Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

The first time I was given a mask, I knew the pandemic was real. Before then it was like one of those earthquakes you hear about but never feel. 

That’s the thing about being in prison: A lot of things don’t seem real until you can actually feel them, and that’s what the simple white cotton cloth mask did — made it real. 

All of us convicts had heard the news on TV but no one thought it was serious, just another excuse for a lockdown, which meant no programs. “Lockdown” is the one word in prison that’s worse than prison. 

So there we all were, literally breathing life into this unmentioned-as-of-yet lockdown. We did not understand that our breath was the enemy of us all. 

I am in what is known as a level four high-security prison yard, where our movements are restricted. At times my entire world consists of the 10 cells on the top and bottom tiers of my section, but my world was now expanded because I was at risk of getting the COVID-19 virus spreading through the world. 

I got my mask and felt it and laughed — we could clearly see it was made in prison from a white cotton t-shirt. 

Me and my cellie laughed. Some pandemic this was if this was the cure not to catch it. We both tried it on just for kicks. As I slipped the straps around my ears, I felt ridiculous. 

My cellie joked, “Look, I’m a doctor,” not understanding the mockery of his words or how much we would need the butt of his joke. 

I looked into the mirror and tasted the filtered air and my first response was to take it off. It felt restrictive, and in my world already being as controlled as I was, I did not need another thing controlling me. 

I took the mask off, put it to the side on a hook, and it stayed there, a bridge between me, my health, and this pandemic. 

Me and my cellie had not discussed the COVID-19 situation yet, but this simple mask made us now deal with it. 

I asked him, “What do you think?,” and he said plainly, “We’re in prison. If it’s true, we have no chance because we are sitting ducks, and the gun is bigger than anything me or you have ever held or looked at, so why panic?” 

In prison, we accept things that other people don’t comprehend. We are misery’s company because as we walk through the doors of any holding facility, humanity is stripped from us along with our street clothes.

I sat there and pondered his opinion. I hoped this was just paranoia or just the media overreacting because my mind was unable to grasp the severity of the situation. 

We are at the mercy of people in here because there is only so much we can do for ourselves. Literally everything in prison is controlled by a person. Our cell doors are on a control panel operated by a person. Each fail safe is at the hands of a human who now can be compromised by COVID-19. 

That’s a scary thing if your life depends on healthy people in every way possible. So as I sat back and let my thoughts roll, I could not think of one scenario that could mimic what I was thinking of. This was new and a cold reminder of how society has us in prison dependent on humanity, which has deemed us a failure in some sort of way. Now this mask is all society deems fit to give us. 

In the weeks after this symbolic mask was given to us, we felt the shun of society more because all of our basic needs were pushed to the side. Our contact visits were taken, our programs got reduced. We had no more school or recreational yard time. Anything we could do for ourselves somehow got pushed further away. 

Since in prison you have to interact with another person and human interaction was at the center of this pandemic, us incarcerated humans took a backseat behind free-moving people. We felt an oppression similar to racism. 

In an instant, prison became more cruel and unusual punishment. Society showed us that we are expendable and only to be thought of in the most meager way. But we expected this. None of us are bitter. 

 
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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Damian Miguel Cantu

Damian Miguel Cantu is a writer who was raised in southern California, grew up on the streets of La Puente and Highland Park and is trying to rehabilitate. He is incarcerated at Kern Valley State Prison in California.