(Editor’s note: this article was submitted in August 2020)
Most people probably assume that inmates don’t know what is happening in the free world, that we’re trapped in a concrete time capsule, oblivious to current events, pop culture, modern technology, breaking news, and global affairs, isolated from politics and unaware of trends. While I can’t speak for everyone around me, I personally consume every bit of information I can, swallowing updates like a blue whale feasting on krill.
I can’t get enough: television, newspapers, radio, magazines, telephone. I’ll do anything to gain some knowledge about the streets, to keep my finger on the pulse of a globe physically beyond my reach. Anything to hold onto a lifetime of normalcy that can keep me afloat until my return to society and my family. Not everyone is like me.
Some prisoners don’t care about this frayed tether to reality – others have just given up. But these days, the men around me certainly know about the novel coronavirus spreading like wildfire through the country’s jails and prisons. Even the inmates in solitary confinement are kept abreast of the latest COVID-19 news. Since mid-March, I can’t go anywhere on the compound without hearing a conversation about this pandemic, and rightfully so.
As we head into the stifling August heat in the Everglades, the buzzword used to describe life outside right now is “unprecedented” – unprecedented unemployment, unprecedented contagion, unprecedented shelter-in-place orders, unprecedented depression. Unprecedented fatalities. The topic is unavoidable even behind the fence.
I’ve always said that the most devastating thing that could happen to me while I’m in prison would be the death of one of my parents.
I don’t fear for my own safety or lose sleep over my re-entry because I have some control over these things – they’re in my circle of influence. I know how to defend myself, and I know how to get a job. But the mere thought of losing someone I love brings me crippling anxiety, and as the planet focuses on finding a vaccine, I worry about my sixty-something parents. They are healthy and young at heart but at-risk nonetheless.
I hope that they will live long, prosperous lives, but I imagine many other sons and daughters in America had wished the same, only to have their families torn apart at the seams. The sheer agony of not being at their graveside and not being able to say goodbye would drive me to a heretofore unknown depression – a grief that would scar me for life.
With concern for my parents’ well-being at the forefront of my mind during this pandemic, I’ve hardly taken a moment to think about my own mortality. I just figured that I was invincible after what I’ve beaten in life so far – drug addiction, car accidents, divorce, abandonment, and making it through violent prisons as a suburban White boy. I thought that nothing could harm me until COVID-19 hit the Florida Department of Corrections.
Now I’m paying attention.
With 94,000 inmates, Florida has the third-highest prison population in the United States, and a large percentage of the inmates have already tested positive. In a state where proper medical treatment for prisoners ranks near the bottom, this is disconcerting to say the least. It’s a safe bet to say that if I contract COVID-19 and have complications, I’m in trouble.
New cases are developing here at Everglades Correctional Institution every day, and all over Florida, prisons are reporting hundreds of infected and dozens of deaths, with no letting up. We’ve been on lockdown here in Miami for five months now, but ever since six men were taken to the emergency room from Everglades last month, we’ve been in and out of full quarantine; there’s no end in sight.
A few days ago, someone handed me their tablet to read an Associated Press news article about COVID-19 in an Ohio prison. According to the article, out of 2,000 inmates residing at that institution, almost every single one had tested positive for the coronavirus, and 68 had died.
As I scrolled down to see a picture of one of the deceased, I saw the mugshot of a healthy, stoic, 43-year-old staring back at me. Me… a healthy, stoic 43 year old. He had died in prison, and probably in vain. He died before he had a chance to get out. Maybe he hadn’t yet made amends with his family, or even asked for forgiveness. Maybe he never completed his life goals, never had the chance to live with true purpose or meaning.
I too am a healthy, stoic 43 year old. At least I know that I’ve done that. I can go in peace, but I hope it’s not right now.
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.