26 March, 2020

Coronavirus: A Prisoner's Perspective

While COVID-19 continues its rampage, governments institute shelter-in-place orders, and people hoard enough toilet paper to get their households through months of nonstop diarrhea, I sit safe and sound in prison, concerned about the tumult but feeling a little detached. As a prisoner, I've basically been quarantined since 2001. I pity the nonessential-business owners and wage workers whose lives the virus is turning upside-down. In a different way, I also pity the fortunate salaried workers losing their minds after being stuck at home for a few days.

Adding to my sense of detachment, an e-mail I got from the Missouri Department of Corrections last week announced, "At this time, our goal is to continue to offer the same services and maintain normal operations to the extent possible. There are no plans to eliminate programming, recreation, canteen services or other functions." Although I can't go for a walk in the park, I can still hit up the library and attend Thursday-morning Buddhist services in the chapel. On the inside, right now, little is changing.

I heard a staff member complain how good he thinks we prisoners have it, because we, unlike him, aren't yet restricted from using the gym or hanging out in groups. Even under normal circumstances I dislike this type of shallow assumption. If prisoners really have it so good, why isn't a jealous public continually beating down the gates to get in here? Tempted as I felt to point out to that man the rule against gatherings of more than three inmates, I let his ignorance be.

At the time of this writing, one person in the Missouri Department of Corrections' custody (a male prisoner at WRDCC, in Saint Joseph) has tested positive for coronavirus. To the best of my knowledge, he was whisked away for real medical care quickly, but prisons are petri dishes; widespread contagion throughout that institution seems inevitable. We live in such closed quarters, and so few of my neighbors have even rudimentary hygiene. (I can't even count those I've seen sneeze without at all covering their mouths this week.) Frankly, I'm amazed that an endless, perpetual, all-out war against typhoid and dysentery isn't part of prison life. This place is filthy.

My janitorial job in the offices of its administrative segregation unit (aka "the Hole") now demands that I show up two extra days a week, just to wipe down every surface — from door handles to computer mouses — with bleach solution. At the end of each day's work, I initial one form and write down on a different one how much of which cleaning products I used. The thoroughness of my labor can't always be seen, but the offices do smell like a public swimming pool when I leave.

Most of the prisoners scoff at the notice on ERDCC's closed-circuit TV channel that says, "We have hand sanitizer strategically placed around the institution and flyers indicating the correct procedure to wash your hands." No one I know has seen any of the former. We all joke that the placement of hand sanitizer was "strategic" in that the administration deliberately put it where no prisoner could get to any. As for the flyers, I suspect that it'll take more than colorful pieces of paper to convince the slobs to scrub their greasy mitts once in a while.

Missouri prisoners are just waiting for contagion to sweep their facilities. Even with employee screening in place, COVID-19's speed and spread have most of us feeling like it's just a matter of time. With no grocery stores to decimate the shelves of, we instead stockpile Top Ramen and summer sausage from the prison canteen, prepping for the doomsday scenario that is a lockdown. But I, for one, refuse to panic-purchase. If (or when) a lockdown comes, I have enough savories to supplement the brown-bag meals of PB & J sandwiches they'll feed us for weeks. I'll stay busy, too, with books, art supplies, and, of course, my writing. It won't be too bad. It's you out there I worry about.


  1. my house, too smells like a swimming pool. Not living with filthy Vikings

  2. I live in Pennsylvania & our governor has asked that everyone leaving going out in public to wear face mask. Not the n95 but regular face mask. I know you would probably prefer to be anywhere but there but things out here are very grim.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.