Photo by Wu Yi on Unsplash

“Everybody! Take it in! Off the phones, get out of the showers and take it to your cells. Lock in!” shouted the block officer. 

Around March 30, 2020, the prison went into lockdown mode, without explanation, which is usually the case around here. No one would give us a definitive answer about what was happening. You could be on the phone or just sitting in the dayroom and an officer could command everyone to stop what they’re doing and move. 

When something happens here, we are typically confined to our cells until the administration makes a determination about how best to handle the crisis. In this case, we were locked in for two or three days until we were allowed out to shower. We were only given 15 minutes because everyone needed to shower and just two cells were let out at a time. It was slow going. 

Information filtered in slowly. It was confirmed we were under a modified lockdown situation, and eventually, news about COVID-19 was shared piecemeal, through staff and the prison grapevine. 

Having the inmate population locked down means that other employees, such as education staff, are called to the kitchen to help with meal preparation and other essential duties that keep this place operating. Since March 2020, meals have been delivered to the housing units. Lunch and dinner are in Styrofoam trays, but breakfast is a brown paper bag containing a cup of cold cereal, two slices of bread, two packs of butter, a packet of instant coffee, two sugar packets, and a spoon. Twice a week, we get two boiled eggs for breakfast. 

Those are the good days.

By the end of the first week, a schedule was developed to allow more liberties, like showers, phone, and kiosk. Out-of-cell time increased from the initial 15 minutes to 45 minutes and finally 1.5 hours twice a day, which took about a month to become fully integrated. Cell cohorts were established to keep with the CDC Guidelines for social distancing and to limit the spread of the virus if someone should get sick. 

A cohort initially consisted of five cells but increased to 10, then 20. There was a scheduled rotation between block yard, dayroom, and other areas each day to keep cohorts separated. As the cohorts got larger and more men started coming out of their cells for rec time, it became more difficult to use the phones and kiosk. There were nine phones and three kiosks for about 40 men who had limited time out for the whole day. Everyone wanted to contact their families, but some people were not considerate and took the whole block of time for themselves. 

Several months into this “new normal,” the institution became more organized and structured. The workforce resumed, the education department and library reopened, the gym, barbershop, and access to the main yard were made available. There continued to be an attempt to maintain the illusion of social distancing through cohort groups. People typically remained in their cohort with the intention of keeping people apart and slowing the spread of the virus, while at the same time allowing operations to continue as much as possible. 

If a staff member had symptoms, that one cohort would be quarantined. But this guideline seemed to be implemented inconsistently. For example, on my side of the housing unit, a cohort was quarantined and the rest of the unit was free to move about and go to work. On the other side, allegedly, if an inmate tested positive, he remained in the cell with his cellmate, and the whole unit was restricted and not allowed to go beyond the block yard. That resulted in an environment in which people would not report their symptoms to the block officer because the whole unit would be locked down, affecting visitations and out-of-cell-time. 

Additionally, many people began to be relocated to different housing units around the institution, grouped together based on their jobs. A request to move causes a degree of anxiety. It’s like starting your time all over again. When you move to another unit or cell, you don’t know how things operate there, or who your new cellmate might be. You have to learn and get adjusted to a new routine. It’s odd to have new surroundings after having served 20+ years. 

I was a Certified Peer Specialist (CPS) in the community and Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) assisting men under emotional duress or with mental health issues. As someone concerned with mental illness, it was upsetting to see how the institution was operating without any definable concern for the mental health of men who had been here for decades. These men lived in one particular unit making friendships that are like family. They often played an essential part in maintaining peace because of the length of time they have been here and how they have conducted themselves. Now, out of the blue, they were being told to pack up and move. 

Moving away from people you have been with for decades and leaving them behind can have a greater impact than it would on the outside; these are close quarters that have been shared. With the way the compound is divided, you may not see each other again for a long time, if ever again. There have been instances where men have quit jobs they have had for many years because they did not want to move from the familiar surroundings where they were comfortable. 

For us, the biggest adjustment was not the confinement so much as the constant resetting of the rules and expectations, day to day, shift to shift, guard to guard. Meanwhile, we watched rank-and-file staff flaunt the rules and get us sick. 

We understood how imperative it is to stay vigilant and protected by keeping our hands clean and wiping things down with disinfectant as best we could. The administration said officers would provide cleaning products but we were either not allowed to use them, or there are none to use. I continued my own practice of wiping the cell walls down with a Tide and water solution, a little more frequently during this time. 

We all grasped the importance of the mitigations being implemented within these wall. However, the way that the administration partly imposed these things left a bad taste because it came off like we were being punished. The oppressive attitudes from the rank-and-file staffers increased, partly because we were locked in and they had to do more work. They had to feed us, deliver mail and deal with the trash. They got mad about working and lashed out at us. They got mad about the election and lashed out at us. They got mad at the governor’s restrictions and lashed out at us. 

Possibly because they were concerned about contracting the virus while at work, they had new hostility as if we were the ones responsible for the virus entering the institution. But we were not the ones traveling in and out of this place, spending time with others in public places, and with other staff directly or otherwise. This continues the sense that we are deemed to be the lowest form of life, no matter how much rehabilitation one demonstrates. We did not go out or have contact with anyone. Visits and transfers were suspended. So how did the virus come to be within these grounds? 

We were already being watched for the slightest infraction and now there was this feeling of hyper-management to make sure everyone was wearing a mask. If a person went to an outside hospital with staff transport, he was quarantined immediately upon return. However, the staff member who took him and brought him back was not, and remained free to move about the institution. We were held to a much higher standard of precaution while staff walked about wearing their masks like face-togas. 

At the time of this writing, there was an increased number of positive cases on the outside and on the inside. Once again, earlier this year, the whole institution was locked down with no explanation as to why or what was going on, as usual. After three days, the superintendent said via video that due to the increased numbers, we would be shutting down, doing a deep cleaning and reverting back to smaller cohorts. 

Lockdown… Rinse… Repeat!

In my 21 years of serving my life sentence, this is the first time the outside has invaded the inside world in this way. My first state ID was issued on September 11, 2001. New York and the world were devastated by the impact of that day’s events, but in prison, it was just another day. When President Barack Obama took office, it was a historical moment, but the true sentiment was not so significant on the inside. While the outside world has a chance to take in those moments, here inside prison, we are set apart. 

But COVID-19 is different. Now, we are part of the number of cases of COVID-19 in the state. We are a part of the conversation about what to do if the numbers increase, which they have been doing. COVID-19 has made its way inside and we have to do the very same things as the rest of the world.

 
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.

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Jeffrey Shockley

Jeffrey Shockley is an African American contributing writer incarcerated at State Correctional Institute Fayette in Pennsylvania. He has been serving a life sentence since 1999.