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Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

(Editor’s note: This report was written in summer 2020)

In the beginning of January 2020, prisoners of Facility 3A in California State Prison Corcoran were already being hospitalized for what we thought was the flu. COVID-19 testing didn’t exist yet. Our country didn’t even know COVID-19 was coming, but it was already here. I contracted COVID-19 early in June and the symptoms were the same as when I was sick in January. The headache and cough were very distinctive, and I just knew I had it.

Prison was already very restrictive and the first thing to go was being able to see our families. Visits were taken away, including overnight visits as well. Then phone calls were reduced and yard times and any out of cell time. Then work stopped altogether. As secretary of the Men’s Advisory Council, I attended meetings in the early stages. Meetings with the warden, medical and mental health administrators were held in the gym to adhere to social distancing. They answered questions and told us of protocols. One main question was when can we see our families again? There was no answer for this question, as the prison itself was taking orders from the office of Central Operations at the Governor’s office.

First we had a supply shortage, so we had to round up all the toilet paper we could and cleaning materials. Cell block cleaning kills the virus, so we immediately began cleaning protocols. There were also phone delays. In 2020 we paid $3 per collect call to our families for a 15-minute call. We have four wall phones shared by 200 prisoners. Also add ten minutes for a cleaning period between calls, and you get to make a call every fifth day. You must choose who to call, will it be your kids, a friend or parents? Some prisons have email tablets that can also see videos of loved ones, so inmates at those prisons were fortunate. We don’t have tablets here.

One thing COVID-19 has taught us is that in the face of the unknown all we can do is our best. Period. It also reminds us of our humanity and how connected we are. One older officer expressed to me that because of his age he was worried about catching COVID-19 and dying. I respected that so much. We are all people with families and we want to live. Some people like to cast blame on the system for being unprepared, but the system isn’t designed to keep us safe, it’s to house us, that’s it. It’s reactive not proactive, and again we are all doing our best. It was reported on the news that an officer died from COVID-19 who worked at Chowchilla and over 50 inmates have died so far.

The medical response to COVID-19 positive inmates is as follows. Everyone gets tested. If you are positive, you are sent back to your same cell with your celly. Then a tag is placed on your door that says “isolation.”  Two nurses come do your vitals twice a day. If you have a fever or trouble breathing, they will take you in an ambulance to an outside hospital. Personally, I was scared to go to an outside hospital because I didn’t know what else I’d be exposed to. I also didn’t want to take a bed from somebody else. One day my blood pressure was so high that it set off alarms on the machine, a red light started flashing and beeping. I asked the nurse, “What happened? Did I win a teddy bear?” She scowled at me and said, “No, you might be having a stroke!”

One CNA was at my door helping with vitals, and she said she’s done with the healthcare profession, especially in prison because people don’t like to work. I told her she should take up tattooing because that’s what I’m gonna do when I get out. She laughed and said she can barely draw a stick figure. I told her that’s okay, neither can most of the tattoo artists out there! Healthcare workers really are superheroes. They risk their lives everyday to check on us to make sure we are safe. When you’re scared of COVID-19, it means the world to know someone cares about your health!

After I came off isolation for COVID-19, I was transferred to another lower security yard at the same prison, yard 3B. And today on July 30, 2020, we were placed on lockdown due to COVID-19 outbreak at this facility. Four inmates on my tier tested positive for COVID-19. At the last outbreak at the other facility, 150 inmates tested positive in the first wave, out of 800 at the facility. Then numbers started to die down. So we will see how the virus progresses at this facility. 

From my vantage point, we are all doing the best we can given the circumstances, there is not much more safety precautions that could be done. Releasing us would keep us safe, and I have asthma, sleep apnea and hypertension, but they didn’t release me. So release doesn’t look like an option the secretary of CDCR Ralph Diaz in considering at this time. They are taking 90 days off sentences, so if you had a release in 90 days, you will now be going home. However, most of the 98,000 prisoners in CDCR are serving many years and over 40,000 are serving life or multiple life sentences due to extreme sentence enhancements. As a prisoner this is one of the contradictions that I live in. We as a society set a prisoner to die in jail, but we also want to make sure he has good dental care.

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.

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.