Covid19 has affected Ohio’s prisons like it has the outside population, slowly. As things have slowly clamped down out there, they have clamped down in here. The first change happened on Tuesday the 10th when most evening activities were cancelled. For days we had been receiving updates on our electronic tablets that changes may be coming and the obligatory reminder to wash our hands. But on that Tuesday the Ohio Governor declared some level of emergency [you’ll have to excuse my lack of fact checking ability at the moment] and the director of the prisons issued an order immediately suspending visiting and non-essential staff.
The response was a lot of disappointment from guys who visits scheduled, which was quickly replaced by a what-can-you-do attitude. Everyone seems to get this is serious. Lots of guys, like myself, instantly had vacations from work. I work for a non-profit, Healing Broken Circles, that provides programming to the whole population. The outside contractors were deemed non-essential, so I get a spring break this year! College was suspended, then reopened a day or two later. Go figure. Volunteers, religious or otherwise, were also banned. Maintenance projects were put on hold. This prison is in the middle of a multi-year major electric upgrade, or it was. That what-can-you-do attitude turned into one of waiting to see what happens next, probably the same thing that was going on outside of prisons.
Several times a day we received notices on our tablets. We would get updates with very little information other than “Keep washing your hands.” To their credit, wherever these notices come from, they were trying to keep us informed with “What is Covid19?” sheets from other government agencies. The walls sprouted new fliers with instructions for how to wash your hands. They even started playing a CDC video on how to wash your hands likely produced in the 80’s that I’m fairly certain not one single person watched.
On the positive side, the vendors that normally gouge us for contact with the outside world did some positive things. JPay cut the price of video visits in half, but they also cut in half the time of the visit. The big plus is that they opened up the time we can get visits to all evening long. They usually stop at 3 PM. All that would be nice if the video and audio ever worked at the same time. The other bad part of that is the 15 minutes before a video visit the kiosk is locked out, so no one can use it to send emails or get all those updates someone in charge is trying to send us. GTL, our phone provider, is giving us two free 5 minute phone calls per week. I appreciate it because now my weekly call to mom is free. But to most guys it is just an inconvenience to call back to back to back to have one decent conversation with their loved one. GTL also started offering free eBooks. So if you enjoy reading something written before 1925 on what is possibly the world’s worst eReader, you have that going for you. If, that is, you can actually log on to the overtaxed system. JPay offered free eBooks many moons ago. Same old stuff, similar crappy eReader. I’m a reading nut but don’t use either. But someone is trying, I guess.
Early on in the restrictions the administrative team did go around to each living area, a couple of times, to share hand washing info and answer questions, by telling us to wash our hands. All staff coming in the prison started having their temp taken before being allowed in. There are no official announcements about people not being allowed in, but through the grapevine I’ve heard so far only three people here have been turned away, all ancillary staff, like food service contractors.
After a few days, when the president said gatherings should be kept under 100, our gym capacity was limited to 100. That’s it, just the gym. Since that was the only change on that day here is a good spot to point out that guys who sleep in the dorms [this prison is both cell blocks and dorms-thank god I’m in a cell] live and sleep inside the 6 foot social distance recommended we stay from others. There are three to five people all sharing the same five feet of air. So, that’s never going to change in any overcrowded prison. And they are all super overcrowded.
Then change came quickly. The best I’ve heard is on Thursday the 19th several guys had Corona symptoms and were put in isolation. Dinner did not run normally. The prison wide announcements were a blur of cancel this and cancel that. Plus, lots of “Don’t allow anyone out until specifically called for.” Some new plan of restricted movement was being put in place. Apparently we were to be kept with the guys living in the locks closest to us as much as possible. About five living units would make up a quadrant. My cell block was at the far end of the prison. We were now quadrant four. Chow and recreation would be with your quadrant. There is apparently some sort of rotation, but every meal and rec call, so far, has been run differently, even the meals run by the same shift. Random IS a rotation. When some sort of rotation is discernible they move first to last, which is the worst way to go. At least that rotation gives guys something worthwhile to grumble about.
Many groups are now curtailed to ten, which means most things are cancelled. AA and NA are suspended. Anyone in crisis can talk to a counselor from behind a piece of tape on the floor marking six feet of distance. Sports are cancelled, but we can still go to the gym with 100 of our quadrant-mates. I really feel for the chow hall workers. A meal normally takes an hour and a half to serve. Now it is all day every day. First thing in the morning to count time is breakfast. Noon till four PM count is lunch and five PM till night time count is dinner. Those poor guys work all day every day. That should get better with practice, maybe.
Library is closed, but that might have to change soon. Until there is some sort of martial law type emergency declared, guys have legal deadlines and they have to have access to the law library. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I was one of those poor guys that needed those services. The biggest problem might be with the diabetics. One day they’ll get their first shot at 6:10 AM. Next day it might be 9:45AM. I’m not a doctor, but that can’t be good. The guys who take sleeping medication might enjoy getting it at 5 PM though. I don’t know of any who lives in my quadrant so I can’t ask one.
That’s where things stand as of this writing. There are rumors of what will happen when guys actually test positive. But rumors in prison are traded like money, if money was completely useless. Most of the “information” passed word of mouth is not worth the oxygen used to spread it. There is a recently closed juvenile prison down the road with four hundred beds. When guys test positive they might get shipped there. The problem is this particular prison has the most lifers of any Ohio prison, so it has the oldest population of any prison. When it does eventually spread in here, it will be the same as a nursing home out there. Bad. That’s the main reason I don’t mind all the restrictions. I’m friends with a lot of guys I might just be saying good bye to real soon. I hope those clinical trials speed up.
The biggest fear in here is the same as out there. Getting to the store to stock up on crap. We normally only shop two times per month. My finances only allow me to shop one time per month. And with the rotation, I haven’t been able to buy anything for almost forty days now. When all these restrictions came down, we were in the middle of shopping with our monthly, $20 paychecks. The guys that already shopped missed out. The ones shopping are emptying the shelves, same as out there. To my great un-fortune I shop last of all the monthly pay checks. With all the restricted movement they are days behind schedule. Not sure what I’ll be able to get. On the plus side, we have been getting our one roll of toilet paper per week, so we’re better off than many street people.
Guys are obviously worried about a more restrictive lockdown, where only the most essential of workers are allowed to move. But who could guess if or when that might happen? Guys are already going stir crazy. Boredom is a terrible foe. I’m lucky. I get to catch up on the pile of books that have been waiting for me. Plus, there are a bunch of my essays that are getting the polishing touches put on them. Few guys read. With so little rec and no street sports to watch, or really, argue about incessantly, things could get bad. There are a lot of older guys in here, but there are lots of really young guys too. Imagine being twenty years old and having to sit on your bed for day after day after day. It will be bad.
On the good news side, for now, sundry and food boxes as well as mail are still being delivered. The bad news is, the CDC says high alcohol content hand sanitizer is required to kill off Corona. No prison I am aware of will ever allow alcohol hand sanitizer. The other thing the CDC says works is Clorox Bleach. We don’t get that either. We do get this watered down from powder bleach stuff sprayed in our showers once a week. The mold it is supposed to keep in check actually laughs at it. Seriously, once, right after it got sprayed, I walked by the shower and I heard a bunch of tiny voices hee-hee’ing. Corona might drink that bleach to make itself stronger, like Popeye and spinach. And our other chemicals that are supposed to kill MRSA, well, don’t, judging by how many outbreaks of that we have every year. Nothing we have access to actually kills this virus. Like I said, it will be bad.
Wish us luck. Now, I have to go wash my hands.
UPDATE: March 28, 2020
Greetings From Quadrant Four, Again
“There are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the ODRC.” That line has started every memo sent around the state by the Director, every day. The update is even posted online for our families to read, which we learned in a supplemental memo sent out to correct a story reported by a local Columbus TV station that there were sixteen cases in the prison system. We got the update confirming there were NO cases before most of us heard about the incorrect news report. The ODRC is doing what it can to keep everyone informed of what is going on.
JPay and GTL are experiencing the same types of problems all services are experiencing, a slow down in service due to increased demand. The Recreation dept. passed out extra playing cards and board games to fight the boredom. All movement is done within the living areas in your geographical area, so the Library is reopened. Many guys who used to have to stand in the pill call line every day have been switched to carry meds, and some of them have been doubled up so they don’t have to stand in line once a month for refills.
After a few days of the new movement, chow has sped up which cuts down on lots of the grumbling. Shopping [at the prison commissary/canteen] is still a mess but we have been promised they are working on a solution. When I was finally able to go, I bought extra lotion to soothe my hands from the dryness of all my hand washing.
This administration is trying to keep the information flowing so everyone knows what is going on and seems to be making the best out of this situation. And so are the guys who live here. And just today we learned there is a plan to get all of us masks if we want them. Ohio’s ODRC is really trying to stay out ahead of this thing. Now, I’m going to go wash my hands. Again.