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Artwork by Quinnell Johnson

No matter your race, class, or opinions, one thing almost everyone can agree on is that 2020 was a tumultuous year, marred by hardship after hardship. From the pandemic, to the protests, to Donald Trump threatening democracy, there’s not a fortune teller who could have foreseen this. For an individual such as myself, who is serving a 12-year sentence in a California state prison, the effects of 2020 have been compounded considerably.

Despite the reality of being confined behind the cold, concrete walls of the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and Corcoran State Prison, I initially started 2020 the same as I’m sure many free American citizens did: cautiously optimistic.

I had recently settled a civil suit against several correctional officers, purchased an institutionally sanctioned JP5S Jpay smart tablet, and was contemplating what to invest in next with my newly acquired currency. I was oblivious to the sequence of events that were to befall the entire globe.

Sunday, January 26, 2020, will forever be etched in my mind as the fateful day that dealt the first piercing blow.

That morning I woke up and was going through the motions of my usual prison routine, which consisted of tending to my personal hygiene, cleaning my cell, eating chow, and having that first cup of Folgers freeze-dried instant coffee.

As I sat on my bunk, idly sending emails on my smart tablet, and glancing up periodically at my minuscule, yet life-sustaining, 15-inch flat-screen TV that sat perched atop the desk, my celly at the time said that Kobe Bryant had died.

The realization of the late, great Kobe Bryant’s demise impacted me profoundly, especially because I’m a Los Angeles native, and the Lakers have been an integral part of me and my family’s sports enthusiasm for generations. In retrospect, his untimely passing was a harbinger of the unprecedented pandemonium to follow.

By the end of March 2020, there was not a sentient soul at the prison — or the entire world for that matter — who wasn’t aware that we were in the grips of the deadliest pandemic in over a century.

ABC’s “Good Morning America” became my number one source of information on everything COVID-19 related, and I tuned in faithfully to their show every morning at 7 a.m. to get the latest no matter how ominously unsettling their daily death tabulations were. There was a collective feeling of uncertainty and apprehension amongst the prison population. No one knew how long the pandemic would last, or how they would possibly insulate themselves if an outbreak were to occur inside the prison.

As America, and most of the world transitioned into a period of strict lockdown, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began to roll out their own institutional version of lockdown restrictions, further diminishing the already limited livelihood the prison population had been afforded previously.

Suddenly, prisoners weren’t able to visit the prison yard library to conduct the legal research necessary to litigate; non-essential outside civilians were no longer allowed in, resulting in all self-help groups, and academic classes being suspended indefinitely; many prisoners with institutional jobs were not allowed to go to work unless they were in critical positions.

Furthermore, outside recreational time was greatly reduced and all weekend visits and overnight family visits were canceled or suspended until further notice, all in the name of social distancing.

Needless to say, it was virtually impossible for people to social distance when they are packed in tighter than sardines in a can 24 hours a day, all sharing the same ventilation system.

The prisoners were sufficiently, and utterly socially distanced from family and loved ones, which in turn, completely snuffed out any form of psychological support.

By the time May 2020 skulked in, it had become undeniably apparent that my number one prison goal for that year — to use the scheduled prison yard photo shoot to get photos of myself flexing to include with my profile on penpal websites — would not happen.

To make matters worse, just as I dared to assert that things couldn’t possibly go any more wrong, fate called my bluff on May 25 with the murder of George Floyd.

The murder of George Floyd resonated with me on a deep, sentimental level. Having grown up in the heavily policed area of South Los Angeles, formerly known as “South Central,” and experiencing brutality at the hands of police there, and having family members murdered by officers, I felt enormous empathy.

I can recount several instances while I was prone and handcuffed when a chokehold was applied until I nearly passed out, or an overweight officer’s heavy boot of justice stamped down on the back of my neck until I feared it would snap.

In moments like those, the realization of one’s own fragile mortality is ever-present; you know things could take a deadly turn in an instant.

Shards of broken glass, scattered across the hot, black asphalt of the city street. Infernos raging from burning liquor stores, emitting billows of thick, swarthy smoke into the air. Asian store owners standing atop the roof of their businesses, brandishing automatic weapons. Hordes of people running out of supermarkets with handfuls of looted merchandise. This is the scene that I witnessed at the age of four, riding around with my great-grandmother, and uncle in her old-school box Ford during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

So on May 31, 2020, as I watched the live coverage of the nationwide unrest following the slaying of George Floyd from my cell, I was struck with a sense of deja vu. The one notable difference I observed was that instead of airing their grievances and venting their frustrations by burning buildings mostly in their own residential communities, the protesters took their long-cultivated outrage to Beverly Hills, arguably the heart of American aristocracy, to make a resounding symbolic statement.

On December 5, 2020, my cellie’s test results came back positive for COVID-19, and even though my test results came back negative, I was forced to wait in the cell with him for three hours until correctional officers moved him to a COVID-19 positive building.

By Wednesday, December 9, I had already begun to feel sick.

“I hope I’m not coming down with something. Please don’t let it be COVID,” I thought to myself as I sat on my bunk inside of a cell designated for quarantine.

The following day, the symptoms, ranging from severe head-splitting headaches to sore throat, dizziness, fever, fatigue, etc. had grown so pronounced that I pondered the possibility of succumbing alone in a barren, concrete tomb of a cell, and being subsequently buried in a prison backyard cemetery, without so much as a tombstone to mark my final resting place.

I literally had to fortify myself by remembering that I’ve always been the proverbial “rose that grew from concrete” — whether it be through the concrete walls of a cell, or through the pavement of the concrete jungle.

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.

Quinnell “Chase Stg” Avery Johnson is a writer from Los Angeles who currently incarcerated in California. He has had his work published in The Abolitionist’s fall 2018 edition.