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Two bare hands reach for each other against a dark backdrop.
Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

“So … look, I just got off the phone with the head RN … she’d be more than happy to come down here and explain to you in person why you have to accept this inmate as a cellie,” Sergeant Gonzalez said to me. 

The only thing separating us in the quarantine unit I was housed in was my cell door, with a 6-inch-wide, 2-foot-long window. 

“Yes! That would be perfect,” I replied. “Please, send her immediately.”

I knew Sergeant Gonzalez wasn’t expecting that answer. I could read his expression right through his KN95 mask. I knew the offer was a bluff. No medical professional on the planet was going to tell an inmate that it’s safe to have a cellmate who was exposed to COVID-19 less than 24 hours earlier. 

“Well,” the sergeant began after a few seconds of awkward silence. “The fact of the matter is you’ve got two separate entities trying to work together here: custody staff, which is me,” he said, pointing at the stripes on his shirt, “and medical staff. … Medical staff says this inmate is clear to live with you, and I have nowhere else to put him, so he’s going in with you.” 

I tried not to panic. I could feel my mind racing a thousand miles a minute. This is it, I thought to myself. This is how I die. As an inmate serving a life sentence, refusing a cellmate is not an option for me. It’s too egregious of a rule infraction and would undoubtedly become a reason for the parole board to deny me freedom when I stand before them four months from now. 

So what do I do? Roll the dice and hope to live through COVID-19 or roll the dice on the parole board?

I took a deep breath and made an effort to speak calmly. “You could put him back in General Population,” I said, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “There’s plenty of room there.” 

“You know I can’t do that. He’s been exposed to COVID-19 and has to be kept away from General Population for their safety.” 

“What about my safety?” 

“You’ve also been exposed. You’re both in the same boat.” 

I felt the panic start to surge again accompanied by a twinge of anger. “Sergeant, you know that’s not accurate. I was exposed 13 days ago, and have given three negative COVID tests since. This inmate was exposed 12 hours ago. We are not in the same boat.”

The quarantine unit was always so quiet, I knew our conversation would be heard through most of the adjacent cells. But I didn’t care about that. 

I’d spent the last several days alone in my cell, listening to stories of death on the television news. I had strange lacerations on my knuckles. At first I thought it was due to the cold air or something. Then I realized it was from drying my hands on the coarse towel over and over again after compulsively washing them. Every time I sneezed, or so much as cleared my throat, I wondered if I now had COVID-19.

The most stressful thing was the sound of the carts. Every couple of days, they’d wheel several carts into the quarantine unit to transport the property of inmates who had just tested positive. 

These unlucky inmates would now have to transfer to the “COVID Positive Unit.” 

Before I ended up here too, I’d watch and listen as an officer would go door to door with a list in his hands, telling each inmate on it to “pack your stuff.” My heart would pound as I’d watch him pass my cell holding that list. But it was the sound of those damn carts that had me traumatized. 

“Look, I’m not a doctor,” Sergeant Gonzalez said. “I’m not qualified to decide who lives with who in the quarantine unit. My job is to put inmates inside the cells they tell me to.”

“But you can’t take the position of ‘I’m just following orders,’” I replied. “You know why this inmate was brought here today, as well as why I was brought here 13 days ago.” 

I could see what was happening. The sergeant was following the training manual and being respectfully assertive with me. I could see that he wasn’t a bad guy. He was simply perceiving this exchange as a typical officer-versus-inmate debate that he needed to win. His mind was closed off to critical thinking.

The way I saw it, I had two choices in order to get him to change his paradigm. I could appeal to his sense of self-preservation by pointing out the blowback when I report him for this or I could I appeal to his sense of humanity. 

I also realized that I was looking for him to show me some empathy, yet I hadn’t taken a moment to look at him with empathy. I could see that he was exhausted. 

Working at this facility during the pandemic was chaotic and stressful. The staff were constantly dealing with enormous waves of inmates being forced to transfer against their will. He was probably getting yelled at all day by his supervisor over things that were out of his control, and then getting yelled at by inmates for the same things. Every decision he needed to make on the job probably felt a lot like this one. He was damned regardless of what he did. 

After listening to him for a while, I looked him in the eyes and said, “Sergeant, we are two human beings here. We both laugh, we cry, we have families who love us, and we love them back. You alone have the power to save my life.” 

I could see that he wanted to object, so I quickly held up my inhaler. “You see this?” I continued. “I have asthma. That means if I catch COVID-19 from this inmate, I have a high likelihood of dying. I am not asking, I am begging you to please save my life today. Please.”

His entire demeanor changed after that. He even vented a little about his frustrations over the communication breakdown between medical and custody staff.

After a few minutes of this, he finally looked me in the eyes and said, “All right man. Let me see what I can do. I’m gonna go-to-bat for you.” 

The sergeant came back two long hours later. He admitted that someone “really screwed up” by logging that inmate into the computer to be my cellmate and that I was now safe. I could finish out my last couple days of quarantine by myself.

I thanked him profusely. I told him, “You’re the hero of this story, man! You realize that? You’re my hero!” 

I meant every word.

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.

Dean is a writer who is passionate about steering young men away from the culture of violence. He holds an associates degree in social and behavioral sciences and volunteers as an addiction counselor. He is incarcerated in California.