16 August, 2020

Weekend from Heck

I already told you how my wing was on quarantine status after someone tested positive for COVID-19. It was great, like being promised a two-week staycation. Then came Friday afternoon.

I was looking forward to washing some clothes, eating dinner, taking a shower, and having the rest of the evening to play with however I pleased. When custody count cleared at 4:50 PM, the appropriate time, everyone's cell door clicked open. Everything seemed on track. Within a minute of opening our doors, however, the intercom shrieked, and the voice of the guard working the control module resounded.

"Everyone needs to lock back down," she said. "There is no inside recreation at this time. Return to your cells and secure the doors. Now."

Cries of dissent went up.

"Get the captain down here to tell us that!"

"She ain't talkin' to us."

"Bullshit, we're honor status!"

"She don't know what she talkin' about."

"None of y'all better move. Nobody lock down."

And so on. Everyone wavered as the compunction to obey battled the urge to defy what we all felt sure was a mistaken directive. It just had to be a miscommunication; good-conduct wings aren't subject to the same restrictions as general population, and staff have been mistaking us for GP in all sorts of ways since the day we moved into this house. Surely this was just one more.

Jeff and I stood on our doorstep, wondering what the hell was happening. We watched the guard get on the phone and wave her hand around, pantomiming frustration. A couple of minutes passed before she repeated the announcement, adding, "This is per the captain, guys. He said everybody's supposed to be locked down."

Slowly, reluctantly, everyone made his way to his cell. The snaps of door locks came like fat raindrops on a tent, sporadic at first, with increasing frequency. Within three minutes the wing looked uninhabited. All of 4A had complied; although, none of us knew the reason.

There's a story about the Buddha, which says that a monk with a habit of coming to ask for reasons – why this, why that, what if this other thing – was chided by the Enlightened One. "If you were shot with an arrow," the Buddha gently told him (I'm paraphrasing), "you would want to know who shot it, from what distance, and with what kind of bow string, and therefore die before permitting the arrow to be removed."

Neither Jeff nor I bothered with speculation. We've both been imprisoned for long enough to know the madness awaiting those who futilely seek those answers. Instead, we sat and waited to see if some inconceivable bullshit might shake loose of the bureaucracy tree.

A couple of nurses had wheeled a little supply cart into the wing and conducted nasal swab tests on ten random prisoners two days prior. I should've guessed that the lockdown would be related to that. Sure enough, the assistant warden, gloved and hidden behind an N95 mask, but still identifiable by his striped pink shirt, strode in to tape sheets of paper to doors downstairs. Each read "ISOLATION" in bright red block letters.

There goes the neighborhood, I thought.

We were released to the dining hall for dinner at 7:45 PM – over two hours later than usual. The breaded fish patty was warm enough, but the black-eyed peas lifted off my tray as a single lumpy brown mass, the pasta salad smelled four or five days off, and the vanilla pudding swam with alarming pea-size red shapes that reminded me too much of burst blood vessels to be edible. On the way back from dinner we spotted that pink shirt again and asked the assistant warden if we'd be allowed showers. In impeccable Bureaucratese, he responded, "We're not making plans for that at this time."

Peering into the wing an hour later, schadenfreude tickled my spine. Two telephone handsets dangled from their cords, left there by a couple of hopefuls willing to stoop to tactics to ensure they get phones without having to run when the doors open. By then I knew that we wouldn't be released from our cells that night. No shower for me wasn't so terrible, knowing there'd be no phones for them. (My frustration with the phone situation here is a matter of record.)

I did sleep poorly. I always do when I go to bed feeling less than clean. Such is my First World curse. Waking up on Saturday, I rolled out of bed, washed my face in the sink, sat zazen, and steeled myself for uncertainty.

We weren't allowed to bathe that day, either, as it turned out. Some sort of major move was in the works – the first weekend cell swaps I've seen in all my nineteen years. The idea, as I gathered, was to make enough room in Housing Unit 1 to turn it into an isolation unit, so that any prisoner who tests positive can pack his property and move there for long enough to get two negative test results. After that, he'll be moved to yet another cell, this one "permanent," with a new cellmate and all the problems that come with that.

I spent the day bouncing between books, a long magazine article on COVID-19 in China, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (the unavoidable brown-bag staple in these situations), and the cell window. Jeff or I would periodically glance outside and sight a prisoner pushing a cartload of his possessions from 1-House. We had fun trying to identify each guy from a distance. I was winning until Jeff put on his glasses.

The safety and security of this institution take a backseat when the administration wants something done. Jeff was released to hazmat duty a few minutes past 9:00. In his absence, I swabbed parts of myself somewhat clean at the sink, sufficiently so for a night of sound sleep. When the thunder of my COVID-19-positive neighbors' footlocker sliding down the stairs woke me, at 1:34 in the morning, Jeff still hadn't returned. Nor was he back by 2:44, when the clatter of a different infected neighbor loading a cart awakened me again. The restlessness of my most sleepless night in months continued when Jeff finally came back, surrounded by a cloud of bleach, and reported some news. "The sergeant told me over half the night shift got laid off because so many people tested positive," he said. "They got one sergeant running both yards. It's crazy."

After four and a half hours' work, in the middle of the night, with strong chemicals in potentially infectious environments, he was at least permitted a shower. I'm pretty sure that we both fell asleep before he even climbed into his bunk.

On Sunday, Day Three, the craziness continued. Our door opened at 7:40. Jeff's name over the intercom meant he had to go disinfect more freshly vacated cells. Caseworkers, guards working mandatory overtime, and recreation staff bustled around our wing, sweeping up trash and distributing brown-bag breakfasts. (PB & Js again, naturally.) The housing unit manager, an office job whose scheduled days are Monday through Friday, worked the control module. She announced the plan to open three cells at a time, for everyone to get fifteen minutes to shower and place our canteen orders for the week. When Jeff returned from his morning labors, he relayed that an all-staff meeting was taking place. Things were happening – different things. Different was good.

Residents of the lower tier got their showers that morning. We upper-tier people had to wait. Kitchen workers booted up and were released to their regular assigned jobs right before noon, and for the first time since Friday we all got a hot meal, followed, an hour and a half later, by that long-awaited shower. The water felt hotter than usual, perfect for soothing the sore neck caused by Saturday night's tossing and turning.

A couple of those Friday phone jockeys jumped on to attempt a quick ride, but the phones were switched off. Once again, I shook my head and smiled.

Sunday ended with a whimper. A little writing, a little reading, a little night music. I went to bed feeling clean, braced for whatever Monday had in store. The critical staff shortage promises more of the same throughout the next couple of weeks – maybe better, maybe worse. Oh, what I would've paid to give the administration my two cents at Sunday's meeting!

With full appreciation for the seriousness of the novel coronavirus, its potential threat to both short- and long-term health, it's safe to say that the way that this situation is being handled here (or the powers that be at the Missouri Department of Corrections) shows the same disorganization and lack of foresight we see at every level of Missouri's prison system. Isolating the sick is good, but consolidating those who test positive only works if everyone else in their immediate surroundings tested negative, and if the people you're replacing them with tested negative, too. Otherwise, you're just muddying the water. Sending COVID-19-positive employees home is good, but why not give asymptomatic ones the option of working in the prison's isolation units, so as not to place uninfected staff at risk?

I almost feel like writing a cutesy picture book, รก la Dr. Seuss: If I Ran the Prison. (Rule Number One: isolate people in their own cells!) It'd probably sell like hot cakes, but I've already got avocations, obligations, and chores to keep myself amply occupied. We'll call this a working staycation, then.

12 August, 2020


The distant ripping noise that woke me repeats, then repeats again, and I roll over on my bunk, suddenly alert and curious about this sound that roused me from what in retrospect felt like a deep sleep. What the hell's going on out there? A series of radio chirps, blurts of static, and indistinct, tinny voices precede a thump, instantly recognizable as the sound of a Rubbermaid tote full of someone's property set down on the wing floor.

This is common on the Department of Corrections' designated transfer days. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, guys get shipped to another prison. Something else is going on here.

Enough passivity. I sit up and pivot out of bed to see whose stuff is being packed up and taken away. Jeff, my cellmate, is almost as light a sleeper as I am, but try as I might to be quiet, my rubber sandals scrape the concrete floor with every step I take across the cell. Bleary eyed, I bring my face close to the door's narrow glass pane and look around.

The guard's downstairs, right on the other side of the wing, wearing a blue trash-bag smock, gloves, and N95 mask while she supervises the packing. The packer is Levi, one of the guys who attends my Buddhism service (or used to, before COVID-19, when we still had services). He's shirtless and displeased, and I immediately know what's happening. Levi isn't transferring; his elderly cellmate, Anthony, who was taken via ambulance to the hospital yesterday, must've tested positive for COVID-19 at the hospital; Levi's being relocated to an isolation cell in 1-House, the unit we all moved from two Fridays ago.

I lie awake for many long minutes, considering the implications of this turn of events. The way ERDCC operates now, if anyone tests positive, his entire wing is placed on quarantine status for fourteen days – four days longer than the period currently recommended by the CDC. That wing eats separately and has a separate recreation period from the rest of the house. It gets no use of the gym. It's barred from Clothing Issue, the library, and the property room. Activity within the wing, from card games to walking laps, continues as usual. It's life as usual, then, except none of us goes to work.

For me, this means another two-week vacation. I'm perfectly okay with that; I occupy myself quite well. But poor Levi, trapped for a fortnight in the plague house! And poor Anthony, suffering unknown torture in the hospital's ICU. Thinking, What a mess, I finally fall asleep. It's an uneasy rest, and my alarm clock seems to rouse me far too soon.

04 August, 2020

You Can't Polish a Turd, but a You Can Polish a Rusty Desk

Friday's mass move by my wing to another housing unit was the one, in my nineteen years' experience of moving cells, for which I was best prepared. This isn't to say that this go-round was especially easy, nor in any way fun, but it went off much, much better than most.

I have my neighbors to thank. While most people in the wing made do with what tiny containers they already had, the guys next door found several moving boxes to pack our stuff in. We also had an array of cleaning supplies at our disposal, for scrubbing and wiping away the filth of our new cells' previous occupants. We had improvised drain plugs for janky sinks, and extra shoelaces and twist-ties for bundling errant power cords and co-ax cables. Someone found a bottle of glue, for securing handy wall hooks. Someone else scored a bottle of floor wax, which, in a fine display of prison ingenuity, proved useful for sealing the large and copious rust spots covering the desks, thereby keeping shirtsleeves and skin from picking up orange smears of iron oxide every time they brush the desks' surfaces. You make use of what you have.

Not all wings are equal, and our new habitat has other minuses as well. At the moment you walk through the front door, the telephone situation becomes apparent. Rather than being mounted at a respectable distance from one another, like they are everywhere else, all four phones here are clustered on one side of the wing. Their placement is unfortunate for reasons of privacy and social distancing alike. If I can reach over and touch my neighbor's shoulder in the midst of a call, overhear the sweet nothings he's whispering to his boo, or take the brunt of his uncovered sneeze (because, despite COVID-19 and the disapproval of society at large, there are definitely people still guilty of committing that unhygienic atrocity), it should go without saying that we're too close.

Telephone proximity aside, this new wing is actually different from our old one in several ways. The doors are everyone's favorite of them. The housing unit where I spent the last year and a half used to be an administrative-segregation unit. Its boxcar-style sliding doors, whose bang upon opening was a hazard for anyone with a heart problem or some type of incontinence, frazzled many nerves. Anytime my door popped open, expectedly or otherwise, was a nasty jolt. (Yesterday I heard someone joke that they left him shell-shocked. I can't overstate the unease those doors brought; kidding aside, PTSD seems like an actual possibility.) The locking mechanisms in our new housing unit open as quietly as knuckle-raps on a pane of glass.

Everything here is flipped, a mirror image of what I got accustomed to. On the first morning my alarm clock beeped and beeped and beeped while I searched with a drowsy hand for the off button. Oh yeah, I belatedly realized, it's on the other side of the bed. If Jeff, my cellmate of the past year, was irritated by my tardiness at silencing the noise, he didn't complain. The sleepy errors continued the next morning when, stuck on autopilot, I failed to judge the distances involved after making the bed, bumping my head on the underside of his bunk. Fortunately, it was a low-speed collision.

The first night in any new cell can be difficult. The slow, quiet drip of the sink threatened to keep me up on our first night here, but my epic tiredness after a day of near-constant activity and low-grade stress won out. The almost chilly air helped. I've heard a lot of complaints about the temperature here, but I sleep poorly in warm rooms and was glad that our vent kicks out the cool. I've been consistently sleeping like the dead, maybe even better than I was before we moved.