January 20, 2020: Listening to NPR, I hear something about a mysterious disease that alarmed China into building 2 hospitals in 5 days to handle patients. After also hearing the Chinese government will let citizens fly all over for the Chinese New Year, I begin warning persons I correspond with that the disease is about to be everywhere.
January 25, 2020: I reflect on all the people flying around the world with something called the Corona Disease while I do my daily job as a Field Minister (sort of like a hybrid social worker) on the Lynaugh Unit.
January 31, 2020: I have no idea the SARS-CoV-2 virus is designated as a public health emergency in the United States by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Along with my normal work, I entertain a fruitless dialogue with a racial/religious supremacist, and write a fruitful letter to a loved one.
February 3, 2020: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration receives an Emergency Use Authorization package from the Center for Disease Control. The package is meant to help save lives via a CDC diagnostic panel with the power to allow the use of unapproved medicine and processes. In theory, this will save lives by circumventing the waiting period arising from the FDA approval process, so vital resources will reach patients in time to save their lives.
In Mexico, it’s Constitution Day. In my cubicle, I have no idea what transpired between the CDC and FDA–I’m too busy accidentally spilling a cup of coffee on a stack of books.
February 4, 2020: The FDA approves the package, and faulty SARS-CoV-2 testing kits are distributed. After laboratories are unable to confirm anything with the kits, better tests will be sent out globally to labs deemed adequate by the CDC.
I’m oblivious to these tests as the snow falls on me walking to restrictive housing (what used to be known as administrative segregation in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice). Once there, I meet a prisoner who claims a guard emptied a can of pepperspray in his face because the prisoner tried to destroy the evidence of hooch by drinking all of it. We talk about staying out of trouble and family. Then I go to medium custody and pet an orange tabby
February 5, 2020: It’s my snow covered birthday, and I finally got to watch “Prometheus.”
February 11, 2820: The World Health Organization officially designates Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as the source of the outbreak . Busy facilitating classes and working with people, I fail to hear this announcement.
February 26, 2020: Approximately 3 minutes after receiving CDC information (current as of February 17, 2020) about COVID-19, I begin educating other prisoners about it. There is really little to share–the disease is respiratory (spreading via coughs and sneezes up to 6 feet or so away), yet also spreads when surfaces and objects harboring COVID-19 are touched and wiped in hands, mouths, eyes, etc. Symptoms arise in 2-14 days and include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. Social distancing and cleanliness are advised.
The initial group of prisoners I educate (about 16 persons ) are located in a chainlink cage holding area in the infirmary. They seem not to know what to think, and begin articulating rumors and responses. Leaving them, I begin educating the rest of the unit.
March 6, 2020: Talk about Corona is increasing .among prisoners; mostly rumors about population control in China, U.S. government conspiracies, and fake news. In restrictive housing, I listen to a face pressed against the narrow glass window on a cell door. The face is weeping about divorce papers.
March 13 , 2020: Everything changes on Friday the 13th. Prison volunteers cancel their visits, rumors (among prisoners and guards) about quarantine begin circulating, and spraybottles of bleach are passed among us to sanitize things with. I move through all 14 occupied living areas (wings, dorms, and restrictive housing) re-educating the population about COVID-19. A lot of people are scared.
March 14, 2020: More rumors. Guards came in spraying bleach and pine oil everywhere for sanitization. A strange smell is outside. Everything is quiet. A prisoner on J-wing has been quarantined for some time now, and other prisoners are nervous about it. Another prisoner is rumored to be quarantined in restrictive housing.
March 15, 2020: Prisoners are asking if they can still have visitors and are being told that only staff will be allowed in for 30 days or so. I’m worried about someone in Washington, DC (which is apparently on lockdown now).
March 16, 2020: I return to every living area and picket to distribute English and Spanish CDC literature about COVID-19 to prisoners and guards. Multiple rumors intensify–Jesus coming back, Democrats with global conspiracies to destabilize the economy and defame the President, media lies, etc. Prisoners are wondering if the quarantine will prevent them from being released on parole.
March 17, 2020: TWO sick guards are sent away from the Lynaugh Unit due to their symptoms. The prisoner on J-wing seems to have been let off quarantine.
March 18, 2020: The last report I heard on the radio was 4,100 positive COVID-19 tests in the U.S.A., with 71-74 deaths.
March 19, 2020: Prisoners attending vocational classes receive notes in the mail informing them that, until further notice, no teachers will be coming and that distance education of some sort is being considered. The first COVID-19 case in Midland, TX (1 or 2 hours from here) is announced on the radio during a panel discussion about the disease in West Texas.
March 20, 2020: More people, who previously thought COVID-19 is no big deal, are worrying about their families. Others are championing the Florida response–more beaching and clubbing. Cleaning crews (now a norm here, usually 2 prisoners with a guard supervising as they spray bleach on surfaces periodically) are wearing masks. The unit quarantine is rumored to have been extended to 90 days.
March 21, 2020: It’s sort of quiet. Everyone is just waiting now, and the only activities are recreation and main religious services with no free world volunteers. Denying the danger of COVID-19 seems to be an obsession of the resident Trump fanatics. Ironically, President Trump is taking the disease seriously. Predictably, Corona deniers claim the “liberal media” is forcing the President to take COVID-19 seriously.
The voice on the radio reports 24,180 COVID-19 cases and 285 deaths in the U.S.A, and a White House aide is among those who tested positive. Apparently, President Trump tweeted his approval of combining an antibiotic with a malaria treatment to cure COVID-19. Alternately, some religious leaders are commanding that their congregations refuse to abide by the advice of the government and leading medical experts. Their reasoning? That preventative measures (such as online sermons) concerning a disease infecting over 300,000 persons worldwide with over 13,000 resulting deaths–amounts to a denial of Jesus. While most religious leaders do not take this stance, it is not surprising that the U.S.A. has the fourth highest COVID-19 rate in the world.
March 22, 2020: In the face of over 400 U.S., and 14,000 worldwide deaths due to COVID-19, the symptom of toilet paper hoarding over a respiratory disease in non-infected individuals seems a lot less humorous. Even less humorous is the ideology displayed in a sermon given by the only non-staff religious volunteer I’ve seen here–that COVID-19 is less dangerous than the flu and even a welcome prelude to the world ending messianic return.
I love the people in my life and of this world, and as COVID-19 spreads, we must be vigilant to educate and care for one another as we stand together in the face of fear and uncertainty. Throughout this chronicle, I have worried about, and reflected upon those in my life out there; yet I also realize the importance of doing what we can, where we are, for those around us. This chronicle is not just mine, or the people of Lynaugh’s –this is the chronicle of the world’s journey through a tremendous challenge. How this chronicle ends will be determined by how strongly we provide, care, and take precautions for each other. Our only success will be measured by the number of lives saved.
Tracy Lee Kendall is serving 60 years in Texas for murder.
Tracy Lee Kendall (#875004)
Lynaugh Unit (TDCJ)
1098 South Highway 2037
Fort Stockton, TX 79735