Although I was the volunteer, helping to facilitate the meeting, Brad always arrived before me, standing tall in front of a short line of people in blue uniforms. I gave him a nod and pulled open the heavy steel door to a semi-underground room, part of a massive complex of concrete and metal. I walked in and let the door slam behind me.
This may seem like an unlikely place for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but I’m describing an American prison. This particular room was chosen because the dormitory above it hosts the Renaissance Program, a residential treatment program within the London Correctional Institution in rural Ohio.
At a table were stacks of styrofoam cups and a large, metal cylinder full of coffee. I started pouring and chatted with other volunteers while they arranged chairs and checked the sound equipment. After about 20 minutes, it was time to open the door.
When everyone sat down, I joined Brad in the same row we always reserved for ourselves. We broke etiquette and exchanged whispers while other volunteers read perfunctory statements into a microphone. This was a mundane routine, but it was comfortable.
That was over a year ago and I haven’t talked to Brad since. We didn’t attend next week’s meeting because there wasn’t one. This was March 2020, and the state of Ohio was beginning to worry about how COVID would affect its massively overcrowded prisons.
Their concern wouldn’t last long.
Maybe you’ve seen or heard somebody talking about COVID’s effect on the prison population. If it was in the mainstream media, that somebody almost certainly wasn’t a prisoner. Disenfranchisement isn’t just about being denied the right to vote; it’s also being denied access to the public conversation — even when the conversation is about us.
I wrote this essay to document how I experienced the pandemic in my corner of the American prison system.
I had a solid schedule. I woke up at 6:30 to shower, shave, and brush my teeth in a rusted steel mirror. Then I walked over to the chow hall for breakfast. The usual thunder of dozens of voices hit my ears as soon as I flung open the double doors. To my right, a fist-clenched officer was screaming “sit down and shut the fuck up” at an equally tense prisoner, their roles only differentiated by the color and quality of their uniforms and by who was holding a tray. I waited in line, grabbed my own tray, ate quickly and left.
With personal maintenance and nutrition taken care of, I made the one hundred meter commute to work. My boss was Ms. A (names in this story have been changed to protect people’s privacy), an energetic and generous teacher from California who was always telling us about a book she’d read or an art museum she’d visited. My job was to tutor her students so they could earn their high school equivalency degrees.
The students were white, African American, Chicano, Mexican and South American with an occasional Native American, Jamaican, Cuban or Haitian. Prisons are the true melting pot — they’re more welcoming to racial minorities than anywhere else in the United States. Despite never having graduated high school, some of these prisoners were advanced enough to learn from books with minimal assistance. I’m a high school dropout myself. Others cannot read a single line or multiply two numbers together. Many have life stories worse than middle class people’s nightmares.
“¿Necesito dividir tres equis por este lado también?” asked Pacheco.
I was trying to teach him algebra in Spanish. After staring at the page for a few seconds I mumbled, “umm, repite, por favor?” Pacheco chuckled, conveying a mood of friendly patience.
This gave me the opportunity to connect with a culture from which I’ve been estranged by circumstance. My Chicana grandmother’s family lives in Texas, but I moved away to Ohio with her, my white grandfather and my mixed-race mother when I was 4 years old, for reasons still unclear to me 23 years later.
After navigating the chow hall again at lunch time, I could either do my own reading or I could find Brad and walk around the library talking about art, science, philosophy and life. Then I could either hit the weights or run the track. My life was as good as it can be in prison.
I learned about the coronavirus while watching the news. In April, after the initial lockdown, reporters began asking Governor Mike DeWine how Ohio’s prison system would be affected by COVID. DeWine said he would order testing for every inmate in a prison with a confirmed case. In two prisons, the Marion and Pickaway correctional institutions, the number of inmates testing positive exceeded 80% and 75%, respectively.
Marion County was now one of the biggest COVID hotspots in the entire United States. Protesters lined up outside the fence at both prisons. The American Civil Liberties Union ran TV commercials calling for a depopulation of the prisons, explaining that none of these prisoners had been sentenced to death. The reporters’ questions at DeWine’s daily press conferences became much more uncomfortable.
Apparently in response to the backlash, the administration claimed that testing every prisoner in the state would not be cost effective or logistically feasible. Rather than testing everyone, they spot-tested inmates, and the positivity rate declined. As it did, public anger dissipated. But this Orwellian tactic did not change reality inside the razor-wire fence.
“You know, they’re getting ready to lock us the fuck down.”
“I’m surprised they haven’t already.”
I heard snatches of such conversations from the crowd of tattooed men on the yard. They were correct. This facility went on lockdown in April 2020. This meant no tutoring, no library, no weight room and no AA meetings. Worse still, my family used to visit me twice a month. Now I’m not allowed to see them at all. I’m trapped in an open dorm with 120 roommates all day. Only a prisoner knows what it’s like to be lonely without any privacy.
It was as if I’d been transferred back to one of the high security prisons in which I’d lived as a teenager. Isolation, confinement and lack of activities means more assaults and more drugs entering the facility. The only difference is that this is an open dorm with no cells, but that just makes it harder for the officers to control it.
Wet coughing and wheezes filled the air. I walked down the aisle to use the bathroom and passed by men lying miserably in their bunks, a mere three inches of mattress separating them from hard steel frames. I know that some of them are here for nonviolent offenses.
Governor DeWine has refused calls to release more prisoners. A Cleveland jail released some 900 inmates, about 30% of its population, but federal prisons have seen little reduction. Most of those released were nearing the end of their sentences anyway. The only early releases I’ve seen here in London were by way of ambulance.
“All we’ve got is our health,” proclaimed Tom, a friend I’ve had for years.
He wanted to lose weight and I wanted to gain weight, so he began giving me food from his trays. I ate voraciously and went hard with our makeshift weights, which were fashioned with needle and thread out of mesh bags and bottles of water. The handles tore into our skin with every rep, but instead of fixing this we let thick calluses grow on our palms and fingers. Fortunately, we got two hours per day outside. I spent more than half of this time briskly jogging around the track with rap and hardcore punk blasting into my ears from another friend’s MP3 player.
We periodically measured our results at the med bay. After a year, Tom lost a few dozen pounds and significantly improved his cholesterol and blood pressure. I grew from 140 pounds to 160. Neither of us ever showed a single Covid symptom. Here we were, at ages 27 and 26, in the best shape of our lives with decades left to serve in prison. We were proud of ourselves all the same.
These decades afford one plenty of time for reflection, especially during a prolonged lockdown. I think of people I’ve influenced in prison. On my recommendations, Ms. A now reads Noam Chomsky, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Walter Benjamin. Two weeks ago someone yelled my name across the yard, and I looked to see Brad lifting his shirt to reveal a large, freshly tattooed hammer and sickle on his chest. For his part, Tom got a tattoo of the rap group ICP’s “hatchet man” logo holding another hammer and sickle instead of the typical butcher’s knife. Interesting choices considering I’ve got a giant A on my stomach.
We have to stand in line to get a cup of water or to use the bathroom, yet when we leave the dorm to go to the chow hall, the officers try to enforce social distancing by screaming at us to spread out. I am required to wear a mask nearly 16 hours per day. We’ve been “returning to normal soon” for at least six months now, judging by the memos the administration puts up every two weeks. I’m cynical.
I don’t know what became of most of my friends. I haven’t heard from Pacheco, but at least I’ve exchanged letters with Brad. More than likely we all had COVID, though this will never be confirmed. Hopefully Ms. A managed to protect herself.
From the moment the pandemic began you, on the outside, have been wondering when you’ll get back to your life. I have, too. But in another way I’ve been wondering that ever since they told me I might not ever get out of prison. So if you think the stay-at-home orders and social distancing have given you a glimpse into the life of a prisoner, try putting a bunk bed in your bathroom and moving a stranger in.