He died ten days later, on March 30, 2020, at 7:43 a.m, after only being treated with Motrin.
I did not know Juan well and had only spoken to him in passing. After he died, I was told he had a rape conviction and in so many words “deserved what his hand called for.”
Besides being a human being, Juan seemed like a decent person and that is all that mattered to me. As cliche as it sounds: I have learned not to judge people.
The “Central Park Five” were my friends. Mainly, Corey Wise and I. We spent a lot of time together as kids and even stayed over at each other’s houses. Corey invited me to go out with them that tragic night that led to everyone, including me, thinking they’d raped a female jogger in Central Park. I often wonder what my life would be like had I accepted Corey’s offer to join them that night.
‘The Central Park Five’ were later exonerated for that horrendous crime. So despite what everyone thought or felt, it was not my duty to judge Juan. A jury had already done that. My job was to make sure I made it back home to my wife and family and that I didn’t die senselessly like Juan, in an isolated hospital room behind thick bulletproof glass like some lab animal. Alone and unable to breathe.
At around the same time that Juan was isolated, I began having really bad headaches. This went on for days. I attributed it to a high sodium diet of canned foods and pouched goods. One morning in particular I woke up with an excruciating migraine. I had slept a lot longer than usual and this time attributed my headache to caffeine withdrawal.
I quickly leaned over from my bed to plug in my hot pot and brew some coffee — a steady routine for more than two decades — then lie back down until I am awakened by the rich, intoxicating aroma of a fresh pot of Café Bustello. But on this day, I woke up to a prisoner banging on my cell bars hollering “Yo, ya pot’s burnin!” I shook my head in a daze, lazily looked over to see a smoking, smoldering, melting plastic hot pot. “Damn” I whispered to myself, stretching my long arms to unplug the pot and rolled back over in the bed as if nothing happened.
After sleeping away most of the day and canning the hot pot to the garbage, I was famished. I decided to make something to eat — boil in a bag rice and canned boned chicken with a Curry Garlic sauce. I love the smell of curry as it’s simmering, so it wasn’t long before I noticed I couldn’t smell anything. Then shortly after midnight, I awoke shivering and in a pool of sweat.
For the following two weeks I suffered from severe bouts of fever, chills, coughing, sneezing and the worst of it: migraines, backaches, and heart-attack like chest pains.
I signed up for a medical appointment on a few separate occasions but was never given one. Rumor had it that the correctional and nursing staff simply destroyed our sick call requests because they were too afraid to deal with prisoners with COVID symptoms.
Despite my condition, I began to notice that prisoners were avoiding my cell. Everyone knew I was sick, and they naturally assumed it was COVID. I was not the first and surely would not be the last. Occasionally, someone I had never spoken to would pop up and ask me if I needed anything. Most of them brought me fresh garlic, vitamin C pills, and Tang, which I was advised to drink hot.
At one point, I had so many different symptoms at the same time that I thought to myself “I’m going to die in this cell.” I’m never seeing my family again. I thought about the relationships I forged and the ones I didn’t fight hard enough to preserve. I cried and sobbed uncontrollably, begging God to forgive me for all the people I had hurt.
I thought about my three-year-old Grandson Jace, who I had not yet had the opportunity to meet and I decided with a sense of defeat that I would never hold him. He would never meet his grandfather. I struggled to understand how I could survive being shot twice, crippled, stabbed, and cut, yet succumb to something I could not even see. At one point I stopped fighting and accepted that I had never been more afraid of anything in my entire life. Like the body’s last breath of air and the still that follows, I found an ironic sense of peace when I forfeited the urge to keep fighting. I thought about the tens of thousands of people who had already died and wondered if they had weighed these same things.
The rising number of Americans dying began to take a toll, psychologically. Every time I turned on the T.V., the numbers rose exponentially. The suffering I witnessed, while lying on a sticky plastic vomit green mattress began to exacerbate my fears. So I turned the T.V. off and I silently affirmed: I will be happy, I will be healthy, I will be safe, I will be loved.
On March 14, 2020, the New York State Department of Corrections & Community Supervision (DOCCS), issued a statewide shelter-in-place (quarantine) order. Naturally, as part of this quarantine order, our visits were suspended. All programs: rehabilitative, educational, and therapeutic were closed. All contact between prisoners and civilian staff ceased, immediately.
At the same time, we saw Correctional staff begin to wear masks all throughout the facility. It was the uniformity of it that made us suspicious. And then, the Director for the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and Anthony Fauci of the President’s Corona Virus Task Force began advising all Americans to wear masks. New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo also issued a mandate requiring all New Yorkers to wear masks.
We began wearing makeshift masks out of handkerchiefs, socks, and t-shirts. But right after that, we were advised by the administration that we could NOT wear masks. If we wore, created, or were in possession of a mask, in fact, we would be issued misbehavior reports and confined to a cell for a twenty-three-hour lockdown (also known as being on keep-lock).
Despite our attempts to argue that the CDC, WHO, and Cuomo required that all Americans wear masks, we were still being denied masks — without any explanation. How were we supposed to protect ourselves from COVID transmission? “Am I not American”?
Social distancing didn’t exist, not in here. It was a farce; a cruel joke.
At Sing-Sing, there are 88 Prisoners housed in each gallery, and four galleries are stacked on top of each other on two sides for a grand total of 704 prisoners in A-block. The galleries are wide open so if someone near you has a coughing fit, there are no screens, ventilators, filters, or barriers to protect you — just a wide-open space for airborne viruses.
When we are being let out from the cells and onto the galleries for recreation (yard), we are congested into narrow ten-foot-wide boxes with 40-80 prisoners lingering about absent any mask. When going to the mess hall to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the process is the same. When we’re released to use one of the 20 phones to call our families, same thing.
In the 1st week of May, there were sky blue lines of tape placed everywhere throughout the facility. Social distancing lines they called them. Mainly they are show, because in the hallways going to the yard and in the mess hall, not only did the prisoners disregard them but the officers failed to enforce them. Consequently, the social distancing experiment was a failure. In the second week of May we were finally issued masks. However, by then 5 prisoners were confirmed deceased from COVID-19 and most of us had already been sick. Adding insult to injury, the masks that they did issue were not only disposable, but they weren’t evaluated by the FDA and manufactured by Corcraft Products. For those of you who don’t know, Corcraft (www.corcraft.org) is a huge corporation that outsources prison labor with slave wages via the 13th Amendment to produce goods that are later sold at some of the highest market values. Thus far, we have been issued five sets of disposable masks. All requests to have our mask recycled at least weekly have been denied. That was six weeks ago. The masks are not designed to be washed, so many guys simply don’t wear them or wear them soiled. Not really sure which is worse.
It took me roughly six weeks to completely shake COVID. I found myself distressed most by the loss of something we often take for granted: the ability to smell and taste. Perhaps, it is the inherent instinct to survive that is attached to these two senses. Some would argue how do you know you had COVID, well, I have never actually had a COVID test, but I had all of the symptoms. More than a dozen prisoners within my direct vicinity have been quarantined and tested positive. My request to the medical department to be tested for COVID has been denied. I honestly don’t think they want to give us antibody testing. We have proposed to donate antibodies, and of course, that too was denied. If and when they do test us it will only reveal how many of us were actually sick. And that doesn’t make them look good.
On August 5, 2020, NYS DOCCS are re-instituting our visits. Many of us haven’t seen our loved ones in close to five months. Many of us have lost family members because of COVID and accept that there will be no true sense of closure. It is all still so confusing. COVID has reminded us of all the evils and the good that we are capable of.
Sheldon Johnson is serving 50 years in New York for 1st and 2nd degree robbery.
Sheldon P. Johnson #99A3011
Sing Sing C. F.
354 Hunter Street
Ossining, NY 10562