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(Dated Oct. 11, 2020)

I believe Dr. Lane Murray Unit has had one of the highest cases of COVID-19 at a female unit in Texas. Thankfully, we have had no deaths. We still have dorms on lockdown due to positive cases. For some odd reason, when an offender goes to the hospital and tests positive, the unit retests them and claims it was a false positive, and we go off lockdown. Here is the rough timeline: 

March: A laundry boss tested positive. Masks were forbidden, so as not to cause a panic, and no cleaning supplies were given out for individual living areas. The unit was very short staffed.

April: Masks became mandatory and bleach was given out daily. A 125-bed dorm was cleared for quarantine and a roughly 50-bed call clock for suspected cases. Most people who lived in the quarantine dorm now slept on the gym room floor. The entire unit eventually went on a lockdown that lasted approximately 45 days. We were not allowed phone access, TV access, nor commissary. We saw no news and didn’t know how our families were doing. After excessive grievances, we were allowed $10 to spend for writing supplies. 

At the end of April, I was moved to the cell block, tested positive and moved to the quarantine dorm. I was in the third group of women moved into this dorm, meaning we were already numbering in the hundreds. Our temperature and oxygen were checked twice a day.

Medical became free of charge, but no one could be seen unless it was COVID-19 related. Since I was in a medical unit, many people need medical attention often but could not get it. 

May: Unit-wide testing occurred in May. Most fake-tested, so they wouldn’t be moved and denied phone and commissary privileges. Most took care of each other and rode out the sicknesses for the chance to write and call family. At the end of the month, we were allotted one five-minute phone call.

June: At the end of the month, we went back on a unit-wide lockdown for 14 days. 

July: Since this month, we have been going on 14-day lockdowns dorm after dorm when someone has a temperature or tests positive.

August: There was no library access until August. For students, we were given packets of homework weekly. When the new fiscal year started, school started back up. We were now going off-unit to our welding vocationals. 

October: Half of our class went on quarantine this past Tuesday. Then, our teacher was exposed and had to be tested, so we missed all week except Friday, Oct. 9. The food was terrible when it wasn’t rotten and there was no rec. These lockdowns were hard on a lot of people mentally. 

We are in the Deep South, and units are normally in areas where people support President Trump and think the virus is a hoax by Democrats to oust Trump. They believe that the flu kills more people than COVID-19, and that COVID-19 is just like the flu. They don’t believe in wearing masks. 

In managerial accounting, we learned about how long a company can survive without an influx of cash. Texas, as well as other states, have reached that mark and just want to open up their economies. Gov. Abbott said on the news that Texans don’t worry about the numbers spiking in Jefferson County.

(The following is an edited version of a letter that the writer wrote in May)

May 16, 2020 

To Whom It May Concern:

My name is Tandy Marshall, and I am an inmate at the Dr. Lane Murray Unit. I tested positive for coronavirus on April 28, 2020. I am writing because the administration is mismanaging the outbreak here and is being negligent and discriminatory towards those who have tested positive, ignoring medical recommendations. I have put in multiple grievances to no effect.

After laundry boss Ms. S tested positive on March 30, 2020, the warden refused to let staff wear masks, going so far as to threaten some with being fined when they insisted. It took an entire week for them to start wearing masks. The medical unit has told the administration that we need air and exercise, pointing out that we are too close to each other in the dorms. They recommended some outside recreation to no avail. The number of positive cases in the unit has been misrepresented. 

For a month or more we were not able to use the phones nor go to the commissary. When these opportunities were offered in May, those of us with the virus were excluded. I, and others, still have not received a phone call, which is cruel and unusual punishment. This virus is taking lives, yet I cannot call and tell my children I love them. 

After being on lockdown for so many days, we are supposed to get one hot meal a day, but we are not. We are getting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with one other sandwich. We are getting spoiled boiled eggs and moldy bread. We need immune-boosting foods like vegetables to fight the virus. 

We are supposed to be in cells by ourselves if we have symptoms, yet several ladies who tested positive were placed in cells with ladies who were negative. The negative offender had to retest because they were in a cell together and tested positive the second time around. We are not being moved to another unit just shuffled around the same one. 

People who reported having multiple symptoms were sent back to the dorm where they infected others. At least three people in my dorm were sent back. All were positive after being tested a week later. 

Officers are worried, but they need their jobs.

Other units have taken better precautions, without treating us like sub-humans because we have the virus and are incarcerated. I am calling on someone to help us be treated fairly according to the laws of this land and the policies of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I want my phone call. I want to be in a safe environment. We need better leadership in this unit. 

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.

Sakina Shakur

Sakina Shakur was the editor of Money Games, a prison newsletter about personal finance. She holds an associates degree in general studies and is a student in a joint program at the University of Houston-Downtown and Houston Community College. She is passionate about history, politics, religion and criminal justice reform. She was incarcerated in Texas.