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Profile of a man wearing a mask for COVID protection in prison
Photo by Kayla Speid on Unsplash

It is Election Tuesday on Nov 3, 2020. It is two months into the fall season and eight months into this pandemic. The second tsunami of COVID-19 is here and I’m worried. I hope I’m not sick again. I have been getting these wicked headaches every day for a month. My doctor prescribed me a nerve pain medication called Topiramate. Some days it works; other days it feels like a waste.

Just a few weeks ago, Steph, Live, Phil, Spencer, Kush and four other guys I know were quarantined after they were around a law library officer who tested positive. That damn law library. The very first brother I knew who died from COVID-19 worked in that same library.

Lockdown by Another Name

All of the guys who were quarantined were put in a quarantine unit in Building Five’s A-Gallery behind plexiglass three days after the fact. The men reported that not only was the contact tracing a farce, but when they were quarantined, they were denied basic human necessities such as cleaning supplies, pen, paper, envelopes, hot food, recreation (which is mandated by law), and a means to wash their clothing and hang them to dry. The men were put under 23-½-hour lockdown for something that was not their fault. This is contrary to the CDC’s guidance to “ensure that medical isolation for COVID-19 is distinct from punitive solitary confinement of incarcerated individuals both in name and practice.”

As the secretary of the Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC), I represented the prison population. I was voted into office by the population of 1,500 men at Sing-Sing Correctional Facility. I, and eight others, represented their interests before the executive administrative staff.

On October 30, 2020, the ILC was called down to the chapel for a meeting with the superintendent. In essence, we were informed that we would no longer be allowed any contact during visits. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to see my wife, to be close to her, yet be unable to comfort and console her or to feel her warmth and heartbeat against my chest. I wondered what it would be like to be across a table from my grandson, Jace, and try to explain to a 4-year-old child why I can no longer hug or hold him.

State-Wide Transfers for COVID

We were also informed that the entire population of Sing-Sing would be tested for COVID during the week of Nov. 9. The administration was moving out the entire honor block, also known as Building 7, in the event that there were too many positive COVID results and not enough space in the quarantine unit. They said the honor block was being converted into a New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) COVID quarantine unit, per the Department of Health. This meant that wherever a New York state prisoner tested positive for COVID, he would be transferred there.

This statewide quarantine unit is disturbing for a number of reasons, including the fact that I have heard this kind of transfer was the reason that COVID infections skyrocketed at San Quentin State Prison in California.

Why would DOCCS transport COVID-positive persons hundreds of miles to a whole new facility, potentially exposing scores of people along the way? It would be safer for each facility to create its own quarantine unit. Also, the officers who work the COVID unit should not be allowed to work in the general population. Currently, there are officers working in Five-Building’s Quarantine Unit one day, and in the general population the next day.

Secondly, studies have shown that contagion is not a matter of if they become infected, but a matter of when. We can reasonably conclude that this model applies here to us, so when we become infected, we will in turn infect our families, who will go on to spread out through the communities.

Lastly, why did the superintendent choose Sing-Sing to establish a statewide COVID unit? Could it be a coincidence that Sing-Sing has one of the highest numbers of Latino and African-American employees than any other NYS DOCCS Facility? Has NYS DOCCS failed to consider the rate at which COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed Blacks and Latinos?

Social Distancing From Families

I know there is no such thing as social distancing in prison. I know during the first wave in April when I got sick, all my requests for medical care were ignored. How many times am I expected to contract COVID and survive? Despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily COVID briefings directing all Americans to wear masks, we were denied masks. In fact, when we attempted to create our own masks out of handkerchiefs and t-shirts to protect ourselves, we were threatened with misbehavior reports. We only got masks in May, three months into the pandemic.

Sadly, since the beginning of the pandemic, prisoners and their families have mostly been separated. We have been stigmatized and made to feel like we are diseased and infected, all while potentially being exposed to COVID by DOCCS employees.

I recall that on a dozen or so occasions, a group of us would be walking down the corridor coming back from school or the yard toward a group of staff, and they would rush to pull up their masks, each wearing homemade garlic-strung necklaces to keep us at bay, as if we were Biblical lepers, come to infect them. The stigma is affecting us psychologically.

We are not dirty. We are tired of being ridiculed and ostracized as society’s villains. We are human beings. We are Americans.

Although we have been convicted of felonies, we have not lost our rights to love, to express ourselves, to live and to breathe. We are paying our debts to society, and although we may not have a right to liberty, we have a right to life. It is long past the opportunity for an ounce of prevention, but we can still hope for a pound of cure.

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.

Sheldon P. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in New York. He is a graduate of the Cornell Prison Education Program, a member of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group and a contributor to Prison Writers.