Walter’s mother receive a phone all from a Captain Smith with the Bureau’s regional office. The captain wasn’t happy. He’d had enough, he said, of the elderly woman calling his office to complain of Big Spring FCI’s handling of the COVID crises. He said the stories of inmate neglect her incarcerated son was feeding her were untrue.
“The prison is doing a fantastic job of managing the crisis,” he said. “Why, the institution has had only one death.”
“Only one death?” said Mrs Peters. “Captain, over half the inmates in the prison are infected with coronavirus, and a man has died. You think that’s fantastic?” She went on to summarize the allegations made by her son: nurses not changing gloves, officers not wearing protective equipment, sick inmates intermixed with healthy inmates, bathroom soap dispensers gone unfilled, a boiler gone unrepaired leaving inmates without running hot water for a month—“
Captain Smith cut the babbling woman off. “You’re son is a liar,” he said. “And if he insists on spreading any more of these lies, well, I assure you I can make his life very unpleasant.”
With that, the captain hung up.
Mrs. Peters related the conversation to her son. Walter was shaken. He worried the Bureau might retaliate, throw him in the hole on some trumped-up charge just to shut him up. His predicament reminded me of my own experience last year when prison staff found my online writings and detained me for a month in the SHU, claiming that my narratives on prison life, stories of medical neglect and sexual abuse by staff, were a threat to the safety and security of the institution. They threatened to ship me, and I had the website pulled temporally.
Sensing there was something not quite right about the call she’d received, aside from the captains threat, Mrs. Peters did some research and discovered there is no Captain Smith employed by the Bureau, and the call had originated not from the Bureau’s regional office in Grand prairie but from Big Spring, from within the prison. In retrospect she was almost certain she recognized the captain’s voice as one she’d heard in a prior call to the prison. Did the “captain,” she wondered, not sound an awful lot like the assistant warden?
That only one death of which the fraudulent captain spoke was that of fifty-seven-year-old Robert Pierce. Shortly after we heard of his passing, someone found the article on Big Spring FCI’s first inmate death from COVID. It was unflattering and dwelled on Mr. Pierce’s heath and on his criminal charge, a sex offense committed eleven years ago. Those inmates who read it had no trouble unpacking the article’s conclusion, which was that the public needn’t be too distraught over the loss of an overweight felon and pedophile, and, more implicitly, that the public needn’t delve too deeply into the particulars of his death.
Those of us who knew Rob—who slept in the bunk beside him, who shared meals with him, who walked the track and lifted weights with him back before the pandemic closed the rec yard—those of us who knew Rob saw him as a friendly, congenial man who said hello to everyone by name. Despite being sentenced to fifteen years in prison, he seemed never to have a bad day or to utter a complaint, virtues so rare in our confines as to demand notice and appreciation.
Robert was Sam’s neighbor. The two lived and slept within five feet of one another. After our friend Lewis released three months ago to a halfway house, Sam had considered hiring Rob as Lewis’s replacement in their greeting card hustle. Rob enjoyed crafts and had begun to learn to draw. Then in October, Rob was among the first men in our range presumed positive for coronavirus and placed into quarantine.
The article stated that Mr. Pierce had complained of trouble breathing ad was placed in isolation “immediately,” which makes it seem as though Rob received immediate treatment for his symptoms. But the men who were with Rob when he was quarantined and who were with him when he was later moved to isolation say this was not true.
After he was quarantined, Robert submitted a formal request to medical staff complaining of shortness of breath. His request for help went unanswered for three days, Then, on Friday, Rob was moved into an isolation room in the makeshift ward erected in the former vocational trades building. It was late evening when he arrived, and he was told the doctor had already made his evening rounds and wouldn’t be back to see him until Monday. Robert spent the weekend lying on a cot, grasping for breath. He was provided no oxygen or respirator. Come Monday when he was finally seen by a doctor, Rob was rushed to an outside hospital where days later he died. He had three years left in his sentence.
Was this the fantastic treatment the captain spoke of?
We didn’t learn of Rob’s suffering until much later. We were embroiled at the time in our own turmoil. After Robert and the first wave of inmates were moved into quarantine, the entire range came down with COVID. Our symptoms included headaches, fever, aches and chills, dizziness, shortness of breath, lethargy, loss of taste and smell. The medical staff conducted a second round of testing. This time nearly sixty men, the entire range save for five inmates, would be moved into quarantine, ostensibly for having texted positive, although the staff wouldn’t confirm anything. They claimed they hadn’t the man power to give each man his diagnosis.
It seemed absurd to us to relocate the entire range, potentially spreading the virus further. Many inmates, as sick as we were, were in no condition to move ourselves and our possessions, mattresses and chairs up and down multiple flights of stairs to another building. Two weeks after he fell ill, Sam was still experiencing bouts of breathlessness and tightness in his chest, and his bad knee, for which he’d been seeking medical help unsuccessfully for over three years, made traversing the stairs difficult even without the added burden of books and clothes. The cook, who has high blood pressure and pulmonary ventricular contractions, was still suffering from dizzy spells due to COVID. I told him I’d carry his bags for him once I’d dropped off my own belongings.
The dormitory’s narrow and crumbling fire escape frothed like an agitated ant hill. The sick, coughing, and wheezing, crawled atop one another as one churning mass of arms, legs, and torsos. We poured from the building as though it were on fire, our lives’ possessions strung across our backs, flinging mattresses and chairs over the railing to the lawn below. I tied my belt to the buckle of my duffel bag to create a shoulder strap. Tottering down the rusted, popping stairs, I nearly tripped when above and behind me a man’s bag split open vomiting legal work and cup-o’-soups beneath my feet.
Outside I passed the cook stubbornly dragging behind him a duffel bag in each hand. His neck cords protruding, his eyes bulged.
“I said to leave them!” I called. “I’ll be back to help you!”
The cook said nothing but dropped the bags.
We lived on the second floor of what is called the Sunset dormitory, and were to be quarantined on the second and third floors of the Sunrise dorm some fifty yards away. My legs, atrophied from months of lockdowns, burned with each step across the compound. Others were weak and breathless from illness and had to stop every few yards to rest and to wrestle with their yolks. Climbing the stairs of Sunrise I passed on the first landing an elderly man with a cane. He leaned uneasily against the stairwell’s cage, a laundry bag of clothes and shoes at his feet. Another inmate came to his aid and carried the man’s bag to the second floor.
The second floor was already crowded with native Sunrisers who were bewildered to see a hoard of sick men moving in with them. When I got to my assigned bunk I discovered it broken with no platform to support a mattress. Other Sunsetters were finding they too had been assigned to crippled bunks or else were mistakenly double-booked, two men to one bed. Handicapped inmates like the man with the cane were inexplicably assigned to top bunks. Sex offenders had been paired with unaccommodating gang members, and Paula’s bunkmate told the transgender woman to get lost. In reassigning us to our sick beds, the staff showed no concern for logistics, politics, or for the health or safety of inmates. We were letters stuffed into random pigeonholes.
Politics, overcrowding, and confusion pulled tensions taught, and Sunsetters scrambled to find alternative, safe living arrangements. I needled through the sputtering bodies, through aisles no wider than four-feet and strewn with bags, in search of an open, hospitable bed, and after some negotiating I secured lodging above a fellow SO.
Amidst the floundering chaos I ran into an old friend, a Sunriser whom I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic. Darrick offered to fetch my mattress and chair from Sunset while I helped the cook.
Outside I spotted the cook pushing a laundry cart piled with bags toward Sunrise. Sam hobbled a few paces behind him. The cook parked the cart before the building and drew a deep breath. He pointed to his bags.
“Third floor,” he huffed. “Twenty nine, up.”
I deadlifted the heaviest of the bags and staggered toward the stairwell. Sunrisers, taking advantage of the unlocked doors, were trickling from the building to socialize and to stretch their legs and to recall what sun feels like on the skin. On the third floor I dropped the cook’s bag before bunk twenty nine and turned to find him behind me, face blanched, chest beating like a piston. He groped for his pulse and began to count. I’d never seen him frightened.
The move took over four hours. It was nearly eight o’clock by the time the sick had unpacked and settled in. Sunrisers weren’t thrilled at having sixty men squeezed into their already tight quarters. The quarantine was so cramped, the bunks so closely spaced together that no man could open his locker at the same time as his neighbor. Sunrisers were especially appalled by their guests’ bathroom manners, causing our hosts to hold a town hall meeting to lay down ground rules. These meetings always amused me for their unlikely blend of high diplomacy and prison grit.
“Gentlemen,” began one of the reps, “we are all grown-ass men here, and so it is expected we work together to keep out house clean.” There was, he said, to be no pissing on the floors, no pissing in the toilets, so shitting in the showers and no leaving soap on the shower floors.
Sunsetters couldn’t help but feel accused, though we had to admit that Sunrise bathrooms were startlingly cleaner than our own. I was struck too by how much more brightly lit the bathrooms were. I flinched when I saw my sallow, sickly reflection in a mirror. We’d spent the better part of a year locked indoors hiding from a virus the staff had eventually invited in.
The meeting continued: there was to be no washing dishes in the white sink and no leaving toothpaste or whiskers in the metal sinks. Litter belongs in the trash and not in the pissers. “And please,” said the rep, “we are all grown-ass men; there is to be no fucking in the showers.”
Across the room Paula visibly stiffened.
There’s no overstating the importance of routine in the lives of inmates. In an environment inherently desperate, the prisoner struggles to exert whatever scrap of control he can over his existence. The pandemic, the year-long lockdown, fear for our health and now the move to Sunrise obliterated all such control. My friends the cook and Sam, the bedrock of my routine were quarantined the third floor, leaving me more isolated than usual. I knew my bunkie only for him infamously having once taken a shit on the ground outside the commissary after a CO denied him access to the bathroom. He was part of the Dungeons and Dragons crowd, that group which submerses themselves in an unreality of goblins and wizards. We had nothing to say to one another.
Fortunately Derrick lived nearby. Back before the pandemic closed down the yard and separated us, he and I would watch secular films every Tuesday in the chapel. Our “movie dates,” we called them. Derrick bunked in the middle of the range buffered from surrounding noise and traffic by lockers chairs, hung blankets, and piles of books and clothes. His bottom bunk reminded me of childhood forts, and in the evenings we took to sitting cross-legged on his bed, catching up on the past eight months, sharing our COVID stories.
As in Sunset, inmates in Sunrise weren’t told whether they’d tested positive or negative for coronavirus. Staff said nothing of their health, yet had forced inmates to move between ranges and floors with no explanations or assurances. On one occasion a group of inmates was mistakenly moved into Derrick’s range and hours later moved back out. At some point in the shuffling and reshuffling, men began to feel ill.
Then in an astonishingly boneheaded move, with half the compound infected, and with more active cases of coronavirus than any other prison in the Bureau, administrators decided to reopen visitation. Derrick’s mother drove four hours to see her son only to be told she couldn’t because Derrick was in quarantine. Of course neither his mother nor Derrick had known he’d been quarantined or that he’d even tested positive. Oddly, the reopening of visitation was only advertised in Sunrise, to the quarantined inmates. Sunsetters, the ostensibly healthy inmates, were left uninformed. “I’m sorry,” said the officer to Derrick’s mother. “We don’t communicate very well around here.”
Two days later the prison announced on its website that visitations were once again suspended. It was then that Derrick began experiencing the tell-tale symptoms of COVID. He lost his sense of smell and sense of taste, came down with a fever. He was still clinging to a mild cough when I saw him.
I was fortunate to have been asymptomatic.
Like many people across the country, prison officials had begun to tire of the pandemic. Administrators believed they could simply will the virus away by resuming visitations. There was talk of reopening the library, classrooms, and the vocational department. Attitudes toward coronavirus turned perceptively cavalier and bullish. Officers stopped donning protective gowns and would sometimes take their masks off. An officer was overheard admitting to a colleague that he didn’t feel well, yet he continued coming to work. Officers in Sunset ordered inmates living on the first floor to pass out breakfast sacks, without gloves, to inmates living on the second and third floors. When an inmate questioned the wisdom of allowing prisoners to intermingle, the CO scoffed and said, “It doesn’t matter.”
I told Derrick that if visitation were to reopen again, I would urge my father and anyone else to stay away from the prison. I don’t trust the staff not to infect my family as they infected me.
Derrick and I enjoyed each other’s company for just one week before another mass movement separated us. Some inmate were moved from the second floor to the third, some from the third to the second, and still others from the second to the first. Nearly 150 men were Made to relocate, while staff again offered no explanation.
Our health and welfare were out of our hands.
The second move was as chaotic as the first. The main stairwell was congealed with the bodies of the sick, the healthy, the still recovering, the able and the infirm. The man behind me coughed wetly on my neck. The man in front of me smelled of shit. So much for social distancing. Any one of us could have fainted and still stood upright in the clot.
Again inmates were mistakenly assigned two or three to a bed, the disabled to top bunks. Again I was assigned to a broken rack. After some scrounging I found a bunk nobody wanted because it was by the shitters. I didn’t care.
It took the entire afternoon and into the evening for inmates to settle in, and then took officers four attempts to count us. Even then we were awaken at three the next morning for yet another census count because the bed book was still messed up and at least one prisoner couldn’t be accounted for.
Inmates that afternoon held yet another town hall meeting. “We are all grown-ass men,” said yet another rep before reading off a list of the usual prohibited and offensive behaviors: no snitching, no farting near your neighbors, and, of course no fucking in the showers.
Paula ignored the snickering. There wasn’t an inmate on the compound who hadn’t heard she’d been caught once getting boned in the shower. There wasn’t a man on the compound who, if he admitted it, wouldn’t himself liked to have had a crack at her. It was no wonder Paula was always so touchy and defensive. It can’t be easy having tits in a men’s prison. Earlier that morning she had accused a man of spying on her in the shower. The confrontation got loud, ugly. The perpetrator, clearly embarrassed and growing frantic, must have wondered, as we all did, if free-world chivalry pertained to prison trannies. Did he dare hit a woman? Was she really a woman?
Paula eventually calmed, the matter dropped. Later she would approach Sonny the barber and tearfully ask that he chop her hair so that maybe she wouldn’t attract so much attention. Sonny, who is exceptionally kind, suggested to Paula that she sleep on the decision, and if by the next day she was still adamant in cutting her hair, he’d gladly do so, free of charge. Paula dabbed her eyes and thanked him. She would make no more mention of haircuts in the future.
Sonny wasn’t really a barber. The barbershop had closed at the beginning of the pandemic, and Sonny happened to be one of a few men who owned a pair of clippers that hadn’t been rigged into a tattoo gun. One day, someone asked for a fade, he obliged, and thus Sonny became the barber.
Mornings after we moved to the third floor I found Sonny in the bathroom, head in the shitter, retching. I thought of COVID, but Sonny said no, it was a pain in his stomach, or in his side, or maybe his back. He was incoherent. I fetched the unit officer, and in the meantime, while we waited for medical staff to arrive, I sat with Sonny who lay on the bathroom floor looking like a pill bug curled around the toilet, clutching his abdomen. He said nothing but moaned and crashed his teeth. Instinct urged me to reach for his hand or his shoulder, but I though that a probably would have seemed faggoty, so I rested a hand on his sneaker.
We waited over an hour for a nurse to arrive, and even then she was afraid to touch Sonny, afraid of the liability, and so it was me and another inmate who helped him into the wheelchair. We pushed he as far as the range door before the staff too over.
What happed next, sonny later described, was something of a dark comedy. Though the wheelchair came equipped with hands and safety straps, the staff, rather than carry him, pushed Sonny down the stairs (or in Sonny’s words, “threw” him down the stairs). Each jarring step inspired rapturous pain. On the last step the the chair pitched forward and out spilled Sonny onto the ground floor. Getting from the dorm to the clinic, the staff encountered all manner of obstacles which included yet more stairs and nests of locked gated and doors for which no one seemed to have the key.
Sonny arrived back from the clinic, heavily drugged, just before the ten o’clock count. An x-ray had revealed a smattering of buckshot-like stones in both his kidneys. He passed one that same day. It got caught at the end of his dick, and he had to scoop it out with a pen cap. He kept the stone and showed me, a mottled grain of sand folded in toilet paper.
I myself had a brush with kidney stones months earlier, though I hadn’t known what the pain in my back and abdomen was at the time. I made five trips to Health Services. I gave blood, stool, and urine samples. For twelve hours I sat ignored in the clinic’s waiting room listening to medical staff slam doors, yell, and argue with each other. I never received the results of my tests, nor a follow-up diagnosis. It wasn’t until I passed the stone a month later that I realized what had been wrong.
I wasn’t long after we were moved to the third floor that we got wind of Big Spring FCI’s first inmate death from COVID. We asked a nurse if the rumor was true. She became defensive and replied flippantly, “I don’t know of any inmates who have died from COVID, but I know of plenty who have died from smoking K2.”
But Robert Pierce, whose passing we confirmed shortly after, was not a smoker or drug user. He was a sick and vulnerable man whose keepers had failed to keep him safe or to provide him with medical treatment. Another man who’d been quarantined beside him told us how Rob had been left to spend the last weekend of his life gasping on a cot in the former vocational trades building, the so-called “medical center” that hadn’t oxygen or respirators or even a full-time medical staff.
In that same building, another sick inmate with diarrhea had asked the sole staff member there, a security officer, to be let out of his isolation room to use the bathroom. The CO said he’d do so once he finished making his rounds. When a half hour later the officer had yet t return, the man, desperate not to soil himself, shattered the room’s window with a vacuum cleaner, grabbed his toilet paper, and made for the bathroom. When the officer retired, he found the window an open hole and the inmate sweeping the shattered glass into a dust pan. The inmate received a write-up for destroying government property and was charged $700 for the broken window.
The stories of neglect and callousness were numerous. There was the nurse who tested inmates for COVID without changing her gloves. There was the officer who continued coming into work despite knowing he was ill. There was the president of the officers’ union who after Rob’s death flippantly congratulated some prisoners for having survived, “Way to go!” she cheered. “You made it! I knew you could do it!”
Numerous were the officers who locked us into cramped dormitories and quarantines and cells with other sick men while haughtily declaring the virus overblown, even as Big Spring FCI was reporting its second inmate death from COVID. And then its third.
Three inmates now dead.
These men died because of a careless nurse. Three men dead because officers decided the virus was “overblown.”
After Rob’s death a handful of inmates made a small yet significant attempt at regaining some control over their welfare. Administrators ordered several inmates, seemingly at random and seemingly for no purpose, to move back to Sunset, to the first floor. When the men arrived there with their bags and mattresses in tow, this now the fourth time they’d been ordered to move, they found their Sunset peers coughing, sweating, and wheezing in their bunks. They walked out of the building and refused to go back in.
Their disobedience was met with the usual brutish arrogance we’d come to expect from our keepers. The disruptors were arrested, their wrists bound together with plastic zip ties. But as they were arched single-file toward the SHU, though they had clearly lost, each man couldn’t help but feel as though he had won.