One day, in the beginning of December 2020, a number of convicts in my unit in a Michigan prison were infected/reinfected with COVID-19. Our unit guards then donned protective suits, gloves, and face shields, escorted those infected convicts from the unit, and packed up all their personal property.
As I strolled across our unit’s base area (a common area in the middle of our horseshoe-shaped unit), one of those suited-up guards stopped me.
“Hey, Metcalf, come here and let me pat you down.”
At first, I thought the guard was joking, considering he was dressed from head to toe in contaminated PPE, but then his eyes grew impatient and he waved me over.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
Those impatient eyes grew angry. “You’re damn right I’m serious. I got a job to do. Now turn your ass around and spread.”
“Man, you know this is messed up. You just spent hours packing infected property,” I replied, turning and spreading my arms and legs wide. I mean, I knew the guard had a job to do, but the prospect of being touched by another human being (especially in a Michigan prison where infection rates run as high as 85% and are a direct result of prison employees carrying the virus in) seemed ludicrous enough, yet there I was faced with being touched by a guard that I knew with certainty was contaminated with COVID-19.
Insanity. Absolute insanity. Yet, the Michigan Department of Corrections policy clearly states that every officer must pat down five people per eight-hour shift worked. So much for social distancing.
I sucked in a deep lungful of clean air and held it as his hands circled my body from behind, probed my chest, stomach, and groin area, then slid along the insides of my inner thighs, my outer thighs, my sides, and finally my arms. Even with my breath held and a mask covering my nose and mouth, I could still smell his nacho-scented breath and pungent aftershave lotion.
I stepped away and exhaled, glad to once again taste fresh air. Or air as fresh as it could be in a building designed to house forty-eight convicts, yet currently housing ninety-six. “You do know this is the kind of stuff that’s killing people, right?” I said, pissed. “All this touching and breathing on each other is killing us.”
The guard chuckled. “Better you than me.”
I hurried to my cell, stripped my clothes off, scrubbed my face, arms, and shaky hands with a soapy rag, then plopped down on my cell’s hard plastic chair and cried. I know, you’re probably thinking here’s this forty-five-year-old hardened convict weeping like a baby, what a pussy. But, back in March of 2020 I’d been infected with COVID-19. And let me tell you, the long-term after-effects are horrible. I suffer short- and long-term memory loss. Constant inflammation of my entire GI tract, so much so that my anus sometimes swells out like a baboon’s bottom, all red and puffy. Gas and bloating. Sore feet that swell up. Erratic blood pressure. And vision that sometimes goes blurry, like looking through a prism. And those are just some of the after-effects.
So, the idea of being reinfected with COVID-19 terrifies me. And do not believe the media when they tell you that reinfections are rare, because that’s a lie. At least here in prison where we’re piled atop one another like pickled eggs in an industrial-size pickle jar. The Michigan prison system has recorded hundreds (if not thousands) of reinfections during the last few waves of COVID-19. Several of my friends have been reinfected. And even though those friends assure me the symptoms are milder the second time around, most of them do not suffer any underlying conditions. I do. Thanks to a botched plumbing job here in prison, my kidneys are slowly deteriorating (I suffer Stage 3 kidney disease), and I’ve watched several of my friends who also suffered underlying conditions succumb to COVID. One of them died in such a horrible fashion that he was vomiting all over himself and uncontrollably spewing diarrhea inside his state pants by the time they wheeled him out.
As I sat there crying, I made up my mind. I was going to fight back. And the only legit way to do that in prison is by filing an institutional grievance (official document of protest). Since March of 2020, before my actual infection, I’d been compiling the facts for one, but hadn’t been able to muster the courage to pull the trigger. Here in Michigan prisons, those who write grievances—especially well-written and researched ones—are often punished unrelentingly. Usually in the form of retaliatory tickets, the taking or destruction of your hard-earned property (As a service dog trainer for Paws With a Cause I only earn $1.54 a day, and I have one of the highest paying jobs), or sometimes they punish you in even much harsher, or more dangerous ways. It’s not uncommon for a guard to “find” drugs or a knife on someone they think has written one too many grievances.
But, being fed up with watching my friends and fellow convicts die, and being sick of having to live in constant fear, I took comfort in one fact. One simple truth.
I have a voice.
It may not be a large voice, or all that powerful of one, but a voice it is—nonetheless. I am a prison journalist. I shine light into the darkness of America’s most shameful secret. Into her prisons. Into her houses of rehabilitation where little rehabilitation actually occurs due to her antiquated penal systems. And after finally realizing that Michigan’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in its prisons may very well be the darkest hour of the darkest day in American prison history, I wrote my grievance.
I touched on many of the aspects where I believed the government had done wrong, explained how the virus had affected me, and bravely advocated for change.
Then, two days later, I was called over the loudspeaker to my unit guard’s podium. A sergeant stood there. “Here, you need to sign this,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a class two ticket for theft.”
“Theft, really?” I’d figured they were going to screw me somehow, but the idea of them somehow writing a theft ticket on me never crossed my mind. In prison, a theft ticket is one of the worst tickets a convict can receive. Nobody likes a thief. Especially the parole board. They were treating this as if I’d written a whole slew of grievances over their COVID-19 response, and not just one good one.
The Sergeant nodded, then read the ticket to me.
“What?” I said again after listening to the charges. “Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack. The captain wrote you a theft ticket for the paper you wrote your grievance on.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, “how’d the captain even see it? He’s one of the people I wrote the grievance on. That’s against policy. Someone in the administration is supposed to review that grievance.”
“That’s not my problem. You want to plead guilty? If not, sign here for a hearing.”
I was flabbergasted. In all my twenty-five years of incarceration, I’d never seen such a blatant retaliatory act. Not only had I written my grievance (an official government document) on official government paper, I’d done so with the knowledge that I had written many other (not-so-inflammatory) grievances on the same government paper in the past. Paper I’d received from my unit guard after having explained to him that I was planning on writing a long, in-depth grievance, and that grievance would require four attached copies. Hence, the government’s four-part copy paper. Write on one, and the words appear on all four pages.
I walked around my unit asking all the old-timers (anyone with thirty-five or more years inside) if they’d ever seen anything like this. Most said they’d never heard of a captain writing a ticket, let alone one on someone who had just written a grievance on security staff policy. They assured me this was retaliation.
Next, I approached staff members with the same kinds of questions, and although many gave me the same answers as the old-timers, a different picture started to emerge from the guards we convicts consider the lock-everyone-up-and-throw-away-the-key guards. The kinds of men and women who do not believe in second chances. The kinds of heartless men and women who made places like Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Abu Ghraib possible.
“Looks like someone finally got sick of all that liberal shit you’re constantly publishing about us on the internet,” explained a guard who works the prison yard, and has always been pretty upfront and honest with me. “From what I hear, this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“Thanks,” I told him and walked away. I’d known that many of the Gestapo-style guards didn’t like that I wrote about life inside prison, which often painted them in a bad light. But I’d never lied, so there wasn’t much they could do about it. The truth is the truth, whether they liked me taking it public or not. But, out of fear, I’d always made sure to keep the harshest of abuses and the names of government employees out of my writing.
Many years ago, here in Michigan, we’d had a convict in solitary confinement who’d committed suicide by “eating” his own sock. Then, over the years, we’ve had a few convicts (also in solitary confinement) who died of thirst. How does someone “eat” his own sock and die? How do men in government custody accidentally die of thirst?
Short answer: they don’t.
The guards know it, and every convict in the Michigan prison system knows it. And those Gestapo-style guards I mentioned earlier never allow us to forget it. They often say things like: “Wanna eat a sock, motherfucker?” or “Dying of thirst sucks, so don’t fuck with me today.”
It’s those kinds of acts that have most of us in prison scared to death to buck the system. We do not want to “eat” a sock and choke to death. We do not want to find ourselves locked in a solitary confinement cell begging for water.
Living life like this for years and decades on end is the real reason why so many men and women in American prisons leave angry, bitter, and broken. If you kick a dog over and over again, eventually that dog is going to bite you. But I ask you this: is it really the dog’s fault?
People often wonder how the recidivism rates in European prisons can be so low, while ours here in America are so high. Well, the answer is simple: In Europe they treat prisoners with respect and dignity. They feed them nutritious food. They offer them adequate healthcare. They hire corrections employees who are capable of empathizing with the prisoners, and who want to help those prisoners succeed instead of hiring employees with a desire to lord it over the prisoners, or employees who feel it is their duty to “punish” the prisoners under their care, or employees who consider high recidivism rates to be job security.
Don’t miss: “John Hovey: A Year of Prison Quarantine”
About three weeks passed and I was called up to the office of our unit guards. I was patted down and checked for weapons, then led inside where a lieutenant waited.
“This is the hearing for your theft ticket. Do you have anything to say?”
“Yeah, I didn’t steal anything. I was authorized to have that paper. One of your guards gave it to me. Furthermore, this is clearly retaliation. I wrote a grievance on the way your captain is running things and he wrote me a ticket. If the roles were reversed, if he wrote a ticket on me, and then I wrote a grievance on him in response, that would be considered retaliatory.”
He sat there clicking away on his computer keyboard without glancing my direction. “You’re right, if anyone wrote a ticket on you and you wrote a grievance on them, then yes, that would be retaliation. But not the other way around. This is different. I’m not gonna allow you to dictate to me when, how, or on who, an officer can write a ticket. Things don’t work that way.”
He reads the ticket to me out loud. It basically states that if I cannot purchase an item from the prisoner store, yet I still somehow possess that item, then I’ve committed theft because the state would have purchased the item, not I.
I point to a stapler resting on the desk. “Does that mean the staples I used to staple my grievance together were also theft? Or the tape I used to seal it up?”
“Yes,” he says simply. “You’re not authorized to have those things.”
I sat there stunned. I’d never before heard such crazy rationalization. We’ve always been allowed those things as long as we used them appropriately. “But your guards are the ones handing those things out. Every day people staple or tape stuff or make carbon copies on state copy paper.”
“That doesn’t matter. Those officers are not authorized to give away property purchased by the state. That’s not your stuff, it’s ours.”
“Where does it say that in policy? What about toilet paper? Or soap? Or the grievance forms, or any state form for that matter? Or cleaning supplies? These are all things we are issued to be used properly. I used the paper your guard issued to me properly. It’s copy paper. My grievance required four copies and I had no other way to make those copies. You cannot deny me the right to file a grievance.”
He finally glances my way. “Look, I’m not gonna argue with you. The man that wrote this ticket is my superior. What do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to do what’s right. Isn’t that what the state is constantly pounding into us convicts? Make good decisions and do what’s right, and we’ll never have to worry about coming back to prison?” Such hypocrisy. No wonder we have such high recidivism rates here in Michigan. Look at the examples we have to follow.
The lieutenant sighs. “Look, Metcalf. You’re one of my best prisoners. My dream would be to have 1200 of you. The best I can do is take this ticket back to the captain who wrote it and ask him if I can reduce it to a lesser charge.”
I nod and stand, knowing that’s the best I am going to get. I don’t blame the lieutenant, it’s not his fault. He’s been working for the MDOC for thirty years, and the way they run things is the only way he’s ever known how to do them. I blame the many systemic problems embedded in an archaic system that was developed in the 1800s. A system where abuses have grown so commonplace that the people on both ends, the abusers and the abusees, have come to accept them as normal. In prison, right now in 2021, I am still treated like a piece of property. Like chattel. As a matter of fact, both the Michigan and the U.S. Constitutions legally declare me and any other prisoner a slave. And I feel compelled to point out that the majority of people in Michigan and U.S. prisons are black, which means the slavery of blacks in America never truly came to an end. It just pivoted. Wrap your mind around that. We live in a society where slavery is still acceptable, all you have to do is attach a felony conviction to it.
Thank God our police here in America are all good, honest, hard-working folks who would never frame someone for a crime, or shoot young boys in the back, or jam their knee onto someone’s neck until he died.
My punishment was being taken out of society, away from my family, and placed into prison. Once here, it is the State of Michigan’s duty to help rehabilitate me, not to punish me more by degrading me and abusing me, or by instilling fear in me, or by offering me subpar healthcare, or by feeding me innutritious food that over time is known to cause all kinds of health problems. Yet, in my twenty-five years I’ve never felt that any state employee wanted to see me or any other convict in here succeed. I’ve never once run across an employee who cared about me as a human being. All I’ve experienced is torture, mental and otherwise, and punishment. Lots of punishment.
A few days after my hearing with the lieutenant, I received a piece of paper through the institutional mail that informed me I had been found guilty of theft. That I’d been sentenced to ten days “loss of privileges” and confined to my cell.
So now, as I sit here typing this essay, not only am I unable to see my family due to a statewide ban on visiting privileges thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I will now also be restricted from calling my mom on my birthday this Wednesday (Jan 13th), to listen as she sings me Happy Birthday (something she has done for twenty-five years straight without fail). I will also not be allowed to call my dad, my brothers, my nieces and nephews, my grandparents, or any of my other friends or loved ones for ten days during the worst pandemic to hit the world in a hundred years. And on top of that—and I hate to even think about this part because it will have me leaking tears—my grandpa’s body is being devoured by cancer, and he is expected to pass in the next few days, which means I can’t even call him to say goodbye, or to comfort my grandma. At the end, when my grandpa transitions from this world to the next, my voice will be the only voice from his entire family that he will not be allowed to hear. And all because the grievance I wrote about how the state is killing us hurt someone’s feelings. This is inhumane. This is cruel and unusual punishment. This is a perfect example of why so many men and women leave our prison systems with such messed-up attitudes.
“Goodbye, Grandpa. I’m sorry. I wish I could have been a better grandson.”
Those are the words I would have said. But now all I can do is write them here and hope he reads them from the other side. To honor him, I will not allow this deplorable act of abuse to turn me bitter and angry. Like all the other abuses I’ve endured during my incarceration, I will stay the course. I will continue on my journey of being the best man I can be, until that day in the not-so-distant future when I will walk out of prison with my head held high and tears of joy leaking down my cheeks.
My name is Jerry Metcalf, and I wish to make the world a better place. If you do too, please join me @ Facebook.com/jerryametcalf.jr