The COVID-19 pandemic has been a living nightmare for most, trapped at home without the ability to do things you used to enjoy such as visiting friends, going out to eat, etc. Many people have been subject to depression and other mental health challenges. It’s been rough, to say the least.
However, it’s been even harder for those locked up and behind bars. As you may know, the criminal justice system has had widespread issues with containment of the virus. Many inmates lost their lives when they were not even subject to contact with anyone in the outside world [even when they did not have contact with anyone on the outside]. COVID-19 has been particularly challenging for people in the criminal justice system, especially for those awaiting sentencing and transit from one facility to another.
I would like to share my personal experience of being an inmate during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s still hard to believe that I went through many of the things I did. I often view these memories as though looking through someone else’s eyes, as if it were something I had not experienced directly. But I have to remind myself that I did.
After an unsuccessful trial (although the prosecutor might say it was successful), I was remanded and placed in US Marshal’s custody. What many people don’t realize is that while you are waiting to actually go to prison, you are placed in a kind of limbo, where you are neither in prison nor free. You are in custody, but you lack all the normal rights and guarantees that you might otherwise expect as being an inmate.
For one thing, during the many, many months I was held in US Marshal’s custody at a local county jail, not once were we allowed to go outside. We were locked in cells by ourselves and held to strict protocols. I won’t lie, county jail is not somewhere you want to find yourself. One night, I was awoken to a mouse crawling up my leg. That was an experience that I hope to never repeat. You also lack basic things that you would consider necessities in the modern world, such as a pillow. You were only allowed to have five books to yourself including religious materials and five pictures of family. Everything else was considered contraband. These are the rules for federal inmates held in a county facility. I personally suspect they they are required to keep us so strictly secured because they are holding federal prisoners, not their own. And you don’t even want to know how much the federal government pays to house these federal inmates all over the US in facilities not their own.
While I was waiting for my sentence, my sentencing date was interrupted by the virus. Unfortunately I was located in New York, where the first waves hit the hardest and we had begun to see the strictest measures. It didn’t matter who committed what crime, everyone was all mixed together. Seeing violence and blood was an everyday experience. It’s amazing what you can get used to by seeing something over and over. I went months without knowing what amount of time I would ultimately face. That is a hell in and of itself. Waiting, every day, not knowing how long this life would continue. So many people were subjected to the same torture that I had to endure. In the state systems, you know what amount of time you face, not a range. In my case, I could have as little as 2 years but as many as 10+ years. That is quite a difference in duration of time. The not knowing kills you.
When I finally got my date to hear a sentencing date, it was rescheduled several times. The most interesting part was when people started getting sick inside. There was only one way that the virus could make it through the incredibly thick walls of the facility, and that was through the staff and guards. Now, one thing most facilities didn’t want to admit was that inmates had the virus. In our facility, we were denied tests and they refused to test the guards. They flaunted that we were virus free and no one was put in harm’s way. However, people started getting sick. Seriously sick. The staff still refused to acknowledge that the virus could possibly make its way inside. Correction Officers were sick and still required to work. There came a time when the shortage of officers almost caused the facility to shut down. But inmates were still not tested. People were sick and dying all over the world, but it was impossible that inmates might be affected. Visits were cancelled. We couldn’t see our families or anyone from the outside world. Measures were in place and masks were distributed. But what about the staff who refused to wear a mask while on duty?
Regardless, after almost two years I was sentenced and transferred out of the facility. This was a day of joy, being able to see the sun through the van’s windows for the first time in almost two years. I had already endured weeks of solitary confinement as a quarantine measure (not for any disciplinary issues). I could share many other sad stories about my time there, but for this post, I’ll leave it at that. I was finally going to my designated facility, where I would finally have a pillow and other luxury items.
When I was transferred out to another county facility for holding I discovered that conditions could in fact be worse. Quarantine measures were even worse. I was transferred to a facility called Albany County where there are no cell doors, but bars everywhere. It was a building that looked like it was built before the 1900’s. No central heat or air. Cells you could touch all four sides standing in the middle with your arms. Rats and rodents were common and you often heard them crawling around.
The lack of information while you are in the federal system is torture. You aren’t allowed to know where you are going or how long you are going to be at any one facility. You have to purchase all the essentials, such as a towel, underwear, a bowl to eat out of, soap, etc. all over at each new facility. Not being allowed to bring anything with you on transfers therefore becomes quite costly. You are also singled out – special in a way that you don’t want to be – as a federal inmate. This comes with additional restrictions. You are not their prisoner, so they want zero liability, so it’s much easier to just give you the minimum or less than what is required.
During the COVID quarantine protocol at this facility, we were on lockdown. We were only allowed out of our cells every three days to take a 10 minute shower. Meals were brought to us and there was no contact or conversation with anyone else, including the guards. We never even saw them as they had their own office at the end of the row of cells. I can not begin to tell you what it feels like, to be forced to sit in days worth of your own filth, not able to just get a clean shower or clothes. Not being able to go outside or have fresh air. Not being able to have conversations with anyone else. Being completely alone with no one to talk to or read or do. In a cell where you can touch all four walls without moving. This is your life. 24 hours, then 48 hours then 72 hours – finally you get out for ten minutes for a shower. I wish that upon no one.
The time I was finally called to leave the facility had come. It comes as such a surprise, as you know nothing until you are called from your cell and told to go with an officer to be transferred. Immediately moved. No notice. Just woken up and taken to some new place that you aren’t allowed to know where it is you are going. At least I was one step closer. Would I finally arrive at prison?
I was placed in another van and taken on a trip. Sadly, we were heading to another county jail. After quite a rough and long trip we arrived at another facility. We were separated and placed in temporary cells for booking. Again, we had to change into a different uniform and then wait for the staff to get us ‘processed’. What might be a simple 15 minute process is turned, by government efficiency, into an entire day long process. Waiting is the name of the game. And it just so happens we were lucky enough to arrive just after lunch. Sadly, we were never fed and counter to what you might think, in jails, when something happens outside the normal day to day, missed meals are a common occurrence. No one of course dies over a missed meal or two, but it’s sad that this is so common in the United States.
After processing we were transferred to our cells, where we were on full quarantine. This meant we were by ourselves for days without books, reading materials, phone calls, visits, or anything else to look at other than the fading white paint on the walls. This again… How could I mentally prepare myself to endure this again? I couldn’t. I refused to go into the cell. I couldn’t imagine being subject to solitary confinement again, where it is actually worse than normal solitary confinement where you are allotted an hour out each day. Well, long story short, the CO thought I was more trouble than I was worth, so they classified me as a suicide risk and then I was taken to another cell by myself. This one was even worse. I wasn’t given sheets. All my extra clothes were taken away. I couldn’t even have soap. He laughed when I left.
I stayed in the suicide watch cell for about a week, all the time without having a shower or being allowed to leave even for 10 minutes, the time we had previously been allotted. It could get worse, as I was seeing. Comply or life will be even worse. That is the lesson I learned there. After about a week, I was transferred by to the unit with a threat to not ’cause more problems’ or things would get even worse. An entire week without a phone call, or any communication or anything to read at all. The hours felt like days. The days felt like weeks or months. Not even having a watch to know what time it was. Unimaginable, even now as I think back to what I had to endure.
The quarantine was finally let up after two weeks, but then I was placed again into quarantine because someone in the unit had tested positive for COVID-19. Again, back into the cell and only allowed out every other day for a 5 minute shower. This time I didn’t speak. I didn’t say anything. I endured it and just went back to my cell and tried to live in my memories. I learned how to sleep in jail, through all the time spent by myself. Forced into a box where you have no human contact or anything to engage your mind. This is the hardest thing I have had to experience to date in my life.
During the second quarantine at this county jail, I was called out of my cell and told I would be leaving again. At least I wasn’t in quarantine anymore. I couldn’t be more happy. But again, I had no clue where I would end up next. I was put in another van and taken with several other inmates to the airport. We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, the first US Marshal that I had seen in the courtroom arrived and directed several vans into the airport, next to a large unmarked plane. We waited some more.
I had finally seen the sun again for the third time in roughly two years. But my experience and happiness was not as pleasant as I had hoped. Air travel is always a pain, but you have no idea how bad it can get. Imagine the government taking the role of security, booking agent, airline attendant, and coordinator for the flight. The process literally is stretched out all day. On the tarmac, we were forced to line up in chains and shackles, as we had to wear during all the previous transport, and left to stand in the hot beaming sunlight. The joy quickly turned into a negative experience. Forced to stand for hours in the hot sun without water or food. Another meal missed. And don’t get caught not complying with the US Marshals. I have seen plenty of inmates dragged across the ground or beat in the face. They don’t play. And good luck trying to prove any of it. It’s like they enjoy taking out their frustration on prisoners being transported.
After hours in the sun and being loaded on the plane, we were finally taking off. I wondered where I would end up next. Con-Air is exactly like commercial flight, with the exception of having your wrists, feet, and waist chained up. Still no smoking, still staying seated when the light overhead is on, and still uncomfortable as hell. Unfortunately, they left first class to the US Marshals only. And not only breakfast was missed, but now also lunch. No clue where we were heading yet, the US Marshals aren’t the friendly casual conversational type.
We touched down in Oklahoma City. A long way from New York. It was raining. And then after hours of getting us on buses, we were transported to our next destination. This place was called Shady Grady, also known as Grady County. Another county jail…