This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
Editor’s note: Last week, the Washington State Department of Corrections announced that a prison employee tested positive for COVID-19. Two men who are incarcerated in different parts of that facility separately wrote to The Marshall Project to provide their accounts of what has happened since.
A few weeks ago, I found myself watching the TV news from here in a Washington state prison, while drinking my morning coffee. This was my normal routine. Apparently, there had been some sort of an outbreak in China that officials were starting to call the coronavirus.
At the time, I didn’t pay much attention. Like most things, I figured it was far away — everything can feel especially far away when you’re in prison — and would hardly have an effect on me or those around me.
In fact, my fellow prisoners and I were essentially joking about how the world was coming to an end. A good friend of mine and I are huge fans of apocalyptic movies and shows, so we started to shoot the breeze about how a zombie virus had taken hold in China and would soon spread across the globe. I remember telling him in jest, “This is it, my friend. We better stock up on food and be ready with a plan of defense.” He laughed. We discussed how we could make body armor out of magazines and where we would steal the tape to do so.
But before long, we learned from TV not only that the virus had spread throughout the world, but also that the state of Washington had become the United States’s ground zero. As each day passed, the numbers continued to get worse. The nursing home where the national news was saying that so many people were infected was less than 20 miles away from us.
Like everyone in the free world, those of us on the inside began to worry about our families, especially our older folks, and their safety in the face of an unknown predator. Even in the best of times, it's hard to know how our families are doing.
And then we started to wonder about our own safety. What measures were being taken to safeguard us from the spread of the virus within the crowded prison walls? We knew that on the outside, people were buying everything they could to prepare for disaster, especially toilet paper.
Toilet paper scarcity is no stranger to us — having more than two rolls in your room at any given time is an infraction — so we became focused on the things we weren’t prepared for, and just how little we each have in our cells for protection. We don’t have cleaning wipes, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (it’s contraband), or anything else that the CDC is recommending citizens use to prevent spreading the virus. The only cleaning solution we have is a mild “all-purpose cleaner” that is not germicidal and, rumor has it, is safe enough to drink.
As the virus continued to spread in the outside world, I along with many others inside waited for instructions on what we would do to keep the prison prepared for when it came knocking on our door — or rather came knocking on our sally ports, metal bars, and barbed-wire fences.
Prisoners and corrections officers alike inquired about what was being done to disinfect the facility. The unit porters (prisoners who work as janitors) usually can’t use bleach on the common areas. Having a small amount of bleach, even if you’re just using it to clean, will get you in trouble.
Eventually though, I noticed that the porters were given spray bottles filled with diluted bleach to wipe the living areas down. Nevertheless, one cannot expect someone who is paid at most $55 a month for full-time work to do a thorough, painstaking job of cleaning.
On one wall, non-alcohol-based sanitizer was taped there without a proper dispenser; it’s just a useless substance sloshing around in a plastic pouch. Even things like cleaning rags can be impossible to find, which is difficult to comprehend, as there are large bins of old scraps in our clothing room. Possessing too many rags is also considered contraband, and could get you an infraction, which could mean losing recreation or getting sent to solitary.
The DOC has sent out messages to prisoners via paper handouts instructing us to keep our hands clean, not to touch our faces, and to clean our cells. But how can we do any of this if the proper cleaning equipment is criminalized?
I was not surprised last week when an employee who works in the living units opposite of mine tested positive for COVID-19. After that, they posted signs down by the phones instructing us to put a sock — yes, like you wear on your foot — over the phone receiver before using it in order to avoid spreading germs. There was no mention of where these socks were meant to come from; we’re only allowed a few socks at any given time or we risk being written up.
The most drastic measure they’ve taken so far is putting the entire side of the prison where the employee worked on “quarantine.” My fellow prisoners on quarantine are functionally on lockdown, which is what happens when there’s something like a fight. They are confined to their windowless cells for almost the entire day.
There is pretty much only one way for quarantined prisoners to communicate with the outside world: JPay, the prison email system. But given that many people cannot afford the $150 it costs for a JPay tablet, there are many who have no way of communicating with their loved ones during lockdown.
Further, even if you have a tablet, many of our outside loved ones who are at most risk for COVID-19, the elderly, may not have access to or know how to use the complicated JPay email system. When I talked on the phone with my 76-year-old grandma, who has a severe heart condition and no internet, she was full of worry. I tried to explain the situation in here and had to tell her that soon, a time may come when I will have no access, or very limited access, to the phones. I’m one of her only sources of emotional support as she awaits her heart surgery.
When I walk through the unit now, I cannot help but linger on the faces of the elderly prisoners, some of them who have been like father figures to us younger men, and think about how they are unlikely to survive this.
I think about my friend Bill. He’s in his eighties, newly in remission from cancer, and has been a mentor to many of us over the years. I’ve watched Bill, who has an MBA, patiently tutor younger men through their math classes as they earn GEDs and other degrees. He has also been a facilitator for the Alternatives to Violence Program—the impact of his kindness surely extends far beyond these prison walls.
Bill is one of the many prisoners currently under lockdown. He, and people like him, are in severe danger. I continue to dwell on what would happen if he does contract the virus. How can we protect people like Bill in a place many have referred to as a “tinderbox” for a virus like COVID-19?
My prison may be one of the first to have a known case, but we are not unique. There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States—something has to be done beyond dirty socks on phone receivers.
I spotted the notice on my cell’s floor when I opened my eyes at 5 a.m. a few days ago. I sat upright on the bunk, switched on my lamp, and read.
Today the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) confirmed that an employee working at the Monroe Correctional Complex—Washington State Reformatory Unit (MCC-WSR) has tested positive for COVID-19 … MCC is placing WSRU A and B units where the employee worked into precautionary quarantine/restricted movement for 10 days, until the 14-day quarantine period ends. Since this is a precautionary quarantine, additional personal protective equipment (PPE) is not required.
I wasn’t surprised to be locked down. After all, the first recorded case of coronavirus in the US was admitted to a hospital just miles from this prison on Jan. 20. Since then, dozens of Washingtonians have died from the illness, many of them residents of a long-term care facility not far from here. It wasn't a matter of if the coronavirus would get into the prison but when.
When the cell house lights blinked on at 6 a.m. that first day, a chorus of grumbles rose up around the block as others dragged themselves from their bunks to get ready for work, only to find their copy of the notice. The grumbling gathered momentum until a guy on a tier somewhere above exploded in a torrent of full-volume curses. He told the guards who rushed to his cell that he was scheduled to be released from prison that morning. From what I heard, the guards let him know that he wouldn't be going anywhere. Three days later, however, I realize that they must have done something with him — or he resigned himself to his fate — because I haven't heard him yell for a while.
The first day of the lockdown, guards let us out of our cells only for 20 minutes. That time over the ensuing days has stretched to 30 minutes. They allow us out 10 at a time and, when the cell doors open, we tumble out onto the tiers to use the telephones and showers.
Outside the cells, we're confronted with the difficult-to-reconcile fact that we're quarantined and the guards aren't. The prison is so short-staffed that I’m told many of the guards in this cellhouse are being held over on mandatory overtime to work in unquarantined sections of the prison. And, of course, at the end of their shifts, they return home to their families and community.
So there's the irony of the guards trying to stay as far away from us as they can when we're out of our cells. I can’t help but think: IT WAS ONE OF YOU WHO DID THIS TO US! WE SHOULD BE TRYING TO GET AWAY FROM YOU!
None of us, I bet, have to worry about guards searching our cells anytime soon.
At the end of the first day of lockdown, guards handed through the bars a second memo from the superintendent:
SUBJECT: Health Update
Your health and well-being are of the upmost importance. We continue to follow the Department of Health and CDC guidelines in taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety of our Incarcerated Individuals.
Please take care of yourself.
It's the beneficent framing of that last line that gets me. The first lesson an incarcerated person in any prison in America learns is precisely this: that you have to take care of yourself. When you're pushed through the gate into one of these places, you either find a way to survive, or you don't. The one thing you can count on in here is that no one is going to do it for you.
Jokes abound in the cellblock when someone coughs or sneezes. I'm conscious that it's gallows humor, which is necessary in prison. It's certainly necessary in this prison, where the medical director was reportedly fired last year for alleged negligence and where the deaths of several prisoners are currently under investigation.
Medical staff accompanied by a guard appear at the fronts of our cells twice a day for a mandatory temperature check. Yesterday, the staff person removed the plastic thermometer sleeve that was in my mouth and, with the same gloves, slid a new sleeve in place for the next person. I didn't complain or point out the imprudence of that action, as I imagine a free person would, because, like so many others in prison in the US today, I think I've been in here too long. In other words, I've come to expect to be treated this way.
I wonder which one of us will get sick first.
Mr. Yi is 77. Although I doubt it will be him. He runs five miles in the yard every morning and does a couple hundred pushups a day: he's kind of a badass. Other prisoners around his age, especially those who have had cancer and other illnesses, may not be so lucky.
Everyone in the cell block is speculating about what will happen when one of us shows signs of infection. The consensus among those who've been around longest is that guards in hazmat suits will take us to the Hole. I mean, they can't take us to the infirmary. Prisoners with cancer and suppressed immune systems are there.
But of course, we all know what that means: The prospect of the Hole is likely to preclude people from volunteering to report symptoms.
The Washington State Department of Corrections did not respond to requests for comment about the writers’ descriptions of the agency’s coronavirus response.
Christopher Blackwell, 38, is a writer incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington. Blackwell is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. He is serving a 45-year sentence for murder and robbery.
Arthur Longworth, 55, who is also incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, is a Marshall Project contributing writer and a multiple winner of the PEN Prison Writing competition. He is serving life without parole for murder.