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*This dispatch from prison was received in June 2020

In November-December 2019, I and most of the people at MCI-Marion in Ohio had an illness which we suspected to be the flu. Very few of us accessed medical care because we had previous experiences with the MCI medical department demonstrating that was not going to help. The policy is to charge a $2 copay fee, take your vitals, tell you there isn’t anything they can do for you and then advise you what OTC medications you need to buy from the commissary to treat your symptoms. Those of us with that precious experience simply don’t access medical care unless it’s a dire emergency. 

The COVID-19 pandemic surfaced for us in January 2020. MCI closed the visiting room in February 2020 and the following month started implementing a series of procedures mandated by the new director. The staff at MCI didn’t like the Central Office telling them what to do. Nobody took anything seriously until the first correctional officer died. Up until then, masks were optional for staff and unavailable for prisoners. All the mandates were still being ignored. No head-to-foot sleeping, extra cleaning supplies or social distancing. Afterwards, the only thing added to what was already imposed on us was that we were given masks and told to wear them when we left the living area. 

There are two large open dorms at the camp where I am, both holding about 200 beds. Beds are less than three feet apart, many of which are bunk beds stacked one on top of another. If the guy on the bottom is laying down watching television (normal behavior) and the guy on top is sitting on his locker box writing or eating (normal behavior), the distance between the two is less than two feet. That’s pretty much how the dorms inside the main building are set up. 

In early April 2020, OSU had created their own COVID-19 test. The director authorized them to test everyone at three prisons, MCI being one. On April 16, 2020, OSU staff tested everyone at MCI, and found 2,154 positives out of about 2,500 prisoners. The other two prisons didn’t test out any better. That was the end of testing entire prison populations in Ohio and the beginning of damage control. 

Most of the positive results were attributed to asymptomatic prisoners; we all knew better than that. I had been sick in late 2019 and had the same illness in late March 2020. I tested positive on April 16 and was considered asymptomatic because I hadn’t reported my illness. Why would I? Why would any prisoner at MCI who already knew what the procedure was from personal experience? Prisoners knew “we” aren’t all in this together. The public wants to lock us up and throw away the key. “Separate” is not “equal.” Prison administrators, particularly medical staff at MCI, don’t do what’s best for prisoners. They do what’s most expedient for them. 

A medical pandemic that hits their families is their problem — just like medical problems that hit us are our problem. The fact that “we” were infected by “them” doesn’t change any of that dynamic except to make it more pronounced. 

As of this morning, medical “experts” are claiming the COVID-19 has “run its course” in Ohio prisons. How do they know without testing everyone? They don’t. They don’t want to know. By saying it loud enough and often enough they hope it will become an accepted medical fact. That’s the nature of imprisonment. Reality is what people in authority say it is, and they don’t need verifiable facts from “testing” to get in their way.

We are on a two-meal schedule. The visiting room is still closed. Some prisoners assigned to money-saving jobs are back working, i.e. maintenance, Ohio Prison Industries, recycling, Aramark, laundry, etc. The educational and vocational training programs are still closed, as are the barbershop, library, and other non-profit operations. Of course, through it all the company store has always been open — although less often and at reduced spending levels. 

Is there a lesson to be learned in this? Depends on your perspective. Prisoners didn’t learn anything they didn’t already know. Prison administrators didn’t learn anything new either. “The public” gets their information from Governor DeWine and any action at their daily briefings. Since the news media don’t ask any confrontational questions or challenge the facts related to them at those briefings; then “the public” hasn’t learned anything useful at all.

This coming flu season will include a second wave of COVID-19, both in and out of prison. The only difference between the first and second waves is that the lies will be better because no mass testing will be allowed. Whose fault will that be? Prisoners, of course. Just ask the Governor.

Hope this perspective causes positive change. Probably won’t though, because that can’t happen without a significant reduction of the prison population. As long as over-incarcerated, rehabilitated offenders like me keep getting routine successive continuances from the parole board instead of meaningful consideration for release, an effective drop in prison population just isn’t achievable. I have been to the parole board nine times, receiving a series of routine successive continuances of five plus five plus three plus three plus three plus three plus three plus three years — specifically for the nature of my offense. I am at the Honor Camp at MCI and have had some type of honor status for 34 of those 45 years.

They release non-rehabilitated low-level offenders early and are surprised when they come back within six months. Diverting the same type offender only works on a few. Most will reoffend at their earliest opportunity and come back. Until the dynamic is changed, we just have to suffer through.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Michael K. Bailey is a writer incarcerated in Ohio. He has been incarcerated since age 18.