Photo by Minnesota Department of Corrections

“Dude, I got COVID!” shouted Snakebite from his cell, one tier above me in our four-story block.

Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF) – St. Cloud is the oldest prison in the state, built in the late 19th century out of giant slabs of granite quarried on-site by the hands of its first prisoners. According to the Associated Press, its wall is the “longest continuous granite wall built with inmate labor, second only to the Great Wall of China” — but it was erected to keep us in, not “them” out. The prison is still operational, still runs a masonry program and still uses its original brick wall and wrought iron cells barely large enough to hold a man.

As winter beset the Midwest last year, cold and snow became the norm. This old, haunted dungeon has been drafty and cave-like — a little warmer and drier than outside, but not by much. You could hear the typical seasonal sniffles and coughs up and down the galley, but there was something different about the current situation: We had been locked in our cells for a week straight at this point, and a memo had been distributed stating that we would be getting nasally swabbed every few days out of “an abundance of caution.”

Shortly after Snakebite’s public declaration, he was packed up and moved to another house. Hours later, another inmate a tier down from me and far off to one side shouted, “I got COVID too!” Within the next 24 hours, a dozen people had been tagged as positive for COVID-19, packed up and shipped off to an isolation unit. The disease was spreading like wildfire.

I had received a letter from my parents asking why I had not called home in over a week. I remember that because, as I sat down to read the letter, I developed a splitting headache — something I rarely ever get. By the time I began putting pencil to paper to respond, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I was shivering despite wearing every article of clothing I had been issued by the corrections department. My muscles ached, and I had caught a deep, raspy cough — unable to clear the obstructions, though the nurse’s temperature check said I was fine so I was left to stew.

The fever came in the middle of the night, dousing me in sweat and making me cast off my blankets and clothing. I felt like someone had hit me in the forehead with a hammer; I definitely wasn’t sleeping. When the lights came on at 5:02 a.m., I told the guard I was “really sick” when he passed by on his rounds. The nurse came up later in full protective equipment to repeat my nasal swabs, check my temperature and offer over-the-counter meds. It was no surprise when my test came back positive the next day; I had already packed up and lugged my totes down two flights of stairs.

The quarantine unit was just another miserable prison big house, though in some ways worse. With double-bunked cells and communal showers every fourth day, I languished there for more than three weeks, packed in with a ragtag bunch of criminals, trapped in stale air, suffocating with cobwebs in our lungs, watching our oxygen saturation drop, taking aspirin and Mucinex. 

It was during this quarantine that I called home. My parents were happy to receive my letter, but soon after, they were struck by the virus. It nearly killed my mother. I remain convinced that she was infected by me through the phone — there’s no other explanation because she hadn’t left her house during this phase of the pandemic. 

As of this writing, 13 prisoners have died from COVID-19 in Minnesota. At least 12 of the 13 had been tapped for medical release by the parole board; four of their releases were vetoed by Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Paul Schnell, according to Forum News Service. When confronted about this decision in April of last year, Schnell said, “I’m not God, to make these decisions. At the same time, I made the best decision I could at the time knowing what I knew.”

I’m still trying to make sense of that statement, and the lack of accountability from him. I’m grateful to have survived COVID-19 in prison, as did my family on the outside. I believe God was watching over us on that one, not the DOC.

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.

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Gavin Meany

Gavin Meany is a writer incarcerated in Minnesota.