of this gate, so every CO going to lunch passes back and forth through this gate. I watched as he touched and spoke to almost everyone coming through that gate, whether they were incarcerated or not. He was so sick, at one point I asked him if he wanted me to get him help.

He’s not the only one. The corrections officers (COs) don’t wear gloves. Most continue to not wear masks. Those that do are often found with their masks around their chins. The warden has had to put out memoos ordering staff to wear their masks, which they only sometimes follow. I have written numerous grievances about the staff not wearing masks, but they go unanswered.

“The food has become slop. Various items are thrown together, and the portions are very small… Roaches have been found in food.”

The conditions here continue to deteriorate. We no longer get cleaning supplies and bleach to clean our cells. We do not get anything to clean the phones with even though they are push-button phones with handsets that must be held. The phone is plugged into a jack and passed back and forth, from cell to cell, hand to hand. Even when guys on the gallery test positive for COVID-19, the phones are not cleaned, and the cells are not cleaned.

The food has become slop. Various items are thrown together, and the portions are very small. The hard plastic trays they serve our meals on are not cleaned well, and they often still have food from previous meals on them. Roaches have been found in food. 

One day, they gave us what they call “chicken and noodles.” It is actually more like chicken bones with noodles. When a major was making rounds in the cellhouse, I showed him my tray full of chicken bones and moldy bread. Not only could I not eat what they served, I couldn’t even make a peanut butter sandwich. 

This situation leads directly to the situation with the commissary. 

When not on lockdown we go to Commissary every two to three weeks. On lockdown, we were only able to go once a month if we were lucky. Then, it was cut back to once every six weeks. 

Commissary is important for a number of reasons. You can buy phone minutes and e-mail credits to stay in touch with your family, which is particularly important when we are unable to have visits. Also important is the ability to buy food to supplement our diets. When we get chicken bones and moldy bread, we need to at least be able to eat ramen noodles. 

But most importantly, the commissary sells soap. Since we are not given bleach or cleaning products anymore, soap becomes essential. We wash our bodies, our cells, our clothes and constantly wash our hands. But we are allowed to buy only four bars of soap each time, which is not enough when the visits are so infrequent.

We are being treated like animals. We struggle to hold on to our humanity, to our soul, and they try to wrest it from you. We’re hungry, we’re dirty, and we’re afraid for our health and our lives and the lives of our friends. 

Every day, we are shown that our health and our lives don’t matter, that we don’t matter. We are treated like merchandise on a shelf. When one dies, just remove it and throw another in its place. 

But we are humans. We are sons, brothers, fathers, cousins and friends. Our lives matter. James, my cellie and best friend who died of COVID-19 mattered though they treated him as if he didn’t.

When we grew tired of being treated like animals, we protested. We went on hunger strike. We refused to eat and to work. Some lit fires. We refused to be treated as if we didn’t matter.

The final straw came when we found out that the COs did not have mandatory COVID-19 testing. 

Stateville is a locked facility. Every cellhouse is locked, every gallery is locked, every cell is locked. Yet for the past six months, the coronavirus has been running rampant here, and it’s because the COs are bringing it in.  

“Nineteen men have died here from COVID-19, and still they don’t care.”

All of the healthcare workers, the kitchen workers (some twice) and commissary workers have tested positive. Most of the cellhouse help and tunnel workers have also tested positive. The one thing they all have in common is that they are in the closest proximity to the COs. By not having mandatory testing, they are explicitly ignoring our health. Nineteen men have died here from COVID-19, and still they don’t care. 

They also do not have mandatory flu shots. In a normal year, that’s fine, but it’s not a normal year, and the possibility of bringing in the coronavirus and the flu is too much. There are still vulnerable guys with health conditions here, cancer survivors and diabetics who cannot afford to get either the flu or COVID-19.

Recently the tensions here have spilled over to violence on both sides. About three weeks ago, an incarcerated man assaulted a CO. 

The altercation began about the food, about not being fed well and not being able to buy food. It escalated into an assault. A week later, a guy with a pacemaker was knocked unconscious and beaten on the ground for over a minute and a half by a CO while the other officers simply stood there. 

They tried to cover it up by saying the incarcerated guy swung first, but fortunately, the entire incident was on camera, and that CO was arrested and charged. The atmosphere here is thick with mistrust and frustration, and after months and months, I wouldn’t be surprised if more incidents like this happen.

Some men have been kept in the visiting room, away from everyone else so they wouldn’t contract COVID-19, but not all the guys with high risk factors and underlying conditions have been isolated. Today, Oct. 14, 2020, one of those men was rushed out in an ambulance and taken to an outside hospital. He tested positive for COVID-19, and we hear he has been put on a ventilator. We hope for the best, but that’s usually not a good sign.

The coronavirus is not gone from this place, and it is not done killing men here. All we are asking for is mandatory COVID-19 testing for all staff here at Stateville. Help us. Our lives may depend on it.

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.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer and 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He is incarcerated in Illinois.