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“If you tested positive for COVID-19,” the lieutenant screamed in the hallway, “you have five minutes to have all your sh*t packed and out on the small yard!”

Chaos erupted across the entire prison compound when large numbers of prisoners tested positive for the first time. Other prisons throughout the state of Michigan had encountered mass positives, and many had completely failed to properly plan for such an inevitable outcome. Despite months of dire warnings, Michigan’s corrections officers (CO) did not have a plan for the prison outbreak of COVID-19. The prison where I am housed in Ionia, Michigan had months to plan and learn from the failures of other prisons, but clearly they failed to do so.

Consequently, at 8 a.m., while fighting fevers and nausea, many of us were forced to swiftly pack all of our belongings in duffle bags and carry them out to the small yard. The screaming lieutenant made a point of cussing out anyone he thought wasn’t moving fast enough. 

With our possessions in hand, the first dozen of us arrived at the small yard. 

“Where to now, L.T.?”

“I don’t know yet,” he replied. “Hang tight.”

A few minutes later, he emerged from the housing unit with a list. “If your name is on this list,” he called out, “you are going to the school building where we’ve set up bunks for quarantine. Put your property on the trailer that’s coming and go to the school.”

Those of us whose names were on the list loaded up and headed for the school. Once we arrived, though, we were told we were NOT on the list, and we were instructed to return to our housing unit with our property. Our frustration level ratcheted up a notch. Here we’d been screamed at to hurry up, only to find out nobody, including those who were supposedly in charge, knew what they were doing. There was no plan.

We returned to the housing unit with our property and sat in the small yard for several hours. Finally, we were given an order to return to our now empty cells and wait for further instructions.

“What about our property?” someone called out.

“Just leave it where it is,” came the reply. In a place where anything not locked down might wind up missing, this seemed like a very irresponsible option. But, an order is an order.

Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, we continued to wait in our empty cells, no pillow, no sheets, no blanket. Just a bare bunk and all of our property out in the small yard sitting in the sun. At least it wasn’t raining. By 6 p.m.,  many of us had had enough. We ignored instructions and went out to the small yard to bring our property back indoors. The chilly night air was bringing condensation with it and we had to protect our property from damage.

Throughout the day, chaos continued around the compound. Some prisoners were moved from one unit to another, some to the school, and some to the gym. We, on the other hand, were told to stay put for now. 

Finally, at around 10 p.m., the lieutenant came through, still screaming. This time directing it at those who had tested negative.

“You have five minutes to pack your sh*t and get it out to the small yard,” he screamed up and down the hallway. “If you aren’t out there in five minutes, I’m writing tickets.”

For a man without a plan, he made sure to emphasize an urgency to carry it out. Of course, his approach only heightened tensions in the unit. Moving in prison is, in itself, highly stressful, but when you fear losing your property due to negligence and incompetence on the part of corrections staff, the powerlessness is almost overwhelming. Later, many prisoners reported having had property stolen during this chaotic time. Some of these prisoners had been given orders to leave their property unattended in their unlocked rooms or next to the officers’ desk. Although prison policy states that officers are responsible for securing property in these situations, nobody was held accountable for property stolen by an officer’s inattention or apathy.

After learning I was staying put in my housing unit for now, I unpacked the basics and remade my bed. My fever and nausea, and the stress from inept leadership, had me ready to crash. I slept fitfully that night though, unsure of whether or not I’d be woken at any moment by another screaming moron rushing me to follow his nonexistent plan.

Over the next several months, the staff at this prison continued to “manage” the COVID-19  crisis with juvenile ineptitude. When prisoners tested positive, they were moved to another housing unit for 14 days. If the prisoner’s bunky did not test positive, they were quarantined anyway for 21 to 28 days. During that quarantine, most were not retested until at least three weeks were up. Every day was like living on high alert, constantly expecting to be shipped off to another housing unit, or in some cases, to be sent to an entirely different prison. 

During the first several weeks of our outbreak, we were not allowed more than 30 minutes in the  small yard. On  several days, we were not allowed outside at all. When my mother called the prison to complain about how the staff were  treating us — against my advice — I was immediately punished by being moved to another housing unit. A staff member told my mom that I was a liar, despite documented proof of my claims (video recordings and officer logs). The inspector’s office even censored one of the emails I sent my mom describing the chaos during the first few days of the outbreak. Telling the truth and criticizing ineptitude is not allowed in prison. I was never informed that my email was censored either, contrary to prison rules. It was simply never delivered.

Today, we continue to live under myriad restrictions, despite the fact that more than 80% of us prisoners have been vaccinated. Many CO staff have refused the vaccine, but we are forced to continue living under COVID-19 restrictions. And as for the screaming lieutenant? He’s still running things, causing chaos when he’s on duty.

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.

Bryan Noonan is a writer and blogs about prison on his Hope On the Inside site. He also co-authored “Insider’s Guide to Prison Life,” a book that seeks to demystify prison and build stronger relationships between prisoners and their loved ones. He is incarcerated in Michigan.