During the pandemic, the news broadcast an image of a window in a Missouri prison with the words “HELP WE MATTER” scrawled across it. Inmates at that prison had been locked in their cells for days, sick with COVID-19.
For us here at Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Missouri, the image hit close to home. When COVID-19 struck prisons, it struck hard. We were quarantined for days and released from our cells only for an occasional shower.
Staff members were scarce — not that I can blame them. A prison is hardly an ideal place for social distancing. Too many people in too little space. I remember talking with my roommate in 2020 about what we would do if the guards stopped showing up to work. How long could we survive on the canteen food we’d collected? How many days could we stay in the cell? I remember a white-hot terror that followed that looming sense of helplessness.
Working as a hospice care volunteer in the prison’s therapeutic care unit, I saw the deepening impact of the pandemic. To avoid spreading COVID-19, four inmates were asked to surrender their few freedoms, and live in the unit with the sick patients, tending to their needs. If necessary, they would be with them at their end. I struggled with this decision. Honestly, I didn’t want to go.
Prison is hard enough without this additional burden. But every inmate knows what it feels like to feel alone, helpless and, at times, hopeless. I didn’t want these men to be alone at their end.
Terror is dying alone
I knew that panic was spreading. Several of the inmates who tested positive were very close friends of mine. The staff needed help, but many of the inmates declined because they feared catching the virus. I didn’t view my act as selfless. Rather, I was relying on God to show me his will. I took a leap of faith, knowing that others needed the help.
Walter Sipp had been diagnosed with both COVID-19 and cancer. He had transferred to Jefferson City from a smaller prison because of our facility’s large medical unit, which can house 50 inmates. For weeks, I attended to his needs, helping feed, bathe and clothe him. I watched him grow weaker and weaker. I watched him grow more and more afraid.
One day, he asked me: “Antwann, am I going to die?”
I didn’t know what to tell him.
“We’re going to get through this together, Mr. Sipp,” I said. I thought those words would ease his stress — and ease my fear of losing him or catching the disease. By showing comfort, maybe he would gain some strength. But my words were a lie, and I think we both knew it.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It should have been a doctor offering him comfort. But we were short-staffed. Few medical school graduates feel called to work in prisons. It should have been his family sitting by his bedside, holding his hand. But visitors were not allowed during the pandemic.
Although I didn’t have answers for Mr. Sipp, I had hands capable of holding his. I had words capable of offering hope.
I watched his body grow limp. His breathing slowed. The light in his eyes dimmed, then went out. With tears running down my cheeks, I said a prayer for his soul, then notified the staff. Terror is dying alone.
Terror is lack of control
October 27, 2020, was an especially trying day. I had been working in the unit for only two weeks. The power went out in the medical center for about an hour. The lights went out and the ventilators shut down. We couldn’t see, and we didn’t know what to do. For obvious reasons, inmates were not allowed access to the fuse boxes. There are no flashlights or candles in prison.
Sick inmates cried for help as we floundered about, searching for extension cords and generators. Machines were beeping. Red lights flashed. I wondered whether we were going to lose more patients.
It should have been nurses checking the breathing machines. However, the nursing staff was spread thin, caring for the other inmates sick with COVID-19 throughout the prison. It should have been the maintenance staff restoring the power, but their shop is on the other side of the camp, nearly a mile away. Terror is needing help and not finding any.
Those in the elderly care unit who “sheltered in place” especially know the feeling. Because they were particularly vulnerable to the disease, they weren’t allowed to leave the unit. They relied on others to bring them food, medication and anything else they needed.
Terror is feeling abandoned
Fear has become a constant companion for men who have spent the majority of their lives in prison. For more than a year, our elderly inmates were locked in a single wing. Prison officials said it was “for their own safety.” And it was.
They never saw the sun, never felt the breeze on their faces. They never exercised or attended church services. For a year, they were quarantined from their families and from social interactions. Unable to care for themselves, they were forced to rely on other inmates to help them put on their masks, use the bathroom or bathe in a shower.
Not that I blame the decision-makers. Early in the pandemic, no one knew how to deal with COVID-19. The virus was an unknown entity. But isolation — even if it’s just in a medical ward — can wreak havoc on a mind. What memories are there to draw relief from? What comfort is there for the confused? Terror is living in a fog and relying on another man to assist you in the bathroom.
As the death toll rose it was difficult not to become numb. Tragic pandemic stories abounded, yet for incarcerated people, their stories were rarely told. Many men in prison are guilty and deserve to be incarcerated, but living in terror was not supposed to be part of their sentence.
As a man facing the possibility of never being granted parole, I was forced to consider my responsibility in all of this. Would I be selfish or selfless? I refused to grow numb. I would not lose count of the men I’ve witnessed die here. I made them a promise that their voices would be heard.
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.