Photo by Dalton Smith on Unsplash

I am incarcerated at Big Muddy Correctional Center in Ina, Illinois. On March 20, 2020, our institution went on an administrative quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This day would be the beginning of many depressing days ahead.

You see, in Illinois, our governor recommended people stay in groups of 10 or less when COVID-19 swept through Illinois. After a 30-day stay at home order, Illinois COVID-19 cases dropped significantly and our governor moved the groups of 10 to groups of 50 or less.

The warden at Big Muddy would only allow 10 offenders at a time out of their cells for 30 minutes a day to shower, use the phone, and perform other basic needs and tasks. The same amount of people and time was used for our yard schedule. Everybody has been asked to social distance by a minimum of six feet. Even though our yard is five acres, only 10 offenders are allowed to go to the yard at a time for a half-hour, which means that offenders go outside only once a month. 

From March to December, the situation has only gotten worse. Our warden never changed the amount of offenders or the time allowed out of our cells even though the governor has adjusted his guidance on the number of people allowed in a group depending on infection rate trends.

In April, Big Muddy mandated all staff to wear a mask. After staff expressed concerns about their safety, offenders received a KN95 mask and were required to wear the mask any time out of the cell. All masks given to offenders, however, had the nose piece removed because they said it could be used as a weapon. I’m worried because I saw a segment on the news about how the nose piece is important to protect the wearer from airborne particles.

Since officers pass out and collect old masks every week, they could very easily monitor the masks in my opinion. However, it feels like officers are always in a rush to get back to their chairs to catch up on the latest gossip.

In November, Illinois started seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases. Up until then, our institution had 12 officers and one offender with COVID-19. In the first week of the month, COVID-19 swept through our institution. Officials here quit updating us on the number of cases found. Around Thanksgiving, I called home and my mother looked online to see that 54 officers and 69 offenders were confirmed to have COVID-19. That seemed like a pretty big jump in one month. 

I almost forgot to tell you that most of the officers do not wear their masks unless you count wearing it around your neck or over your arm. After hundreds of phone calls and grievances written about this problem, nothing has changed. It doesn’t help that our warden retired in April, and our number three warden retired in December. Our number two warden is currently in charge. (Why is the Illinois Department of Correction not able to hire a warden? They had eight months plus and knew he was retiring.)

To say I’m depressed is an understatement. I tell my family that I’ve lived in a eight-by-ten-foot space that is about the size of most average home bathrooms with a random stranger for 23.5 hours a day, seven days a week for the last nine months. 

During most of November, Big Muddy put almost every wing in every house on a medical quarantine. That means they only let one cell out for 30 minutes to shower, use the phone, etc. We’re basically confined to our cells 24/7. On average, I get out of my cell every four days for 30 minutes. As for the yard, it has been two months now since I have been outside for anything.

Meal trays have been brought to our cell for over nine months now. Prison food is bad enough as it is, but now they do not even attempt to heat up our vegetables. We went from a five-week menu rotation to about five, consisting of pasta, hotdogs and “slick meat.”

When our TV went out for about a week, we were told to be patient, it would be fixed. The prison took one of our movie channels to stick memos on in fine print that was too small to read. This was the same movie channel which an offender’s family member donated. If we want to watch a new movie, we have to ask our family to donate new movies. To top that off, the Kardashians are ending in 2021 too!

The next time you feel the stress of the pandemic, remember it could be worse. I see offenders break down daily. Some call for a crisis team, some are suicidal and some go on hunger strikes.

Myself, I am grateful for my family’s support. They provide money and send me letters, phone calls and words of encouragement. Most importantly, I’m grateful I can spend time with my son.

I hope change is coming. Our country is divided, and our prison systems are corrupt and overcrowded. Prison is no place for our youth to be sent for rehabilitation. I have been in two of Illinois’ maximum prisons and is it no place to send a young man.

I hope that I am alive to see the changes being made. COVID-19 is no joke and prisoners are helpless without help. Officers are not above the law and should be held accountable for putting my life at risk. 

Wear your mask, if not for you, then wear it to protect someone you know. So my question to whoever reads this is: Do prisons care or care less about our lives? 

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.

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Aaron

Aaron is a writer incarcerated in Illinois. He is publishing under his first name only for fear of reprisal.