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Closeup of protective face mask laying on a window sill, implying COVID isolation.
Photo by flyparade on iStock

My alarm clock chimed at 2:10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, waking me from a deep slumber. My body ached so badly I could barely move, and this pain was different from my fibromyalgia. I knew there was no way I could work my laundry shift later that morning. 

I turned the clock off and attempted to sleep the pain away. I woke again at 5:30 a.m. — pill-line time, when inmates go to receive scheduled medications. After I took my medication, I spoke to one of the other laundry technicians who agreed to cover my shift.

Fellow inmates were concerned when they saw how slowly I moved. People questioned my well-being and offered to help. That was a relief because I felt so bad.

Not long after that, nurses arrived for weekly COVID-19 testing. I tested positive, along with about 11 others. The virus infected me, despite being vaccinated. We were told to pack our belongings so that we could move into a wing designated for COVID-19-positive inmates.

We were supposed to spend 10 days in isolation, or red zone, but we were held there longer than that — longer than our sickness lasted. 

The red zone was a mess when we first arrived. There were so many sick faces. Everywhere I turned I saw rosy cheeks and heard dry coughs. We were packed in like sardines. Literally, the sick and the shut-in.

Once we got healthy, the red zone was turned into a green zone, but the prison still delayed our return to the normal wings. That’s because our regular building was not completely COVID-19 free. 

I was stranded in the red zone, along with 18 other people. It felt like captivity — even more captive than prison feels in general. We were in forced isolation, punished for catching a virus that we didn’t bring into the prison. We were treated like getting sick was our fault.

We were unable to place commissary orders. Many of us spent at least an entire month without being able to purchase food and with access to little or no personal hygiene items.

It would have made a world of difference if they had served us good meals. But the opposite was true. We stored away anything edible like little squirrels hoarding nuts.

On the positive side, it was a very peaceful time. 

Wings typically house about 60 women at once, but we had fewer people living in the red zone. We each had our own cell. That is rare — and priceless.

For me, it was a good lesson: We must always take the bad with the good and be grateful for what we have.

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.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.