“Covid-19 procedures in effect, masks on. Prepare for Chow,” the crackling PA announced. My door groaned open. I joined the snaking line to receive my breakfast tray. Someone darted away to a nearby cell.
“Nuts to butts,” came the order. He quickly rejoined us. They say six feet of social distancing is the healthy way to interact. Well, when society’s cast you out, it seems even their distancing doesn’t apply to you.
When I made it to the front of the line, a gloveless worker fondled my apple with a smirk on his face before handing it to me. I grabbed it with two fingers. A properly masked, gloved, and scoffed-at worker handed me my tray. Everything was done under the watchful eyes of a nearby guard.
A man left his cell without a mask. Spittle flew from a guard as he shouted dire threats, his own mask limply around his neck. Dozens of inmates turned in a mixture of shock and resignation. Shock from the newly incarcerated, resignation from those who’d seen it all before.
In a carrying whisper, someone pointed out that prison was a closed environment and so only the guards could bring it in. The guards’ heated reply included calling the whisperer a snitch while turning the blame on the prisoners who had gone to medical appointments (wasting the state’s money, he had to throw in) and when they came back to the prison, they brought the virus with them.
The system seemed to agree with the guard. The union made sure the guards didn’t have to wear masks, until the state sent an email demanding it. Then the officers complied by wrapping them around their necks.
On the other hand, when any inmate left the prison grounds, whether it be for a minute or a week, he had to be quarantined for 14 days upon his return. This meant he’d be sent to a designated building where he’d be housed with others who had the symptoms of Covid or had the virus itself.
And the prisoners who had other non-Covid reasons to go to the medical unit — from eye checkups to chemo – were refusing to go. A plethora of underlying conditions, plus an implied threat of being forced to catch it during enforced quarantined, made many not go. I, myself, refused my multiple sclerosis treatment several times. Why get better if you’re going to be forced to catch Covid?
A booming crackle announced medication while I still had my tray in hand. Breakfast or medication, that was my choice. It was half the building’s choice. Some chose to eat. I chose my medication. At least I could get those without being quarantined. I set my tray by my door and headed out.
Outside the building, we made our way to the pill line. Man after man pulled down their mask just enough to get a single breath of fresh air. Before Covid and its masks, none of us would have thought that the lingering scent of life within a prison’s electric fence and razor wire would be akin to the air of freedom. Several guards clustered together talking and laughing, their masks down. The men were young, the female guards pretty. None had their masks.
As an older guy next to me said, “It’s hard to get your mac on with your mask on,” the group of guards turned to us and started yelling threats for the single breath we took. We can never forget we’re imprisoned, we’re used to that, but now they weren’t going to let us forget that our breath is also imprisoned.
Yellow X’s on the concrete marked out six feet apart in the medication line. We weren’t allowed to stand on them; apparently, they’re a waste of space. So we’re corralled closer by guards who’d butcher us to Covid if they could.
I was only four people away from getting to the front of the medication line when the announcement came that they are releasing the inmates from the quarantine cells so they can get in line for their medication.
We watched the upcoming horde as if they were the walking dead. Policy said the sick must stay separated to help keep Covid at bay. Policy be damned when the officers were in a hurry to get back to their break room.
I was finally at the pill window. I needed to present my ID to be scanned for medication. Do I place the card against the glass or in the open slot? I hesitated, trying to think which could be less contaminated. I choose the window, there may be a spot not yet touched. I hoped. I prayed. I prayed that someone will clean this window someday. Done, I made my way to my cell.
For once, I embraced being behind a steel door. I decided to watch the news like hundreds of other guys were doing. Our eyes saw confirmed cases rise and saw the death toll grow. At a medical prison, most of us have underlying conditions and the news tells us there’s a good chance we’ll catch Covid. There’s no percentages, there’s no likelihoods, just sensationalism. How much is true? How much do we believe?
When I had asked a nurse, she oozed sympathy and said I’d be fine. When I asked her for numbers and percentages, she said she wasn’t allowed to share that information. The doctor said the same thing. When guards are asked, they laugh, they mock, or they don’t know.
Another booming crackle announced yard in 5 minutes. Yard for our building only. I briefly wondered how my friends in other buildings were doing since they started instituting a program of moving only one building at a time to stop cross-contamination. They did that for yard, for jobs, for the medication line, for everything, when it was convenient for them to do so.
My door opened and I made my way towards the exit. A cluster of stalled inmates blocked the doorway. That meant only one thing. Outside, the officers were doing a pat down. Some people tried to walk away from the tightly jammed cluster, because those not eager to be touched and groped during a pandemic were obviously hiding contraband. But they were herded back with threats of having their cell searched and their possessions destroyed.
My turn came up in yet another line. When I got to the front of the line going outside, I stepped out into the sun and was motioned to a guard. I stood with my arms spread as I watched another person being patted down in front of me. The guard coughed, and when the inmate flinched, the guard leaned closer and dug his hands into every fold of the person’s flesh, before pulling them off to the side for a more thorough search. When I was released, I made my way down the gauntlet to see one guard without gloves and several with their masks around their necks as they leaned over inmates’ shoulders and questioned them.
I made my way to the prison canteen. Forty people from our building were being allowed to shop. I hurried in hopes of getting food that was packaged, not fondled. We all stood in another line, waiting. After two hours in the sun, the guard shift changed. More unmasked officers walked by. Finally, we were told they wouldn’t run canteen after all. One of the workers told us all that half of the staff who ran the prison canteen in the whole prison had Covid, and so the remaining staff was rotating to cover other yards. So much for having food I could trust.
Another booming crackle, this time from the yard’s tower, announced yard recall. I returned to my cell with a mixture of relief at being away from so many others, and disappointment that I’d have to eat a dinner of slop they’d serve on unclean trays last used by those with Covid. When my door opened and the command to leave with our masks on came from a guard also wearing his mask around his neck, I decided that dinner wouldn’t be worth it. I chose to go hungry tonight. Maybe they canteen would be open tomorrow. My door closed, with me still inside. A little hunger would be worth the wait.
The door opened with a rattle for my phone call. It had been two days since my last call. I’d been lucky to even get on the list after they’d taken away over fifty phone time slots so that the phones could be cleaned after each use. Fifteen minutes of use and fifteen minutes of cleaning, although that was just another policy that was poorly executed. I brought out a rag and a few hoarded drops of cleaner with me and took several of my precious fifteen minutes just to wipe down the dirty phone. I hoped some of the cleanser would get into the grilled mouth piece where others before me had laughed, coughed, and yelled.
I needed to talk to the fiancée that I couldn’t marry since visits had been canceled. Some day they’d start back up again and we’d get married. After 13 minutes of first convincing her I wasn’t sick, I then listened to her fears and concerns about Covid in nearby Seattle before saying my “I love you’s” and “goodbyes.” As I walked away, I wondered how I’d ever know if something happened to her. Just one more worry to shoulder.
With phone calls and program done for the day, we were caged for the night. I laid there hour after hour wide awake as hundreds around me did the same. We all wondered one thing, “Did I catch Covid today?”
Jason Cooper is serving two consecutive life sentences without parole for two murders.
Jason Cooper #AA2968
RJ Donovan /
480 Alta Road
San Diego, CA 92179