I haven’t slept much lately because some of my neighbors have been pounding on walls and screaming at night. They rattle their bars and shout insults at guards, and two nights ago, some of them set articles of clothing on fire and threw them off the tiers. It’s become maddening, but I don’t blame them because though all of us who live here in the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State are prisoners. We are not sentenced to die at the hands of our captors.
That did not stop Sidney Potts from dying a couple weeks ago. They kept him in a small, condensed living-unit in a century-old building with poor ventilation and bars, rather than doors, which meant everybody perpetually breathed the same recycled air. He was in a unit that suffered 147 infections, and they kept him there even though he had health problems that put him in greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that he had an active lawsuit against the prison over their mishandling of his health issues.
My unit is identical to Sidney’s, and it has been loud as heck for days. Rap music has been booming from the cell above me for the past seven hours, and I can hardly hear myself think, let alone string together these words with any clarity. A little over a week ago, they brought a man from one of the designated COVID-19 quarantine units, and a few days later, they took him back when he and another prisoner who had come into contact with him tested positive. My unit was immediately placed on quarantine status.
A quarantine status means I’ve been locked in my cell for four days and haven’t been allowed to speak to my wife or my children, or even take a shower. The cells here in MCC are six-by-nine feet — the smallest in the state — but I’ve been innovative in figuring out how to exercise daily and wash my body in the metal sink attached to my toilet.
Normally, I could send my loved ones a message, but our email service has been down since the day our quarantine began. A couple days ago, some were let out, 16 at a time, to shower and use the phones. I asked if someone would call my wife for me, but as she’s in England, she was sleeping.
My section was skipped and that was the last straw. That’s what caused the fires. Now, as a form of collective punishment, access to these amenities has been stripped. People are taken out as they test positive for COVID-19, and the noise around me is making me want to rip my face off and stick it to the wall.
I knew Sidney Potts well enough to know he was old, but not well enough to know he had just turned 70, or that he had problems with his heart. He was vibrant for his age, and coached a softball team in the prison every year. It wasn’t the COVID-19 that killed him, but a heart attack, which he might have survived had the Department of Corrections not left him in a situation vulnerable to the deadly virus.
This place is a Petri dish. Even in normal times, just about everybody catches every seasonal disease that makes it in every year.
I keep wondering how the people who staff the medical wing here in MCC have not thought to move vulnerable prisoners out of infected units and keep them somewhere safe. If I, a guy with only a GED and a personal training certificate, can figure out that that is what needs to happen, then so can they. They just don’t care.
There’s a distribution of guilt taking place, in which nobody has to bear the consequences of Potts’s death, because no one person ordered him to be held in the COVID-19-infested unit. But nobody seems to be asking whose job it is to protect MCC’s vulnerable, and why that job was not done. A man is dead. In any other circumstance, an investigation into the negligence that led to his death would be happening and charges would already have been filed.
Does Sidney Potts’s life matter less because he was incarcerated when he died? What if he had gotten into a fatal crash on his way to the courthouse to be sentenced? Would it have mattered 30 minutes before being taken into custody, but not 30 minutes after?
And what about the life of my 61-year-old neighbor with lung problems, who may be facing the same potential fate now that my living unit is experiencing an outbreak? Or the guy downstairs with complications related to a recent case of pneumonia? Or the 70-something-year-old who lives above me? If the virus spreads as aggressively as it did in the other two units, their chances of not catching it are slim unless they are moved somewhere safe.
Will the head of the Washington State Department of Corrections later tell their families why he didn’t think their lives were important?
The noise at night, the pounding, the fires, the hunger-strikes and the obnoxious music resonating so loudly that it seems to echo inside my skull — I hate it all. I make my living in this cell, writing articles, books, short-stories and whatever else I am paid to write, so I prefer it to be quiet. But I understand the frustration and even though it is coming out as anger, it is really stemming from fear.
Sidney Potts was not incarcerated for a violent crime, and he was not serving a life sentence. He was a drug offender. He had a release date, a wife and a big family who are all wondering why nobody is being prosecuted for his murder.
And my neighbors?
They are afraid because what happened to Potts puts into perspective just how little our lives are valued and how much danger we are currently in because of 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.