For years I had been told that prisons keep the public safe—that isolating people who have committed harm behind bars and walls and wire does some good. As a person who has both committed and survived extreme violence—and as someone currently serving a 20-year sentence—I’ve always been a little skeptical.
My doubts aside, when COVID-19 cropped up, I hoped the inverse would be true—that as a prisoner I would be insulated from the virus-carrying folks on the outside. Where this thought came from—Walking Dead season 3, maybe—who knows.
These sentiments were shared by most of the prisoners around me, because the risky behaviors that news anchors warned about ad nauseam —contact with people who have travelled, riding public transportation—didn’t apply to us. After all, we were locked away from all that.
But on Friday, March 13, we all woke up to a typed memo from Eric Jackson, Superintendent of the Monroe Correctional Complex-TRU. It was sitting on the floor just inside my cell.
Sometime during the night a guard must have gone door to door and slipped the memos between the bars. And in prison, it’s never a good sign to wake up with a message inscribed on DOC letterhead.
Here’s what it said:
Today the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) confirmed that an employee working at the Monroe Correctional Complex-Washington State Reformatory Unit…. 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.
As if to end on a positive note, stapled to the back with panacea-like hopefulness was a full-page picture of a man washing his hands.
I do not live in either the A or B unit. But after reading it, I methodically ranked some “precautionary” measures of my own: call home, place a commissary order, fill up water pitchers, sync the J-Pay communications tablet, take a shower. As I went about the unit checking tasks off the list, I saw other people shared my idea.
We also shared a new awareness of what precautions mean behind bars.
For days we had seen experts on the media calling for social distancing, but until we received the memo, we had not really changed our behaviors. Yet this morning things were different. People gave each other a wide berth. Handshakes were replaced by nodding of heads. Some prisoners even began sleeving the phone receiver with a sock before bringing it to their ear.
True social distancing, however, is impossible in an environment that is defined by crowded cellblocks, pat searches, and standing in lines for food, phones, and everything in between.
There are four units in our complex, each one holding around 190 men. Our environment couldn’t be more susceptible to a fast-spreading contagious virus. The units are four tiers high, with some 40 cells on each tier. Cells in the bottom three tiers are single-occupancy; the top tier has two men per cell.
It’s not hard to understand the concern.
By the end of the day, another memo was distributed by the administration informing prisoners that visiting was suspended and that, in light of this, mailroom staff would work overtime to ensure our J-Pay e-messages were screened faster, reducing the time required to send or receive a message from days to hours.
“It does not replace visits,” the memo said, “but does provide an opportunity for increased communication.”
I tried to maintain my sanity by going to the gym and yard.
That was a surreal experience.
The gym was almost empty. The yard resembled a ghost town. I knew it was only a matter of time before the whole prison was quarantined.
And I could picture what that would mean. Even though this would be my first experience in quarantine, the irony is that it would feel very close to a regular prison lockdown.
It might be called, as the memo said, “Precautionary Quarantine.” But the difference would be hard to notice.
Toilets and showers will become priceless commodities. The showers will be limited to short five-minute affairs permitted every couple of days.
Phone calls will be limited to 20 minutes.
Food will be delivered to the front of the cell cold, and left to coagulate in plastic-coated cardboard bowls.
Lockdowns are defined by time in the cell. No one comes out of the cells until a schedule can be drawn up; the schedule will allow for one or two cells per tier to be open at a time for use of showers and phones.
Yet for some reason it usually takes days to create a schedule, and once that’s done, the sheer number of cells means there is no guarantee of getting your time out, which wouldn’t have been more than 20 minutes anyway.
If the day ends and you haven’t had your time out, too bad. Wait until the next day.
In past lockdowns, once I accepted that a shower just wasn’t in the cards, I would resign myself to a birdbath. Sound elegant? Maybe, until you remember that we’re talking about a naked 200-pound man straddling a stainless-steel toilet and dumping cups of water over his head—the water coming from the sink, of course.
And even the greatest care in this ad hoc hygiene ritual can’t prevent the floor from becoming soaked and slippery, so in the end I would resemble a top-heavy deer on ice.
And we would then wait, endlessly, never knowing when things will return to normal so we can venture back out to school and work and visit—and get back to the normal monotony that defines prison.
On March 16, another memo was disseminated, stressing that no incarcerated people had yet tested positive. However, “[t]hose presenting symptoms have been directed to immediately don surgical masks and placed in an isolated area for further evaluation by Health Services staff.”
I don’t know what to make of the line about those “presenting symptoms.”
But I know one thing. The risk that I will “present symptoms” and get placed in “an isolated area for further evaluation by Health Services staff” increases every day these officers and staff come and go. That scares me.
The March 16 message ended unexpectedly: “Your mental health is as important as your physical health. If you are experiencing concerns, there are staff on-site to assist you. Please take care of yourself.”
Maybe prison has made me cynical, but I immediately laughed to myself. Who are these staff members on-site to help us cope? I had yet to see mental health providers reassuringly roaming my unit.
Perhaps that’s because they are in the two units now in “precautionary quarantine.” The remaining units, including where I live, aren’t on quarantine.
At least not yet.
Tomas Keen is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory, where he chairs the legislative committee of the prison’s Concerned Lifers Organization.