It’s never quiet in prison ― especially here at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state. The cells are scanty — 6 by 9 feet — with bars, rather than the metal doors found in newer prisons, and they’re stacked four tiers high. Across from the bars, no more than 15 feet away, is a stained brick wall, ideal for sound waves to bounce off. Naturally, I hear everything in my living unit, from the neverending supply of laughter and war stories to the 60-something-year-old housed down the tier who wakes up at 6:30 every morning and spends an hour clearing his throat.
There was a time when this used to bother me to the point of almost ripping out my hair, but I’ve learned to live with the noise, because it’s either that or raise an objection, wind up in a fight and be sent to a different facility where violence and gang activity abound. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I don’t miss it.
But on Friday, March 13, I woke up well past 6 to the brewing silence that accompanies the early stages of fear in a group setting. Visitation and all programming had been suspended for more than a week due to COVID-19, but now our unit and the one next door were being put under quarantine because a guard had tested positive. We would be locked down until 14 fourteen days had passed since the guard’s last shift, which was 10 days out at that point. Nobody was laughing, telling stories or even clearing their throats, because all of our eyes were focused intently on television screens, which announced that coronavirus-related death tolls around the world were continuing to rise at a horrifying rate.
Solemn-faced reporters spoke of what a global pandemic would mean for the U.S. economy. They argued about who warned whom first, and they showed footage of cruise ships with infected passengers docked off the coast of Florida. The president blamed China. The media blamed the president. China blamed U.S. soldiers, and doctors in Wuhan, China, disappeared. Journalists began to write about who was at the highest risk of infection based on where they lived or worked, but the incarcerated communities across the country didn’t seem to have a place in the conversation — and we definitely did not have a voice.
Prisons are a cesspool of germs and infections — particularly the older facilities with poor circulation due to outdated ventilation systems. MCC was built more than 100 years ago, making it one of the oldest in the state. I worked as a personal trainer prior to my incarceration, and still, at age 34, I do everything I can to stay perpetually fit and healthy. In the three years I’ve spent here, I’ve managed to dodge one cold that was being passed around and avoid the flu by getting the yearly vaccine. Some of my neighbors go out of their way to contract whatever sickness is currently on the menu — shaking hands and embracing whomever has it — because experience has taught them to just try to get it over with, since it seems inevitable that they’ll catch it anyway.
Nobody was laughing, telling stories or even clearing their throats, because all of our eyes were focused intently on television screens, which announced that coronavirus-related death tolls around the world were continuing to rise at a horrifying rate.
By mid-afternoon on day one of our quarantine, discussion had sprouted out of the silence. Residents stood at their bars and speculated about what was to come if just one of us caught COVID-19. I typically don’t talk at my bars, but I like to sit on the edge of my bunk and listen. That day, however, I found myself resisting an almost overwhelming impulse to speak ― to point out that if one of us got sick, it would spread faster than it had on the cruise ships. That people were dying on those ships. That tents were being put in hospital parking lots because the morgues were too full and it may only be a matter of time before one was erected on the other side of our wall.
A few months ago, I came across an article about our prison in a local newspaper. Our medical director had been fired after several incarcerated patients died under her care. One person with a respiratory illness had allegedly been told to stop making his own condition worse. Another person with a mental illness had reportedly wedged a pencil into his urethra, managed to get it lodged in his bladder, and been denied treatment. It took seven deaths before she was finally fired, and the ensuing investigation revealed that she wasn’t board-certified, nor had she completed an approved medical residency. At the time, I had prayed silently that I would never need serious medical attention while housed in MCC. Now, as I listened to my neighbors talk at their bars on Friday the 13th, I wondered if any of them had read the same article or known any of the victims.
Soon after the silence had given birth to discussions, the discussions seemed to blossom into anger ― not because we were locked in our cells, but because with visits and programs canceled, the only possible means by which the virus could find its way into our home was through Department of Corrections staff, yet none of them were wearing face masks. I sat on the edge of my bunk with my ear to the bars as one guard bravely informed my neighbor that the administration had instructed them not to cover their faces so as not to scare us.
We were permitted 30 minutes out of our cells every day. I got into the habit of taking a two-minute shower and then rushing to the phone to inform my loved ones that I was still alive and healthy. Washington state prisoners are not allowed access to the internet, but we’re sold overpriced tablets with Wi-Fi capabilities, which allow us to send emails of 1,000 words or fewer from our cells for 60 cents each. My wife and I may have been among the provider’s best customers during those 10 days as we messaged each other almost nonstop, day and night.
Once the quarantine ended, it was clear that the anger had managed to morph into tension. There was a shared mood during which, much like our visits from family and friends, war stories and laughter were put on hold. One morning a memo appeared on my cell floor, informing the entire incarcerated population that a prisoner housed in our minimum security unit had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that guards had finally been issued face masks with the option of wearing them at work. As the day progressed, it became clear that most of them had opted not to do so, and soon after, more positive cases of the virus were confirmed among both staff and prisoners alike.
The DOC implemented measures that it claimed were intended to halt the spread. In the dining hall, we were instructed to sit individually at separate tables, all facing the same direction, while guards loomed elbow-to-elbow, watching us eat. The number of residents permitted in the recreational areas was drastically decreased, which caused residents who were eager for fresh air to trample over one another in a race to the yard. With the chapel and education buildings closed, this confined the majority of the population to the living units, where we were packed in so tightly that social distancing — which our televisions claimed was saving lives elsewhere around the world — was made, for us, impossible. Fights broke out as 200 people per unit attempted to use the same 10 phones, with only two inmates allowed to wait in line at a time.
With the chapel and education buildings closed, this confined the majority of the population to the living units, where we were packed in so tightly that social distancing — which our televisions claimed was saving lives elsewhere around the world — was made, for us, impossible.
While the tension continued to brew, guards joked about why they refused to cover their faces. Some of them still claimed COVID-19 was less lethal than the seasonal flu. Others declined to give an answer altogether. I asked one and was informed that he was “just trying to spread the love.”
People wrote grievances requesting that masks be mandated for anybody coming into our home, and they received only vague and evasive responses. I used to think the DOC staff was indifferent toward the well-being of prisoners. Being aware of the “us versus them” mentality that they’re taught in training, I only blamed the ones who seemed smart enough to know better. After being incarcerated during a pandemic, however, I’m convinced they hate us. The guards in MCC seemed genuinely angry at our insistence that they stop trying to murder us by not wearing masks. Their attitudes and tones whenever the topic arose made it clear they were having their own discussions, and it seemed they were set on resisting the notion that we should be protected from them.
On April 8, like a rubber band stretched to its elastic limit, the tension snapped and a fire alarm cut through the chatter in my unit. A guard shouted “yard in!” over the intercom, and we were rushed into our cells. Then, when the alarm finally died, our home appeared on my television screen with the headlines, “Riot in the Monroe Correctional Complex over COVID-19.” An aerial view of the yard showed a crowd of prisoners kneeling around the baseball diamond with their wrists zip-tied behind their backs.
Within minutes our Wi-Fi connection was cut, and I sat at my perch and listened as a sergeant informed one of my neighbors that it was turned off intentionally because of the demonstration. This gave them complete control over what information was provided to the media and assured that the tattooed, shirtless prisoners on TV were painted as militant thugs, rather than a group of helpless and scared people who had been backed into a corner in which the only two options were: protest or sit quietly, waiting to die. (Editor’s note: According to a representative for the Washington Department of Corrections, the facility’s telecom vendor reported “statewide” technical issues at that time.)
My unit erupted into a symphony of rage as residents gripped the bars, shaking from within their cages and screaming, “Wi-Fi or die!” Garbage flew from cells, fluttering to the first-tier floor, and every bit of noise that had been suppressed by fear since the morning of Friday the 13th echoed off the bricks. The news said nonlethal weapons had been deployed on the group of aggressive demonstrators, but what it didn’t say was that every person kneeling in the yard was housed in the minimum security unit and had four years or under left to serve ― or that their release dates would now be postponed. (Editor’s note: The DOC told HuffPost that, regarding those involved in the protest, an “investigation will determine what type of sanction, if any, is imposed to the incarcerated individual.”)
The incident gained national attention, and two days later, guards were mandated to wear masks inside the prison. It would have been a victory if the order was actually being enforced. A small handful of guards, however, have still refused to wear them. When confronted about it, one guard replied, “I’m just hoping one of you writes a grievance on me so I can get suspended and get some time off work.”
I still watch the news, and fortunately the coronavirus crisis in American prisons is now being addressed. The institutions are being called “petri dishes” and compared to cruise ships. Courts have been petitioned to release nonviolent offenders, and in some states it’s already happening. Here at MCC, the tension was released on April 8, and the morning after, it was once again silent. By mid-afternoon, discussions commenced. If history is to be trusted as a roadmap of what’s to come, there will soon be anger. Then more tension. And as I sit at my perch and listen to what’s being said, I can’t imagine the community to which I belong ever just sitting around and waiting to die.
Michael J Moore’s books include “Highway Twenty,” which appeared on the preliminary ballot for the 2019 Bram Stoker Award, and the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, “After the Change,” which is used as part of the curriculum at the University of Washington. His work has received awards, has appeared in various anthologies and magazines and has been adapted for theater. Follow him at twitter.com/MichaelJMoore20 or facebook.com/
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