When prisoners tested positive for the coronavirus at my prison, Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, they were sent to solitary confinement to recover and quarantine. The problem was, after this protocol was put into place, prisoners stopped reporting their symptoms to the prison staff, anything to avoid the mental anguish that comes with that kind of isolation.  

The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Spokesperson was recently quoted in the Huffington Post saying that inmates who were quarantined due to illness in “areas typically used for punishment” were not subject to the stricter rules typically associated with solitary confinement. 

While this statement was probably made in good faith, it could not have been further from the truth. Every person I have spoken to that was subject to isolation due to covid symptoms would have been thrilled to be subjected to the treatment the men in segregation received. The treatment they received for the crime of being infected with a disease — brought to us by the outside world, no less — was much, much worse.

The ways in which men were placed in isolation runs the gamut. Many were severely sick for days with the all too familiar chills, cough, vomiting, dizziness, loss of appetite, and difficulty breathing. Multiple calls to the infirmary were met with responses of “We’re only taking emergencies at this time.” Apparently not being able to get out of bed, except for assisted trips to the bathroom, is not an emergency. Several strongly worded emails from a case manager finally got several men in this condition to the infirmary. On the other side of the spectrum, one gentleman was walking back to his bed and his block officer asked if he was ok. Apparently he looked a little wobbly. He said he was fine, but twenty minutes later he was being escorted to the infirmary.

Once there you find beds everywhere; the waiting room, treatment rooms, possibly even a doctor’s office. The number one description of the attitude towards the sick was: uncaring. Staff was dismissive of symptoms, as if you can pretend you’re not being able to breath. Treatment consisted of sitting on a bed, for days, although a few finally rated getting oxygen. An occasional aspirin would have been nice, but any request for medication was brushed off. 

If you received any of your property while in isolation, it was tossed on the floor in your general direction. But you were happy to get it. Then at least you might have a cup to sip water. If you were really lucky you got your personal blanket, state blankets were in short supply. Many with severe chills didn’t even get a sheet. 

Even a labored journey to relieve yourself was met with snark. This exchange happened between nurses: “Look at this one. What is he doing?” To the inmate: “Hey, where are you going?” Did the nurses not realize there were no toilets in the make-shift isolation rooms? Many men told me they either overheard other men praying to die or they themselves were praying for death. Being in such pain, unable to breath, surrounded by such uncaring people, was too much. Telling these stories weeks later could still bring tears of pain to the eyes of those that experienced quarantine medical care.

After a couple of days, everyone either ended up going to the outside hospital or was moved to segregation, aka the hole. (aka solitary confinement).  No one was given any information as to how long they might stay there — or what sort of treatments were available. It was very much a “shut up and move” situation. 

And as is always the case in the hole, the cells were filthy. A few of the lucky ones got a very little bit of watered down disinfectant dumped on their mattress. When a rag was requested to clean the cell, blank stares were the answer. The unlucky ones didn’t even get a mattress. Blankets were scarce here too. Food in styrofoam containers was brought to the cell, but no books. It was more dead time. Treatment again consisted of sitting on your rack. The only way to get a shower was to somehow be awake at the exact moment around 3 AM when a porter came around asking if you wanted one. Not awake? Out of luck. And shower time was the only time to take out the trash. One guy didn’t have his door opened for 17 days. Imagine the pile of rotting trays in his cell!

Add to all that the fact that the environment in the hole is not one conducive to healing. You deal with constant noise, smoke from various illicit substances, the occasional mace being sprayed – which can fill the whole living unit. Clothes were never cleaned. And forget any of the usual salves to help a person through an illness:  chicken soup, chest rub, sleeping under the blankets. Instead, these men were tossed down a cold hole and literally isolated from everyone. Good luck getting healthy!

When you are in the hole for disciplinary reasons, you can shower, have access to books, make a phone call once a week, even have access to the JPay wall kiosk for emails (depending on why you are there). 

When you are medically isolated, you are ignored almost completely. These men begged to be treated at least as well as those who were in solitary as punishment for violating some prison rule. 

Prisoners were released from solitary if they no longer had a temperature, despite the fact many were still so sick that they couldn’t walk down the hall back to their cells under their own power. Cured? With no temp, the answer is YES.

Guys with any amount of time in the system knew this is the type of treatment we would receive. Many very sick men were terrified of getting “help.” You would see men doubled over, out of breath and in pain. Ask them if they needed help and the answer was always a raspy “NO!” I couldn’t blame them. Looking around it was obvious most of us were infected, but with mild symptoms. I have seen the medical care we get for 25 years. There was no way I would mention even my minor symptoms to anyone. I knew “treatment” would be worse than the disease, but not even I could have guessed all that happened to those sick men.

All of that happened before Marion Correctional and another prison were the first in the nation to be mass tested. Ten days after the test, when the results started coming back, the administration quickly switched from isolating the sick to separating the healthy. Or so that was the plan. Since the results took ten to fourteen days to come back, every day was a stress ball hoping your name didn’t get called to move. Moving meant you tested negative, and were probably going to live in the gym, at least for a while to facilitate moving all the necessary pieces around the chess board.

Again, anyone who has any time in the system knew the move to the gym would be a nightmare. I heard many, many times guys praying that they would come back positive if it meant they did not have to move. Watching the administration making that many moves and keeping guys separated was a comedy/nightmare of logistics. It was not done well at all. One guy, who is not atypical, was moved eight times, four just on his birthday.

Conditions in the gym were, once again, filthy. It’s a gym! The lights never went out. Sleep must not be important for maintaining health. The PA system is designed to overpower hundreds of screaming men. So 160 or so men sitting on their racks, some talking, made the hundreds of daily announcements ear splitting. Again, good for health, apparently. Since the gym being converted into housing was done on the fly, conditions were of course terrible. Four TV’s in the corners were always on but because of the acoustics there was only noise. We all have phone tablets but not enough receivers were installed, so most could not call home. One guy told me he was just happy to be within yelling distance of the cell block where his brother lived so he could find out about his ailing father in the hospital through shouts across the yard.

Trailers of portable toilets and showers were brought in. Again, the logistics broke down. The shower trailer requires a 240V electric line. The 120 line it was attached to blew the circuit constantly. A very kind maintenance worker made constant trips to the shower to flip the breaker, sometimes a dozen or more times per shift. There was only one person to do that though, so showers were only available when he was working. The toilet trailer was closed from 8PM till around 6:30 or 7 the next morning. Between those hours one sink and one toilet was shared by 160 plus men. We are not fed very healthy food, so the Night of The Runs nearly caused a riot. It DID cause at least one guy to shit in a trash can.

Once again, the overwhelming attitude to those living in the gym, whose only crime was testing negative for a disease brought into us from the outside world, was that they were the enemy. But not all were “negative.” They were all tested again, and apparently being around “positives” for ten to fourteen days in-between the test and receiving the results, nearly half came back positive. But, they stayed with the Negs, for some reason. They’re still with them. All of these guys did feel like they were being punished, every single day until being moved to dorms designated as “Clean.”

It has been said that when your only tool is a hammer, the whole world starts to look like a nail. Years ago, a previous Director of DRC tried to implement a reward system to go along with the punishment system that he said DRC was spectacularly good at. It failed. But his point is still valid. The sick were punished, worse than punished actually. The healthy were punished. The rest of us, through constant upheaval and daily, head-scratching changes all feel punished. The story of Covid-19 at Marion can be summed up in one word: punishment.