We were all horror-stricken when COVID-19 burst onto the scene of everyday life at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), the world’s largest prison for women.
I had just landed in a new room in the honor dorm days before the lockdown began. The honor dorm is an incentive unit with extra privileges for people who have demonstrated good behavior. Room 506 in that dorm was my saving grace. Others were not so lucky.
When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began implementing safety protocols, there was a lot of uncertainty and confusion as many of the guidelines did not seem to make sense.
For me, the insanity started when I was unexpectedly called to the medical office.
A doctor who I’d never met before told me that my severe obstructive sleep apnea was considered to put me in the “mild to moderate risk” category for COVID-19. I was flabbergasted.
The doctor also informed me that I had to make a choice to either give up my C-PAP machine or move out of my current residence with the roommates and friends I had come to trust, admire and respect. The reasoning was that a C-PAP and other breathing machines were considered to pass on COVID-19 more easily, so people using them had to be single-celled, which meant moving to another recreational yard and being segregated from the rest of the general population.
I was told that we would only be able to remain in our present environments if we temporarily gave up our machines. The doctors advised that “temporarily giving up breathing machines and C-PAPs for those with ‘mild to moderate cases’ would not cause substantial health effects.”
Essentially, in order for me to stay in Room 506 where I was comfortable and stable, Sacramento wanted to take the one thing away from me that allowed me to get quality sleep on a daily basis, critical to controlling my severe psychiatric condition.
If I chose to move out, all the amenities of my eight-person cell and an honor dorm would be stripped from me for some unknowable length of time. I would be removed from the one unit with privilege and be transferred to building 503, which is known for its filthy and destitute two-person cells.
I was familiar with what those conditions were like. I used to go day after day with no showers, hygienic supplies or recreational time to watch TV or call home. The conditions in that unit were beyond deplorable with dust, mold, and rusty, sharp metal edges, not to mention the poor working conditions of the toilets and sinks.
I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to work or participate in programs. I was overwhelmed and broke down bawling.
With support from my roommates and friends, I made the tough decision to give up my C-PAP and remain in my haven. I called home frantically, desperate to have them reverse the requirement that C-PAPs can only be used in single cells, but I received no help because it was a decision made by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in Sacramento. Luckily I had lost enough weight, and I could elevate my mattress enough to fall asleep. I still woke up choking quite often. It wasn’t ideal, but we made it work.
But then came the real test: quarantine lockdown.
Once COVID-19 reached the CCFW facility, it spread virulently. It felt like we were part of some twisted horror story after the first inmate from D-yard tested positive. More and more cases started coming up positive. Then the cases moved on to C-yard. Finally, it reached my yard: B-yard. By then, the number of positive cases was approaching the hundreds.
Amid the mayhem, one of my roommates, along with all her other coworkers, was sent away to be quarantined after someone at her job in the kitchen tested positive. They were housed in the same two-person cell unit in building 503 where I would have been had I chosen to keep the C-PAP. After she had been tested multiple times she was able to come back to our unit. However, less than 24 hours later, she was sent back to building 503 to be re-quarantined after someone else she came in contact with tested positive.
Shortly after, residents began testing positive with unparalleled ferocity.
Whole wings of the prison were shipped to the quarantine unit, while others who tested positive were moved to an isolation unit.
There were so many moves, the corrections officers couldn’t keep tabs on all the property being shuffled from unit to unit. Theft ran rampant. Housing staff lost or mixed up belongings. Appliances were forgotten or broken. Little objects of great sentimental value were thrown in the trash as if they were useless junk. Items that each inmate had painstakingly kept over the months or years of their incarceration were now gone in the blink of an eye. Combination locks were useless because the staff mixed up which lock was whose.
Even worse, people including my roommate, were thrown haphazardly into any open bunk in any non-quarantine unit available after coming out of quarantine. They had no way to get back to the original place they had been removed from.
Tensions exponentially tipped the Richter scale of fear and anger. Understandably, people got desperate. Broken windows, fights, and staff assaults skyrocketed in response, which only made the situation worse.
Finally, the warden was forced to try and return people to their pre-quarantine yards and units. But as of September 2021, there are still several dozen displaced inmates.
I sit here and ask: why? Every semi-intelligent person knows that once one person tests positive for COVID-19, there are exponential possibilities that more people can also become infected even if the infected individual is not displaying any symptoms.
Who honestly thinks that moving one person, room or hall in a prison is going to do anything to halt COVID-19 transmission? You are only giving the virus a chance to reach new hosts. The only logical action would be to move the infected person and stop all movement — no day room, chow hall, groups, yard, work, etc. It may not be a popular decision, but it is common sense.
CDCR may have been trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it instead fanned the flames of the contagion. I believe that the CDCR’s decisions were based on fear of lawsuits. Fear of reprisal for potentially creating hot spots for the disease led to absolute pandemonium where no one was safe.
It felt like we were told that our lives meant nothing. This is the truth that every CDCR inmate knows by heart. And for some, it’s more than can be borne.
Welcome to life through an inmate’s eyes. It’s stark. It’s illogical. It’s downright insane. But it is the truth.
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.