Last night the announcement rang down the hallways: “Building 510, We are now on quarantine!”
Quarantine policy states that if a single person tests positive, the whole hallway quarantines in an isolation building. The person who tested positive is taken to a different quarantine building. The continual spread of COVID-19 and the horror stories of those in quarantine seem to show that the quarantine area doesn’t help prisoners stay safe or healthy.
In February, the first prisoners were offered the COVID-19 vaccine in my prison. On my hallway, I would estimate at least 80% or more have been vaccinated. There was a rumor jobs, visiting, and programs would be contingent on being vaccinated. That has not yet been confirmed.
Second shots were delivered in March and prisoners coming off resolved status (recovered from COVID-19 for 90 days) were offered the vaccine. A number of prisoners continue to refuse the vaccine, including me. We each have our reasons, and they are not likely to change.
At the time of this latest quarantine announcement, there were 13 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in the facility. This quarantine is because a person with a resolved status has now tested positive. We are unsure if the test is a false positive because of quarantine errors, or if the person actually has COVID-19.
During the December outbreak, a number of cases sent to quarantine turned out to be false positives. Those people then caught COVID-19 while in quarantine, so the time frame to determine whether a case is resolved is uncertain. The person who just tested positive may not have been positive when entering quarantine and may still be infected, resulting in the positive test result.
With this new outbreak, we are waiting to see what services will be suspended. Dental services had just reopened, but the staff refused to treat anyone with a scratchy voice even with a negative rapid result COVID-19 test within an hour of their appointment.
Access to health specialists is also limited. For example, we were told there will no longer be an eye doctor on site, and we will have to be transported off-site for eye appointments.
For some prisoners, the procedure for off-site appointments is emotionally and mentally challenging. Prisoners are strip-searched and shackled then taken into a world they can never be a part of, to see the condemning looks of a public with no idea why they are in a prison uniform and chains. Then there is the risk of being quarantined on return. It’s a bit much just to get a “routine eye exam.”
Canteen and quarterly packages are now considered a luxury and are limited or discontinued at the staff’s discretion. Receiving staff who handle package distribution are busy processing prisoners from county jails. Processing books, tablets, and packages are not a priority compared to processing prisoners.
Access to family has already been all but cut off. We were told last night that one-hour face-to-face visits will not happen for our prison as previously announced. Video visits are limited.
Phone access is limited to three calls during each hour-and-a-half day room period even though there are eight people in the day room at a time. On days the day room program time is one hour, only two of the eight people can make phone calls.
In May, we were told that we would get tablets enabled for video calls. This service is in operation at some prisons, but we are waiting to see if it will become a reality. Without video calls, a significant portion of us will continue to go without phone calls and visits.
Emails through Jpay are our primary form of communication, but that service seems to be full of glitches. Today I received an email from three weeks ago. My family cannot open the application despite reinstalling it numerous times. All of this makes communication very stressful.
Working prison jobs has also become very stressful. Inmate workers are the backbone of all prison services. The kitchen is considered a critical job, but has proven to be a high-risk position during the pandemic. Staff not trained in food handling are passing out trays to rooms that are locked down. As a result, prisoners who work in the kitchen have stories of sanitation violations. It is troubling to imagine how things are going without the trained staff.
The plight of the critical worker in prison is a strange one. If a person does not work, they lose their job. But when the prison returns to normal, they have to compete for that same job and wait to be given any position that becomes available. Going to work during the pandemic is risky because free world staff mix with prison employees. In some cases, the jobs are not optional. If you do not report to work, you receive a disciplinary write-up. That write-up can impact your eligibility for housing, programs, and even freedom.
A significant percentage of the population is still displaced from the quarantine moves of December and January. Now, these individuals are stuck where they are. Locking eight mismatched women in a cell is not healthy. The number of alarms and acts of violence increased to the point we no longer find it strange to have several in a day. Busted windows and black eyes are now considered normal.
We are constantly told to “deal with it, this is prison. If you don’t like it don’t come.” That is a frustrating phrase for inmates.
California’s laws condemn both the guilty and those associated with them, which means there are women spending their lives in prison despite never laying a hand against anyone. These lifetime prisoners are sometimes put with short-term prisoners, but the lifestyle of a temporary prisoner and long-term prisoner are vastly different and rarely compatible.
Some rooms use fitness routines to try to find some common ground. The roommates gather between the bunks to work out. They run in place, do burpees, or follow non-equipment books that people send. Sometimes rooms across the halls work out together to offer motivation. Some stick with it as boredom drives them to do something with their time.
For a few weeks, we had time in the recreational yard, but since the building is quarantined, no one is allowed outside the doors. We didn’t have yard for most of December, January, and February.
As of last night’s announcements, school is continuing through correspondence classes. We have GED programs and three college programs. The materials are delivered and picked up on Fridays. The substance abuse programs have now transitioned to independent studies.
Organizations like Post-Release Education and Preparation (PREP) offer anger management and other classes through correspondence. Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous offer some correspondence classes, but there is no sponsor program for inmates. There are no groups or personal contact for those struggling with addictions. Just independent study. A counselor comes to pick up and drop off work but does not speak with students about their struggles or needs.
Letters voicing our concerns mailed to the federal receiver were redirected to the California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS). CCHCS sent a form letter reply saying that they are following the guidelines for prisons set by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). This is frustrating because the CDC’s plan might work for two-person open cells used by many prisons, but are not practical for cells packed with eight people.
In a cell with eight people, some are likely to work in high-risk areas and others may socialize recklessly. There is no way to social distance, even if each person is simply lying in bed. The old ventilation systems cannot prevent contamination from outside the room.
The medical staff and custody staff have used the “inevitability of catching COVID-19” as a motivator to compel prisoners to take the vaccine.
This latest outbreak of COVID-19 is spreading, and we don’t know where it will end. So far we have lost officers and at least one prisoner. We all have families and friends. Some of us have lung issues and immune disorders.
Who will catch COVID-19 next?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.