A few weeks ago, I found myself watching the TV news from here in a Washington state prison, while drinking my morning coffee. This was my normal routine. Apparently, there had been some sort of an outbreak in China that officials were starting to call the coronavirus.
At the time, I didn’t pay much attention. Like most things, I figured it was far away—everything can feel especially far away when you’re in prison—and would hardly have an effect on me or those around me.
In fact, my fellow prisoners and I were essentially joking about how the world was coming to an end. A good friend of mine and I are huge fans of apocalyptic movies and shows, so we started to shoot the breeze about how a zombie virus had taken hold in China and would soon spread across the globe. I remember telling him in jest, “This is it, my friend. We better stock up on food and be ready with a plan of defense.” He laughed. We discussed how we could make body armor out of magazines and where we would steal the tape to do so.
But before long, we learned from TV not only that the virus had spread throughout the world, but also that the state of Washington had become the United States’s ground zero. As each day passed, the numbers continued to get worse. The nursing home where the national news was saying that so many people were infected was less than 20 miles away from us.
Like everyone in the free world, those of us on the inside began to worry about our families, especially our older folks, and their safety in the face of an unknown predator. Even in the best of times, it’s hard to know how our families are doing.
And then we started to wonder about our own safety. What measures were being taken to safeguard us from the spread of the virus within the crowded prison walls? We knew that on the outside, people were buying everything they could to prepare for disaster, especially toilet paper.
Toilet paper scarcity is no stranger to us—having more than two rolls in your room at any given time is an infraction—so we became focused on the things we weren’t prepared for, and just how little we each have in our cells for protection. We don’t have cleaning wipes, alcohol-based hand sanitizer (it’s contraband), or anything else that the CDC is recommending citizens use to prevent spreading the virus. The only cleaning solution we have is a mild “all-purpose cleaner” that is not germicidal and, rumor has it, is safe enough to drink.
As the virus continued to spread in the outside world, I along with many others inside waited for instructions on what we would do to keep the prison prepared for when it came knocking on our door—or rather came knocking on our sally ports, metal bars, and barbed-wire fences.
Prisoners and corrections officers alike inquired about what was being done to disinfect the facility. The unit porters (prisoners who work as janitors) usually can’t use bleach on the common areas. Having a small amount of bleach, even if you’re just using it to clean, will get you in trouble.
Eventually though, I noticed that the porters were given spray bottles filled with diluted bleach to wipe the living areas down. Nevertheless, one cannot expect someone who is paid at most $55 a month for full-time work to do a thorough, painstaking job of cleaning.
On one wall, non-alcohol based sanitizer was taped there without a proper dispenser; it’s just a useless substance sloshing around in a plastic pouch. Even things like cleaning rags can be impossible to find, which is difficult to comprehend, as there are large bins of old scraps in our clothing room. Possessing too many rags is also considered contraband, and could get you an infraction, which could mean losing recreation or getting sent to solitary.
The DOC has sent out messages to prisoners via paper handouts instructing us to keep our hands clean, not to touch our faces, and to clean our cells. But how can we do any of this if the proper cleaning equipment is criminalized?
I was not surprised last week when an employee who works in the living units opposite of mine tested positive for COVID-19. After that, they posted signs down by the phones instructing us to put a sock—yes, like you wear on your foot—over the phone receiver before using it in order to avoid spreading germs. There was no mention of where these socks were meant to come from; we’re only allowed a few socks at any given time or we risk being written up.
The most drastic measure they’ve taken so far is putting the entire side of the prison where the employee worked on “quarantine.” My fellow prisoners on quarantine are functionally on lockdown, which is what happens when there’s something like a fight. They are confined to their windowless cells for almost the entire day.