July 15, 2020
As I'm writing this, it's 12:45 p.m. and breakfast is just now arriving to my housing unit. As of late, meals are always served late. Lunch won't arrive until around 5:00. Dinner is usually served just before we lock down at 6:00; sometimes even later than that. This has been our "normal" meal schedule ever since COVID-19 entered the institution and began wreaking havoc. From the day the first cases were confirmed, almost nothing has been running according to standard operating procedure.
The reason we are just now receiving breakfast at 12:45 in the afternoon is primarily because of how heavily this virus has impacted the staff, several of whom have tested positive for it. Not only have they been sent home so that they can place themselves on quarantine; other staff members they've come in contact with and potentially spread the virus to have been sent home as well. As I've stated in previous essays, this institution was already understaffed. Now there's barely enough available to conduct day-to-day operations. Serving meals late is just the tip of the iceberg. Outside recreation has been halted because there aren't enough officers to supervise the rec yard. Some days, we aren't even allowed out of our cells for pod recreation due to a lack of officers inside the buildings. One particular night shift has come to be known as the "lockdown shift" because they're so severely short, the entire institution is always on lock when they're on. Sadly, this staffing issue will likely get worse as the virus continues to spread.
To no one's surprise, offenders here have also began testing positive. With so many infected staff - and the lack of adequate safety measures on behalf of the institution and DOC [we've yet to be issued bleach or ammonia to kill the virus on surfaces, nor have we been issued any new facemasks since April] - this was inevitable. The virus is spreading at such a fast rate that a lot of the officers who are still working are hesitant to make security rounds in the housing units for fear that they might also become infected. There's no separate quarantine area to send infected offenders, so unless they display severe symptoms, they're left in their housing unit. Of the 18 housing units at this prison, all but two contain infected offenders. Thankfully, the unit in which I'm housed is one that has no known cases, but I feel it's only a matter of time before someone in here tests positive. After all, when the officers do make security rounds, they must pass between each housing unit in the building, potentially spreading the virus from unit to unit. Ideally, the administration would contain this by assigning each officer to one housing unit and restricting them from entering the others. But again, they're too understaffed to be able to take such a safety measure.
Initially, whenever an offender tested positive or displayed symptoms of infection, everyone in the housing unit would be locked inside their cells for a 14-day quarantine to keep the virus from spreading within the unit. But the limited staff was unable to enforce these quarantines. Offenders continued leaving their cells and interacting with each other, and of course the virus continued spreading. Now, instead of attempting to lock offenders inside their cells, the officers simply bar them from leaving their housing units and going into other units. However, this poses another problem because inmate workers from those quarantined housing units, some of whom are paradoxically essential to institutional operations, also aren't allowed to leave, which means they can't go to work. This includes staff aides, plumbing/electrical/general maintenance workers, and those who work in food service (which is another reason meals are being served late every day). These offender worker shortages are just as disruptive as the staff shortages.
Perhaps the most deleterious impacts of this virus has been on the medical and dental departments. Medical is now virtually off limits to everyone. Their staff is also strained, so resources are being prioritized to only COVID cases and other life-or-death situations. The problem is that some offenders' appointment requests are being denied because they aren't deemed priorities. Even worse, all dental appointments have been put on hold altogether. My cellmate has severe gum disease and normally has regular dental checkups; however, he's been notified that his appointments are postponed "until further notice." This is borderline unethical because some offenders may have medical or dental problems that may not be severe now, but could become life-or-death emergencies if they don't get the care they need now!
Lastly, Segregation itself has been listed as a COVID-19 "red zone" because so many offenders there have tested positive. As a result, officers are reluctant to send more offenders there for punishment, even when they pose a threat to the others. Offenders are, however, still being released FROM Segregation. To contain the spread of the virus from prison to prison (which is futile at this point), offenders who would normally be transferred to a higher-level prison after committing a serious offense are now being released back into general population. The administration has no choice but to release them since they also can't be held in Segregation indefinitely. Even those who've committed serious acts such as gang assaults, stabbings, and possession of drugs and cellphones are being released right back into general population.
COVID-19 has clearly exposed another layer to the problem of mass incarceration. The carceral system is too overpopulated to handle an outbreak of this magnitude, and the lack of sufficient staff, adequate sanitation, and an effective containment plan by DOC almost guarantee that this deadly virus will continue spreading behind bars. In the 12 years I've been incarceration, I've never been more afraid of dying in prison.