As physically isolated as prisoners are from the outside world, the pandemic, as witnessed by television and radio, seems more an elaborate Orson Wells drama than reality. We don’t quite trust the images we see of depleted store shelves and quarantined cruise ships, or descriptions we hear of empty classrooms and shuttered businesses. As isolated as we are, we find it difficult to grasp even our families’ first-hand accounts of furlows and job loss, of overwhelmed hospital wards and thousands sick and dying just beyond the razor wire.
Only when the Bureau issued a memo announcing a quarantine of all federal prisons did the crisis become marginally more real. “All visitations and transfers have been suspended for the next thirty days, likely longer,” said the Warden during a town hall meeting. Addressing a room of some sixty inmates, he added that educational and vocational trade classes had been canceled and outdoor recreation would be limited to one hour per day. Dinner would continue to be eaten communally in the chow hall, while breakfast and lunch would be served in the dormitories, where inmates would otherwise remain while on lockdown.
“What about commissary?” someone shouted.
“The commissary will remain open.” said the Warden, “but spending limits will be capped at ninety dollars per week, to maintain supply chains.”
The mob wailed. More questions hurled forth: “Will the limit apply to stamps and medicine?” “Will we have to eat bologna every day?” “Will we run out of toilet paper?”
Standing beside the Warden, the AW raised his hand. “Gentlemen, “ he said. “I assure you this lockdown is not intended to punish you. This will be a challenging time for everyone, staff included. We are going to take every precaution necessary to keep you safe and keep this virus from getting over that fence.”
As accustomed as we are to seeing the prison’s fences as a means of keeping the undesirables in, considerable readjustment is required to see the fences as a means of keeping the unwanted out. With visitations and transfers suspended, the only possible way the virus can be introduced to the yard is by the coming and going of staff. Consequently, officers must submit to certain precautionary measures. Staff who have traveled outside the country must self-isolate for two weeks before returning to work. Officers must have their temperatures checked before entering the prison, and even then they must wear masks at all times and practice social distancing around inmates and other staff. Everyone must cooperate to ensure the virus stays off the yard. The health of all could be jeopardized by the carelessness of one. By the nature of prison, with 1,100 men sharing a single space, eating sleeping, and shitting within four feet of one another, if just one man should fall ill, like dominoes, we will all fall.
Some inmates had been preparing to see their families the week the quarantine was announced. Many families had already driven into town and checked into one of a string of hotels that neighbors the prison and feeds off its weekly visitors. To help maintain family ties during the crisis, the Bureau increased inmates’ monthly allotment of calling minutes from 300 to 500, and later in an unheard of act of generosity, granted all calls free. Accordingly, I’ve been calling home more often. In the past nine years of incarceration I can remember only one time that my parents didn’t answer the phone, and it was because they’d been talking to my brother, who is also in prison. As faithful as the moon, it’s difficult to imagine there will ever come a time when my parents will not pick up. And yet the pandemic has rudely reminded me of their impermanence; their age makes them most vulnerable to the virus.
It’s true, however, that they are hardy people, my parents. My father who is 76 still works full-time, managing foodservice operations for a senior living community, feeding the “old folks,” as he calls them, though some are younger than himself. He is always first to pick up, keeping the phone at his side on evenings he thinks there’s a chance I might call. He sounds chipper, which means he’s exhausted. The pandemic has placed an exceptional strain on the senior living industry, forcing Dad into working twelve-hour shifts without a day off. The old folks, he says, are fed in their room, kept indoors, and can receive no outside visitors, which makes them not so different from prisoners. My mother, when she answers on the home office line, tells me she can’t buy toilet paper or bleach: “The website keeps giving me an error.” In her mid sixties, Mom is surprisingly comfortable with technology, and has for years before COVID-19 been buying most of the household’s groceries online from an iPad. Semi-retired, she works part-time for an accountant whose office, like most, has had to close. She continues working from home by computer, which has suited her well. Indeed both my parents, with their technical savviness and spartan domestic lives have transitioned relatively easily into this period of so-called social distancing. “I don’t understand that term,” Mom says. “If anything we’re socializing more now that ever. It ought to be called physical distancing.”
With 500 free minutes at my disposal, I’ve taken to calling people I haven’t spoken to in years, including my ex-boyfriend Lyle, who a year into my sentence shocked his friends and family, and not least of all me. When he decided to transition into a woman. Lily picked up on the second ring.
“My God!” she cried. “I’ve been thinking about you!”
“Yes, really. Why the tone? I looked you up online. I figure you should be getting out soon.”
“July at the earliest.”
“July! My, God! It’s been, what, seven, eight years.”
“Nine,” I said pressing my forehead against the peeling phone partition. In the stall beside me I could hear a man telling someone that he didn’t trust vaccinations and feared a vaccine for coronavirus might contain a chip
“Nine years!” Lily said. “You’ve missed so much. There’s so many films and TV shows you’ve missed.”
”What an odd thing to say. I can think of plenty of more important things I’ve missed besides films and television.”
I wondered how large her breasts might be and whether she’d had her trachea shaved. Early in her transition, before I’d stopped calling, she sent me a picture of her transformation. In it her hair had been lengthened with bouncy extensions and her breasts were just beginning to bud and press at the fabric of a sleeveless dress. She had bragged that she gets more attention from men as Lily than she ever did as Lyle. I agreed she was indeed beautiful, though I’d also sensed something askew about the photo, as when a once familiar portrait is flipped horizontally.
She asked me why I’d stopped calling. “I haven’t heard from you in years.”
“We weren’t having good conversations anymore. We were always arguing. You demanded to know the details of my sex life and insisted on sharing the details of yours. And anyway, I just wanted to know that you’re okay. Are you okay?”
She said she was terrible. But not because the pandemic had shaken her world too much. She was working as a nurse, behind the front line, triaging patients by phone. But she’d long been unhappy in her career, unhappy in her home-life, living with a man for the past two years who she no longer loved. She’d been depressed, suicidal at times and had considered transitioning back into a man. This surprised me.
“I thought you were happy as a woman.”
She paused, weighing her words, and when she spoke again her voice sounded nicer and more as I’d remembered it. “I was happiest as Lyle when I was with you.”
I pressed myself deep into the phone’s cubby, flush with melancholy. For all the stagnation in my own life, it seemed Lily, despite having her freedom intact, hadn’t grown much. How long is nine years, and also how short.
In ticking through my free minutes I was struck by how little my friends’ lives had changed, how adrift we all still are. Jamie was living in France, swimming in student debt, still unsure what career he ought to pursue. Robert had just gotten out of a longterm relationship and moved back to Texas to care for his grandparents. Jim was still unemployed and living with his mother. Zoe had moved to the West Coast and enrolled in on line business courses, though she admitted all she really wants is to marry, stay at home, and raise kids. None of us were doing what in our twenties we thought we wanted to be or should be doing. Certainly I’m not.
One week after the quarantine was first announced, the Warden conducted yet another town hall meeting, informing inmates that there’d been two confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Oakdale facility in Los Angeles. One inmate had died, and some eighty others had been segregated with visible symptoms. The virus had penetrated the federal system, and in response the Bureau was initiating “Phase Four” of the quarantine.
“No more communal meals,” said the Warden. “All meals will be bagged and eaten in the dorms. And there is to be no recreation, until further notice.”
Invariably, someone asked about the commissary.
“The commissary will stay open,” said the Warden. “But the spending limit has been reduced to twenty-five dollars.”
The inmates squawked. “When will the store restock Folgers?” “Will we continue to get a hot meal?” “Is it true the Bureau’s going to release us?”
That week, at the onset of what was being called Phase Four, the prison received a shipment of washable cloth masks. Initially we’d been given disposable masks to be worn and reused a week at a time. The cloth masks are uncomfortable things, sewn by the hands of inmate factory workers, made of rough elastic and scratchy off-white canvas. They look like jockstraps and smell like diesel. Each inmate has been issued three masks, to be worn at all times, though this rule was later relaxed when men complained of headaches and dizziness from lack of fresh air, and when the sense of immediate urgency had worn off. Then we were made to wear the masks only when directly interacting with officers, or when dropping off laundry or picking up our three bagged meals from the mess hall. Around the compound one sees that many men have taken to modifying their masks with rubber bands and shoelaces. Otherwise the straps pull angrily at the ears, and the cook, whose former profession involved some military training, tells me it takes only three pounds of force to rip a human ear off.
Foodservice is one of a handful of departments that remains operational during the quarantine. In the Officers’ Mess the cook and I have seen business nearly double. With all restaurants in town and across the nation either closed or open for take-out only, most staff choose to eat in the OM where meals have been comped for however long the crisis lasts.
It is a sweaty, suffocating business cooking in a mask. At the end of every service my mask’s off-white canvas has yellowed from sweat and grease. A mask handicaps one’s sense of smell too, a critical guide when working in a kitchen. I nearly burned the breadcrumbs I was toasting to top a squash casserole. But these are small prices to pay for safety. Working in the OM, cooking and serving and interacting with the compound’s officers, the cook and I accept the highest risk of exposure. Yet we agree we’d rather be in the kitchen than locked in the dorm.
In the dorm there is little peace to be had. With no outdoor recreation the bathroom has become a gym. One hardly has room to wash his hands or brush his teeth. Bored men with pent up energy do dips off the sinks and pull-ups off the stalls’ door frames. Five-gallon jugs of disinfectant come free weights, and belts are fashioned into resistance bands. Meanwhile in a damp, warm hole in the ceiling above the toilet, hootch is brewed. Once while using the bathroom I looked up to see legs dangling above my head, and in the reflection in the young Mexican’s eyeglasses I could see myself wiping my ass.
No, there is no peace to be had locked in the dorms. The living quarters are a ruckus room of drinking, card playing, bullshitting, Facetiming, and smoking. Those with drug addictions find little else to do but smoke dope. A battery, empty pen barrel, and a slyer of toxic paper no wider or longer than the white of a fingernail can keep an addict occupied for days. You can always tell a drug addict by looking in his locker. It is always empty, save for some spent batteries, a stained coffee mug, and a few sweetener packets from the kitchen. They can’t afford commissary sweetener. Every dollar and every stamp is given to nursing their addiction. And when the money runs dry, when every last bit of credit has been extended, the addict turns to selling goods. Someone’s watch disappears. A radio turns up missing. I once had a pair of new sneakers snatched from my bunk in the night, undoubtedly by an addict with massive debt.
Rumor has it that the drug addict who sleeps in the bunk across from me owes nearly a half grand, which seems likely given he is rarely sober. He stays sucking a pen barrel all day and all night. He alternated between standing zombie-like before his empty locker to lying passed out in the chair beside his bunk, mouth slack, chin resting on his breast. In overhearing his conversations with other inmates, I’ve learned unsurprisingly he comes from a family of addicts. His girlfriend is a drug addict. All have been to either jail or prison. The cook once told me that before he got locked up he assumed that most everyone in prison for drug crimes are dealers—king pins, cartel leaders, heavy movers and the like. He was therefore surprised to see the system is overrun not with dealers but addicts, bottom-level pushers who’d sold only enough dope to support their habit. Likely my neighbor smoked any profit he’s ever made. What strikes me in hearing his conversations is the terrible smallness of his world. To have lived in the same trailer park, to have never known anyone who wasn’t addicted to dope. It seems strange to lock a man of this sort up, to confine him to a cell, an even smaller existence, when it seems that what he’s missed most of his life is expansiveness, the chance to see beyond his narrow circumstances.
As the virus winds its way across the globe, people everywhere find their worlds shrinking, reduced to the size of their homes, or for some a hospital bed. Prisoners’ worlds, which had already seemed impossibly small, are shrinking too. Across the nation in state and federal prisons and in local jails, inmates are being confined to dormitories and two-to-three man cells. Here the library, which once held GED and ESL classes has been repurposed into a quarantine for incoming prisoners arriving off the streets. The vocational trade school, which once taught electrical and plumbing skills, has been dismantled and converted into a hospital ward in anticipation of future demand. Because as one nurse told us at the last town hall meeting it isn’t a matter of if the virus arrives but when.