COVID-19, a Texas Prison, and a Truly ‘Fabuloso’ Fable

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Photo by Ampersand72 via Flickr

Prison stinks. The olfactory experience is not terribly unlike any large mammalian enclosure found at your local zoo. It’s not generally something one prefers to discuss in detail in polite company.

The one thing you can absolutely count on prison never smelling like is cherry-flavored bubble gum. Naturally, when this exact aroma invaded my cell a little past 4:00 am last March 20, I felt compelled to investigate.

The view from an administrative-segregation wing cell door is not expansive: a concrete “run” connecting all of the cells, a steel dayroom cage used individually by the 14 men housed in A-Section. From 14-cell on two-row, I can look directly at the picket and the area next to the pod’s entrance door, where the PM shift officers usually rest for the majority of their 12-hour shift.

As I gazed at this sorry tableau, I detected movement to my right: slowly, slowly old man Epifanio hove into view. Assigned to the night-shift cleaning crew, he’d been pushing a broom around these halls since Jesus was a corporal, a long wooden pole with a human carcass in tow.

On that night, however, he was lugging around one of those pressurized plastic tanks one sees normally deployed by pest control professionals. It was from the misted spray emanating from the hose attachment that the pleasing aroma originated. I watched him spray the dayroom bars for a minute until his glacial shuffle carried him towards my door.

“What do you have there, abuelo?”

A slow twisting of the head, eventual target lock, followed by a delayed cascade of neural activity as he tried to find his words; even still, one has to concentrate to understand Epifanio when he speaks, because his Spanglish is mangled to the point of approximating avant-garde poetry.

Es chloro [chlorine bleach], m’ijo.”

“That doesn’t smell like bleach.”

His head swiveled back towards the picket, checking to see if the rover was still where he had left him: yep, still asleep at the table. He slowly doddered closer to my door.

“The sarge, he say to spray the pods to kill the virus. The warden is muy enojado. But there’s no chloro—all desaparecido.

“So the sarge, he just take some Fabuloso [detergent] from the kitchen and allá vamos.”

A slow, dry, rumbling sort of cackle as the sclerotic disaffection universal to long-term convicts made its way to the surface.

“And you know why no hay chloro? Porque we sell it already to you fockers!”

I couldn’t help but wince, because he wasn’t wrong. I myself had purchased four pounds of bleach back in early January. In weeks since, bleach had been selling on the black market at a rate normally associated with illicit narcotics; so it didn’t surprise me that the unit’s supplies had run out.

In the days and months since this incident, my conversation with Epifanio has increasingly come to feel like an almost perfect description of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in microcosm.

Begin with an instinctive distrust of scientific knowledge-gathering (i.e., “liberal”) institutions, producing a situation where informed inmates were taking preparatory and prophylactic measures more than two months before the administration.

I do not think it is a coincidence that these hicks waited until mid-March to institute some kind of sanitation regime, since this was precisely the moment when our Moron-in-Chief and his hagiographers at Fox Noise finally realized that, gee, maybe this whole COVID-19 thing isn’t just like the flu, after all.

Poor in praxis but rich in rhetoric, they then made public their “extensive” plans to “solve” the problem by creating a policy of spraying chemicals in the units at a rate necessary to stem the spread of the virus.

In reality this has turned out to mean about once every three days, and I’m being generous, if anything. This imbecility was then compounded by the fact that even when they got around to instituting this policy, the actual results were bungled to a degree that would almost seem to require meticulous foresight: witness the Fabuloso incident.

The night-shift sergeant had his orders; when he realized there was no bleach, he stole detergent from the kitchen. I doubt his supervisor ever found out. Why would the sarge snitch on himself?

Would kitchen detergent even deter this virus? I have no idea. What did the kitchen staff eventually use to clean the trays, since they would, a few hours later, discover that their shelves had been raided?

Again: no idea, but you can bet I didn’t eat state food for a few days after this, until I got so hungry I had no choice. All the way up the chain-of-command, deceptions get compounded, to the point that the shot-callers in Huntsville have such a distorted view of reality that they are making decisions that bear no connection to actual facts on the ground.

I didn’t expect genuine and sufficient measures to be implemented until the virus started killing off unacceptable large numbers of inmates. I’ve been trained by long experience to expect the worst of this place.

But so long as the mean stayed put and the standard deviation didn’t get too large, they weren’t going to put much effort into protecting us, or investigating the actual efficacy of their so-called sanitation policies.

Underneath all of this: the reality that intelligent convicts knew in our bones that the system was going to make a dog’s dinner of this business, and found ways to equip ourselves for the coming troubles.

This is essentially the only lesson the TDCJ teaches us regarding authority: that it cannot be trusted to be competent or to have our best interests in mind; so one had better take care of oneself.

I have some pity for the guys that listened to the conservative gasbags on AM radio who were preaching about how this whole thing was some kind of Democratic hoax and thus left themselves unprotected—but not enough pity to give them some of my bleach.

Thomas Whitaker

Thomas Whitaker

If that seems antisocial to you, all I can say is: In prison, there are no disorders, only adaptive behaviors, including radical selfishness.

If this doesn’t seem like the sort of mindset that you would want wedged firmly into the minds of the ex-cons that eventually come to settle in your neighborhoods, well, whose fault is that?

Thomas Whitaker recently ended a long stint on death row in Texas when his sentence was commuted to life in solitary.

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