Looking through the thick bars cutting a horizontal stratum in the window, I watch the streams of fog soften the edges of the housing unit silhouettes lined up outside. The towering stadium lights illuminate the prison grounds when it gets dark; this morning they radiate a soft light through the mist. This is what mass incarceration looks like at 5 a.m.
Turning on the lamp that is attached to the metal frame of my prison bunk, I adjust the coarse orange fabric of the face mask I tied over it. Transformed from Covid-19 mitigation, it now imbues my sleeper area with a soothing marmalade glow. I found it softened the reality of the cold cinder block wall that ran the length of my lumpy mattress. I live in a room that often accommodates eight women at a time, in a space the size of a one-car garage.
That everything about Covid-19 is calming is ironic; prisons are a nightmare scenario for an out of control virus. 1 in 5 people incarcerated in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, which is four times higher than the general population. In California, where I am incarcerated, that rate is one in four.
I know I designed my current situation to break the law, but no one saw this pandemic coming. Being sentenced to years in prison is different from the very real possibility of dying at the hands of neglectful and indifferent prisons.
I have to go to breakfast to get food. This requires walking between a staff glove clustered on both sides of a narrow sidewalk leading to the food hall. I notice that many of their masks hang carelessly from their chin. The institution says we should report any staff not complying with COVID mitigation practices, but we know this will lead to backlash – likely harassment or a search of our room.
This morning, when I saw that there wouldn’t be six feet between us, I considered quoting some public health messages. Time in prison, however, taught me to think about these urges, and I reconsidered taking five correctional officers who clearly weren’t concerned about the coronavirus. I held my breath as I passed, grateful for the mask that hid equal parts frustration and fear.
I have been incarcerated for 30 years and I have never seen my community suffer in this way. Entire rooms of eight women are routinely ripped out of housing and sent to quarantine after potential exposure. For 14 days, they sit in two-person cells made up of three narrow cinder-block walls that seem to close in on you. They are so small that you can touch your bunk and the wall at the same time. However, you wouldn’t want to touch the wall, they’re smeared with pencils led by previous women using them as pencil sharpeners, or they’re encrusted with dried balls of cheap toothpaste that were used as glue to pin pictures of your own. loved ones or a funny comic in the mail. There is no electricity for appliances, no phone calls or access to the laundry room, we cannot power the tablets we rely on for valuable contact with family and the outside world. For us, these Covid quarantine rooms are dungeons.
A woman I have known for over 20 years recently returned from her 40s. Usually she is spiritual, supportive and calm, always ready with a Bible quote from Christian books that she constantly reads. When she returned from quarantine with her roommates, we could see the change in their faces and in their minds.
About a week after she returned, we were both in the medical clinic waiting to be seen. She sat down across from me on the stainless steel benches, gazing quietly at the floor. For two decades, we worked together and lived in the same accommodation and shared many conversations. When she started to speak this time, I heard something that had no character reflected in her voice and on her face: she was indignant. I saw anger run through his face in a way I had never seen before. Uncomfortable, I imagined what must have happened to mark her like that.
We live in four days of dread – the time it takes to get the results of our Covid-19 test. Each time we fear to learn that someone in our room has tested positive; it’s like living a game of russian roulette. We are haunted by the specter of a positive test, the room of which will then be transferred to the quarantine unit.
This virus is an invisible microscopic presence on all surfaces. Whenever a woman tests positive, we all think: did I sit on a couch near her? Am I standing next to her signing up for phone time? Did I use the kiosk or the washing machine after her?
Three days ago my friend who lives in a room across the hall a few feet away tested positive. All our room knows her, she is someone with whom we speak regularly and with whom we have lunch. One of my roommates even works with her. She and I had chatted a week earlier, standing next to each other in the living room and discussing how we both handled quarantine. It was 7:40 pm and we were sitting on our bunks when the sound of an officer’s footsteps on the concrete echoed on the hallway floor. Then we heard a creak as the staff unlocked the heavy metal door to their room before the officer leaned over the doorway to call out his last name and tell him it was time to go.
My roommates and I looked out our bedroom window, watching our friend come out of her bedroom with a large plastic garbage bag full of her things. I could see faces at every window in our lobby. Soon voices began to echo through the cracks in the doors. Several voices overlapped, saying that we love her, to stay strong, pray for her, and plan a big meal to celebrate her return in 14 days.
Then we sat in our bedroom sharing our own version of the “contact tracing” information, each of us suddenly realizing what that could mean. Our cell became very silent, each of us considering the overwhelming inevitability.
That night, after the 9:30 p.m. security countdown, I lay in my bunk wondering how my friend was doing. I imagined her in a quarantine room with no electricity, no television, with strangers she did not know. I thought about how this could be my future. I struggled with the reality that this virus was at my front door and probably in my room. Stress was a tangible burden, an inescapable reality of things and decisions beyond our control that risked our lives.
Overwhelmed by all of this, I distracted myself by watching Saturday Night Live – a laugh finally emerged at a Rudy Guliani sketch. Opening a box of cheese crackers and a bag of plain crisps, I thought there was no such thing as the old-fashioned coping strategy of emotional eating. Self-care is not lenient, I thought, it is self-conserving. As I fell in love with my snacks and allowed the comedy to distract my quick thoughts, I realized I had reached the point of giving in to what I had no control over. I had given in to the uncertainty of my situation. Really, it was the only choice I had left.
The next day, each room was given a list of what we were allowed to take with us if our test came back positive and we were sent to quarantine.
A few weeks ago my friend came to my bunk. She perched on its metal edge and asked if she could talk to me. She was fresh out of work. In the beginning, when prison officers were designated “essential workers,” many women were grateful because they were so anxious to finally get out of their rooms and go elsewhere in the prison. Before Covid-19, it was common to attend self-help groups in the chapel or visitation room. We had weekly medical appointments, college night classes, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Now it’s all gone. Having a work assignment to help fill 23 hours of lockdown each day feels like a giveaway, even if the job pays only 8 to 90 cents an hour.
My friend started to cry as she revealed the fear and stress of being forced to report to her job where she was assigned along with many other women in the prison. They had all recently learned that their supervisor had tested positive for Covid-19. She worried about her habit of putting her mask under her mouth for weeks.
Two days later, when the women returned to work after a brief hiatus, it was uncertain whether the site had been disinfected. All day they talked about where the virus could still be, the fear and uncertainty weighing on them.
My friend is usually a bright blast of happy and joyous energy, but the day and the oppressive mood of her colleagues had taken its toll. Once she entered the peace and security of my room, she broke down. Her voice was shaky and strained as she told me that she couldn’t stand it, that she had tried to be strong and support other women all day but it was too much; her head fell and tears flowed. She was broken.
I looked at my friend, fresh out of her job with her dark eyes filled with the weight of working in a place most likely infected with Covid-19 and although I was keenly aware of her proximity to me. Could it be on his clothes, I wondered? And as I watched her tears and the anguish etched on her face, I pulled her towards me and hugged her. Even as I wondered if there might be a virus in her hair, I put her head under my chin. As my arms swirled in an offer of comfort, a little thought came to me, I wondered if I was now infected? I still hugged her.
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