My name is Jessie Milo and I’m writing this from my prison cell in California State Prison Corcoran where I am serving 174 years plus six life terms for three counts of attempted murder. I have been incarcerated for 6,000 days. This story is about COVID-19 and me.
I’ve seen a lot of things in life — I’ve been in prison since I was a kid — but life as a prisoner in the era of COVID-19 has been one of my scariest experiences.
A decade ago I changed my life and have been rebuilding myself as a man who’s ready for the world ever since. Recently, I was proud to consider myself finally ready! Then COVID-19 came. It interrupted the mundane daily tasks of navigating prison life, the waiting for doors to open, going to work, and dodging bullies.
COVID-19 came silently. We were told to wear a mask and do our best, but we still didn’t know how a person contracted COVID-19. Unfortunately, I found out. I was mentoring a friend who was serving life and had lost hope. He was going through a divorce and just wanted to be home with his family. So I told him about commutations by the governor that allowed any prisoner to request release. We immediately began working on his life history to explain his transformation.
We were in my work office, a ten-by-ten-foot space when he coughed. That’s all it took for me to contract COVID-19. The next day when he could not get out of bed, I knew this would be my fate too, delayed til tomorrow.
Symptoms for me: initial fatigue, then persistent cough all through the night, chills in my lower spine, kidney pain, and a migraine that made me feel like a blood vessel had burst. No pill would get rid of that headache.
A couple days after I contracted the virus the institution ordered a lock down for COVID-19 testing. There are 100 cells in a housing unit with two inmates per cell. Twenty nurses came with gowns and gloves. They set up shop, two nurses to a dayroom table. They all changed their gloves after each test except for one nurse.
To our astonishment, she simply put hand sanitizer on her gloves between each inmate. So when I came out to get tested, I was happy that another nurse called me over. She said, “Tilt your head back, honey, this won’t hurt a bit,” which was a lie. Even though one of my nostrils is partially closed from an incident when it got broken running from the police when I was 14-years old, she jammed the cotton swab up there. I felt like I was 14 again, in the hospital with my dad while the doctor shoved a giant smelly swab up my busted nose. But none of this was the worst part.
Four days after the test, my cell door buzzed open. The only light in the dayroom came from windows 20 feet up the wall. There was one nurse by a table with a blood pressure machine. She motioned for me to come, so I put on my mask and headed down the stairs. She had gloves, a gown, mask and face shield, and she told me to sit down while she took my vitals.
“You tested positive,” she told me. “Go ahead and go back to your cell.” That was it. I thought a positive test would come with medicine or a doctor’s visit to give me instructions. But no, nothing. I went on with my day and saw information about COVID-19 broadcasted on TV, “You could die, your grandma could die…”
As I lay there that night in my six-by-nine-foot prison cell, I came face to face with a lifer’s worst fear, any prisoner’s worst fear, and our families worst fear — the fear of dying alone in a prison cell. I thought, “This could really be it.” I had heard of people with COVID-19 going to bed and not waking up.
We weren’t allowed to use phones, so I couldn’t call my family to tell them that I was sick and that I loved them. I was feeling defeated, which is never good for someone with an illness.
Then I got mail from people saying they signed my petition for release: Jessie Milo @Change.org. They felt I deserved a second chance. Finally some good news.
Some supporters sent stamps and cards from all over the country. This warmed my heart and no doubt helped me to beat the virus. As people we need each other. And especially as a prisoner, I need you all out there.
I also believe the immune system I had built up from eating prison food for the last 20 years played a role in my recovery. I have sleep apnea, asthma, and hypertension, so this virus was a real danger for me.
My heart goes out to all the people who have lost someone to the virus. Having heard that plasma and antibodies can help save people from the virus, I asked the nurse if I could donate some to help other people once I recovered. She said she was not aware of any process that would allow incarcerated people to donate. My question was why not?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.