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The omicron variant has recycled many of the tears I thought were retired during the winter of 2020 and 2021. COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have surpassed last winter’s. Fear, coupled with a feeling of conspiratorial speculation and uncertainty, has  resurged.

I listen to comparisons between delta and omicron. I channel surf the radio for assurances amid the restless tussle of this place and my own racing thoughts. I realize I have become a junkie, feeding the addiction of my hypochondria as I try to unpack fact from fiction in my densely packed living situation. 

I typically wake up each day between 3 and 4 a.m. It is the quiet, restorative stillness of the early morning hours that allow me to sit peacefully. But that quiet has once again become interrupted with potent coughing that is reminiscent of spring 2020. Omicron is the spawn of the invisible monster that made me sick and has killed more than 965,000 Americans. 

I am hopeful that omicron is less lethal. I received a booster shot in December with a sense of relief, but my peers talk about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment performed on Black men. For some, the medical community’s push to vaccinate is irrefutable proof of the vaccine being a 21st century plot to do away with us — Black people — once and for all. 

Being double the average age of my incarcerated brethren, I no longer try to reason with their perceptions. Today, I decided to stay in my cell, fleeing the noise with ear plugs buried deep. But their words took residence in my head as I tried to read Colson Whitehead’s “Harlem Shuffle,” which tells a story that culminates with the Harlem Riot of 1964, robbing me of the escape I sought.

Last year, I feared for my own mortality. Now, I am vaccinated and boosted, and I think I am reasonably protected from serious disease. But several of my family members have contracted omicron. I am left with hopes and prayers, neither of which do anything to calm my anxiety.  

I am not the only one who is anxious. Hand sanitizer containers are routinely empty for days at a time. The seating assignments in the mess hall seem to assure transmission of the virus. Masking is mandatory in the facility’s halls, but many of the men pull them down as soon as they enter the mess hall, where they are not required.

The men yell across the cavernous eating space to their friends who have entered from other blocks. Their conversations become biological warfare as missiles of spittle and vapor are fired from the mouths of men loudly saying nothing.

In a facility whose quarantine unit and infirmary are filled with incarcerated men, the secure waiting area in medical is overcrowded daily with masked and maskless men awaiting medication, finger sticks, insulin, blood work and COVID-19 tests.

As I sat, double masked, awaiting my turn for routine blood work in the office, I looked around the room, imagining the writhing virus particles floating about, as CNN played on a flat screen bolted to the wall, its sounds muted by the riotous din of in-your-face conversations. The signs that advise social distancing hung like cheap, decorative posters. 

All of it was so tragically ironic as officers and paramedics wheeled out a stretcher with one of our peers — his face obscured by an oxygen mask — to a waiting ambulance.

Over the last two years, I have observed, complained, sought answers and hoped. But this time my expectations are low. The only thing I’m sure of is that time will resolve everything, one way or another. It always does.

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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Reginald Stephen

Reginald Stephen is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and currently incarcerated in New York.