You’ve never seen so many grown men cry, so many self-purported thugs, gangsters, tough guys, and hardened criminals whinny and whine. It was difficult to gauge, however, who was legitimately afraid and who was only hamming it up for the nurse, who clearly delighted in being the object of so many men’s ire. She laughed and tittered, our Mistress of Pain, a squat woman of five feet, four inches in purple minion-themed smocks. Her instrument torture: a Q-tip, thinner than a match, and longer, with bristles along its spine as fine as the hairs on a house fly.
“Does it have to go in that deep?” Asked a man in line behind me, genuinely concerned.
“She be swabbing his brain!” cried another. “He ain’t gonna have no more dirty thoughts, ain’t that right, Miss?”
The nurse snorted, her face flush behind her Mac. How long had it been since those men heard a woman’s laughter? They agreed she wasn’t much to look at, a rather homely little thing in her cartoon smocks and horn-rimmed glasses. Still it was something, wasn’t to, that rare scrap of feminine attention? Each man convinced himself that every giggle and squeal belonged solely to him.
“Deeper!” the men cheered. “See him take it like a champ!”
At the front of the line a fresh victim cured his hand over his nose, crimson blood dribbling between his knuckles, Thin sinuses. Rare, said the nurse, though this did nothing to assuage the fears of the man next in line, whose buddies had to pin him flinching and writhing to a wall. Later we’d remark to one another that it was the blacks who had seemed the most scared.
When it came my then to be tested for COVID-19, the nurse unsheathed a fresh swab and with a twirl of her thumb and index finger snaked the pliable filament up my left nostril. It stung, like snorting pool water, but was very much painless and went without incident.
The next day we were sick.
“That bitch nurse gave it to us!” cried Walter the hypochondriac. “The swabs were tainted! And did you see she never changed her gloves?”
Walter believed he caught the virus back in February, which would have made him the first inmate in Big Spring, indeed the first person in all of Howard County to contract COVID-19. He had stuffed through the dorm in hi shower shoes coughing and sputtering, describing to us the color of his stools and mucus, seeing he was certainly at Death’s door. A conspiracy theorist as wel. As a hypochondriac, he’d sworn at the beginning of the pandemic that the virus was a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats to upset November’s election. But then the first federal inmate deemed frail and vulnerable to coronavirus were granted compassionate release, and suddenly Walter was sick as a dog and on the phone with his lawyer demanding she petition the court for his own liberation. Walter remained imprisoned, and he eventually recovered—miracle of miracles—only to be infected now seven months later. The virus, he said, had returned to finish the job. Why, this morning he shat blood! And it was all that damned nurse’s fault! “She never changed her gloves!”
The cook, who had once spent many years as an EMT, agreed the use should have changed her gloves. But he added, it’s unlikely if she did expose us that we would show symptoms the next day. It’s more likely we were exposed to the virus days or even weeks earlier. But how, and by whom?
What’s almost certain is that an officer brought the virus into the prison. A few weeks before the nurse tested us en masse, two inmates were pulled from our range for a rapid test. Both happened to be named Flores, and both worked the same detail scrubbing floors and degreasing fryers in the kitchen. Presumably they tested positive, because hours later officers in smock, masks, and gloves came and hauled them off to the quarantine. The fact that two inmates from the kitchen crew had been singled out for testing seemed to suggest that a carrier had been discovered among the foodservice officers.
The florists exiled, we scanned our recollections for any encounters we might have had wit them. Hadn’t Greg done pull-ups in the bathroom with Hispanic Flores? Wasn’t it last Sunday that Ron played cards with Native American Flores? I myself and Sam had shared a meal of pork-stuffed potato balls with Chief, masticating within three feet of him. He hadn’t seemed sick; neither Flores reported any symptoms.
While foodservice seemed the most likely source, others blamed the range’s infection on the bus load of inmates who’d arrived here from county jail days earlier Rumor had it one passenger has\d tested positive. And of course everyone was eager to point the finger at Paula.
Paula was moved to our dorm after spending a month in the SHU for K2, whited the cops had found wrapped in foil in her panties during a strip search. Originally she’d lived in another dorm, but the inmates there refused to have her back because before the drug incident they’d caught her in the shower with someone, which stirred up all sorts of drama.
The men in our range were not pleased to be barding with a transgender women. Paula and her morning yoga routine Paula and her damed bras drying at the foot of her bunk The white boys were the most vocal in their disdain, cracking tranny jokes and talking shit, all while casting sidelong glances at her tits. A summer ago one of their own , Porkchop, was seen coming out of a bathroom stall with then new girl Samantha. He claimed she was only showing him her tattoo. Porkchop who was always bitching about faggots. It’s always those who are loudest who are the most guilty.
Truth is, given a chance any one of those white boys would have fucked that punk. But it happed to be Porkchop who got caught, and so they had no choice but to stomp his ass. They left him lying on his side in a puddle on the floor snorting and gurgling.
It’s impossible, really, to say who infected us. Not that it matters. We knew it would eventually arrive, on way or another. Indeed, we saw it coming. On its website the Bureau posts a tally of confirmed cases across all federal facilities. Someone checks the numbers on a contraband cell phone daily and shares them with the range. Between February and August we watched the infections ripple through the prison system, from Leavenworth to Carswell, Beaumont to Inglewood. One hundred percent of Seagoville’s inmate population, over 1,300 inmates, contracted the virus. A dozen inmates at the medical facility in Fort Worth died. Come the end of August we saw our own prison confirm its first case of COVID-19. By the time the Floreses were quarantined the website was reporting over 300 of our peers had been infected. We were dominoes, all poised to fall.
The day after the nurse snaked our sinuses, and as the first sniffles and coughs were sounding across our range, Thompson, standing on a chair and peering out a window, announced that a truck had pulled into the compound.
“They’re parking behind the lieutenant’s office! They’re unloading it now!” he hollered. “Pallets! A whole shit-load of pallets!”
Since the pandemic began eight months ago, we’ve lived in and information vacuum. Th staff don’t say how many inmates have been infected or what they’re doing to contain the virus and keep us safe. Locked in our range twenty-four-seven, they only inklings we have of our circumstances are the numbers posted online and what little we’re able to glean by looking out the windows. To that extent, Thompson, whose bunk is closest to a window has become the Greek chorus of our tragedy, narrating each new plot twist as it unfolds in the yard below. He belts out every one the medical staff makes, what building and range they’re advancing on and with what medical apparatus. He sings of every inmate who is escorted to the makeshift medical ward in the vocational trades building. And he bellows with every ambulance that pulls into the prison’s parking lot to collect the desperately ill.
If it seemed that he relished these developments, if it seemed he sought out and celebrated every gory detail, it was because Thompson held a stake in the mounting carnage. Months earlier he’d petitioned for compassionate release, arguing that his sixty years of age and high blood pressure made him especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the virus is practically a death sentence, and he ought to be freed. His judge turned him down. She reasoned Thompson wasn’t a risk then because the virus hadn’t yet breached the prison’s gates. Then in August the first inmate in Big Spring tested positive and Thompson’s judge agreed to another hearing, to be held this week. If granted compassionate release he’ll be relieved of a fifteen-year sentence after having served only two years.
“A tent!” he cried now. His heart soared at the sinister possibilities. “They’re driving the stakes! They’re filling out the canvas! They’re pitching a goddamned tent, a great big sonofabitch!”
We speculated what it could mean. Some said it was for storage. Others suggested it was another quarantine for the ill. The cook in earnest declared it a morgue.
“Maybe it’s a gas chamber,” said my bunkmate Lopez with a gloomy laugh.
He’d been lying up in the rack, his nose three feet from the ceiling, black unwashed curls frizzing into an afro made lopsided by his pillow. He spends most days in bed, depressed, the poor thing. His girlfriend no longer answers his phone calls (“Probably out fucking some other dude,” he says), and the only person who still writes him is a distant aunt. Like Walter and Thompson and most everyone in the system, Lopez too is seeking compassionate release. He read to me a letter he’d written to his judge, pleading and pitiful and peppered with legalese picked up from watching television courtroom dramas, and I hadn’t the heart to tell the kid he hasn’t a chance in hell. He’s too young and too healthy to be dealt any compassion.
To cheer him up, to pass the time and help him forget the girlfriend who probably is fucking some other dude, the cook suggested to Lopez that he send away for a pen pal. Someone received an offer in the mail and was floating the forms around the dorm. Not even in prison is one freed from the burden of junk mail. A few times a year we get offers for legal council, magazine subscriptions, pornographic photos. One company which offers reduced phone rates to inmates is notorious for sending mailers disguised as legitimate letters from women—Ambers and Ashleys and Shannons and such—a dirty trick to ensnare the lonely and disenfranchised.
Occasionally we’ll get an offer from one of a number of pen pal services which for ten to 100 dollars will post online a personalized ad for the inmate complete with pictures. “You’re ticket to getting mail!” promises on such service. Many even hint at the possibility of finding love.
“What kind of woman,” I said to the cook, “writes to an inmate looking for love?
“The insecure kind,” was his reply. “The kind who’s been hurt in the past and wants to know her man is safely tucked away behind bars where he won’t cheat or walk out on her.”
The cook was under no illusion he’d find love when he signed up for a Pen-a-Con personal ad. Nor was he hoping to find meaningful friendship. Rather he said he signed up purely for the “entertainment,” which I took to mean he’s looking to receive racy photos and graphic letters. Despite rude implication, the profile he wrote was decidedly chaste, sappy even expressing a desire to know his future correspondent’s every hope, fear, and dream. I handed the paper back to him. “Laying it on rather thick,” I said. The cook smirked, called me unromantic and “too practical.”
Lopez opted for the cheapest package and so wrote a shorter 250-word essay presenting his basic stats and a handful of interests. It was bland and depressing as hell, “Nothing much going on in my life,” he began, “except this nine-year bid.”
“Jesus Christ, Lopez,” said the cook. “You can’t submit that. No woman’s going to want to write you.”
And so Lopez removed the part about his life being an empty void, corrected some spelling, and sent off the necessary forms along with ten dollars in stamps and a picture of himself before he got locked up. That was over a month ago, and still he waits for a pen pal. With every mail call that refuses to acknowledge his name he sinks a little deeper.
“They’re going to gas us,” Lopez said of the newly erected tent and possible gas chamber. He giggled and pulled the bed sheet over his head. Voice muffled, he said, “What does it matter? We’re all going to die of COVID anyway.”
The next morning Lopez refused to collect his breakfast from the hot box parked downstairs, refused to climb down from the rack at all, not because he was depressed but because he felt, he said, like shit. A headache had kept him up the night before. Meanwhile the cook reported having dizzy spells and Sam, along with others, claimed he couldn’t taste or smell his baked chicken or sweet potatoes for lunch. Walter, when he heard this, immediately set about sniffing and licking everything in his locker, swearing that he too had lost his senses. The cook made a game of recruiting as many people as he could to remark to Walter offhandedly that he didn’t look well.
“Say Walt, buddy, are you feeling alright? Your color sees a bit off. Well, I’m sure it’s nothing . . . .”
We got the old man so worked up that he strung up bed sheets all around his bottom bunk, entombing himself in a dark bubble. He laid there till the four o’clock count with a mask smothering his face and headphones clamped vice-like to his head, no doubt murmuring A.M. conspiracies in his ear: The Chinese manufactured the virus to destroy America’s economy. Bill and Melinda Gates deployed the virus to prove the nation’s untenable population. Beware the vaccine, Walt, old buddy; if the virus doesn’t kill you the doctors and scientists will.
This evening someone checked the numbers on the Bureaus’s website and saw that the prison reported a spike in confirmed cases that day, from205 to 240. And then, as if on cue, the PA clicked on and thirty-five men were ordered to pack their shit. It seemed our test results had come in.
“Hamilton, Bailey, Santos, Parsons, Cruz . . .”
We turned down our radios, set aside our dominoes and playing cards. Throughout the range some hundred men inclined their heads toward the ceiling, listening for their names.
“Areola, Williams, Cheetham, Rodgers, Pierce, Lopez . . .”
My bunkie pulled the sheet from his head. He looked at me and I at him.
Of curse there weren’t enough duffle bags to go around, so those whose names were called, the presumed infected, resorted to filling trash bags and laundry bags and pillow cases and whatever was at hand with their live’s possessions: sweat pants, books, photo albums, coffee mugs, tortilla, toothbrushes, letters from home, bags of pork rinds, water bottles spoons, socks shampoo, instant rice and dehydrated beans, plastic jars, hair ties, tweezers, porn, shower shoes, hand lotion, ball caps, boots. We’d always known we didn’t have much, but it seemed like even less to see it bagged and dying on the dorm’s garbage-strewn floor.
It was dark out when the cop finally knocked the emergency exit. A line of thirty-five men descended the fire escape, their accoutrements rat-a-tat-tatting behind them on the crumbling metal stairs. Thompson, hanging from his window, said they looked like a band of traveling fucking gypsies roving the desert. Moments later our exiled comrades could be seen returning from the quarantine There’s no mattresses over there, they cried, or Chris! And so they made a second trip, this time with fat-foam slabs and upturned chairs flung over their backs all the while coughing and sputtering and cursing their fate.
Sam and the cook and the rest of us who remained behind, just over half the range, counted ourselves fortunate to have been spared the onerous task of relocating. Clearly we’d al been contaminated by then, Sam who couldn’t taste or smell, and the cook who suffered from vertigo. It was a wonder the staff bothered to move anyone at all. Surely it would have been safer to have stayed put rather than be shuffled around like letters in a writing desk, potentially spreading the infection further.
The cook and decided we would miss our morose friend Lopez, though it was worth the loss to have also gotten rid of the rang’s three garrulously loud Puerto Ricans. For every man who stayed we could think of two more we’d liked t see go. Walter’s conspiracy theories and paranoia were wearing on everyone’s nerves. Earlier he’d nearly gotten into a fist fight with a man he accused of sneezing on him. We’d grown tired too of Thompson’s fretting and yammering on about his upcoming court hearing. Would the judge, he wondered, grant compassionate release to someone who’d already contracted the virus and recovered?
Inclined as we are toward self-preservation, we couldn’t help but appreciate how much better off we were without our fallen peers. We relished the shortened Iines to the showers and wallowed in the extra space. And was there not measurably less piss on the bathroom floor?
The next day two more men were booted from the range and moved into quarantine. Neither showed any symptoms, and they asked the CO whether they’d tested positive for coronavirus, he shrugged. “They don’t tell me anything,” the cop said handing the men duffle bags. Later a nurse told us the prison hadn’t the manpower to give each inmate his test results.
We were left completely in the dark regarding ur health and ur safety, and the website’s numbers and the view from our windows weren’t giving us the answers we desperately needed and thought we deserve. So at noon when it come time to collect our meal trays outside in front of the building, a handful of inmates approached the lieutenant with questions.
Are we positive? Are we negative? When will we be given our test results? When will we be tested again? When will we have our temperatures taken? What is our recovery time? How long will we be quarantined?
Nearby a group of us leaned against the building’s warm brick facade, seeking answers as much as wanting to soak up a little bit of sun and breath a little bit of fresh air. It was summer the last time we were allowed outside and now it was autumn.
When will we get recreation? When will bar soap be dispersed, and when will the bathroom soap dispensers be refilled? When ill the passers, which have been overflowing for weeks, be fixed? And when will the building’s boiler be repaired? We’d been without running water hot water for a month.
The lieutenant, having no answers, knowing no more than we did, grew impatient and ordered us back inside the building.
That afternoon Mr Hammond, the old black man with a limp and filthy mouth, was moved to the medical ward. I hadn’t known he was still around. I assumed he’d be cast out with the others, as I hadn’t lately heard his usual screeching obscenities at the poker table.
“Eat my muthufucking black ass!” he’d spit, slapping down his cards.
But he hadn’t gone, was only bedridden, his lean body so still and inconsequential beneath his blanket it appeared is bed was empty and unmade.
For weeks the staff had been absent from our lives. Counselors, case managers, unit managers, secretaries, the chaplain, the psychologist, the assistant wardens and Warden—those who had made somewhat regular rounds through the dorm to answer questions and address concerns at the beginning of the pandemic had all disappeared.
The only times officers walked through our range anymore were at census counts.
Locked down and left to ourselves as we were, it took an inmate banging and kicking on the range door to summon help for Mr. Hammond. When a nurse arrived a half hour later, she stood at Hammond’s bedside dressed like a butcher in smoke, gives, and as and tased him if he wished to be moved to the medical ward.
The old man raised his head from his pillow. “You got poker down there? No? Well, then I ain’t goin’ to no muthufuckin medical ward.”
But go he did, along with a Mexican who complained of trouble breathing.
Come evening, his fever broken and appetite returned, Sam suggested we cook a special meal. He called it our “last supper,” as he was convinced we would all eventually be quarantined and possibly separated.
We didn’t have much in the way of ingredients. We hadn’t been to the commissary in awhile. Sam grew up on a reservation, the oldest of five brothers, and his family was very poor. Food was scarce as a child, and as an adult Sam grew to feel insecure with food. Luckily he’d been keeping a food diary, logging every meal we received.
Though he admitted to rarely feeling hungry, he was convinced the kitchen was shorting us 200 calories per day. Certainly there was a lack of nutritious food; fresh vegetables were rare, and the warden had cut our servings of fruit down to one piece per week, concerned we’d brew hootch. Peeking into Sam’s locker, seeing his stores of commissary food divided between sharing bags of animal proteins and plant protein, we would get the impression that here is a man who is well prepared, and he is. But belying that preparedness is an irrational disparate fear of going hungry.
He must have felt anxious the to have looked into his locker to see his supplies of soups, sausages, and cheeses dwindling. We dumped his last packet of chili into a bowl along with my last packet of shredded beef and the cooks refried beans. I divided a bag of chips between three bowls and spooned the mixture on top. It beat the hell out of the bologna sandwiches we’d been eating four to five nights per week.
That night the range seemed far too quiet for prison. Thirty-nine bunks sat empty around us, and we heard nary a sound except the chips crunching in one another’s mouths, punctuated now and again by a nearby cough.
Thompson’s video conference was scheduled for nine the next morning. He may have been the only inmate on the compound who had welcomed the virus with a smile and open arms, as a local infection was the only conditioning which his judge would consider granting him compassionate release. There were arguably plenty ofd other prisoners in worse health who were far more vulnerable than Thompson. Besides, he’d lost his sense of smell a day ago and had in all likelihood already contracted the very virus from which he claimed he needed protection.
And so it was to everyone’s disbelief when Thompson came breezing in from his counselor’s office at a quarter till, pumping his fist, whisper-shouting, “I got it, I got it!”
In the eight months since the pandemic began, in the perpetual haze of lockdowns, many of us had taken to sleeping till lunch, desiring to burn away as many endless daylight hours as possible. Even with half the range still sound asleep, I judged the reaction to Thompson’s news to be rather muted.
“I got it, I got it!” he kept saying, to no one, to everyone, but mostly to himself who could believe e it least of all.
Eventually the dorm roused to offer its congratulations. We shook Thompson’s hand and clapped him on he back, before turning to give one another our own assessments in private, the white boys placing bets on how long before Thompson returns on violation, Walter imploring himself the more sickly and deserving, the sex offenders bemoaning their ineligibility and continued oppression.
Thompson regaled us with the story more times than we would have liked. Th judge happened to take the same blood pressure medications as Thompson but at half the dosage, which seemed to impress her On camera she could be seen smiling wryly at the prosecutor, knowing he’d be displeased with her edict: she ordered Thompson be released to home confinement within seventy-two hours, with time served.
“Praise God!” he cheered. “It’s a miracle!” he said to us.
One of the paisas told him to shut the fuck up. “You’d have been cursing God had it gone the other way,” he said smiling meanly.
And Thompson, not the least perturbed, did shut up, for he knew full well that if there were a god he might have gotten what he deserved.