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The pandemic has been a difficult time for the inmates here at U.S. Penitentiary Tucson and in all the prisons. As inmates, we cannot social distance, because prisons put two inmates in a cell, and many of the procedures practiced by the prison have been deplorable. Much of the protocols don’t make sense and are counterproductive.

The education department of USP Tucson is an example of how the COVID-19 protocols are hardly effective.

USP Tucson’s education department is made up of a library, a law library, several classrooms, staff offices, and a restroom. Normally, all these areas are open, but because of the pandemic, changes were made. The eight-seat tables were changed to two spots in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Capacity was limited to two units at a time. Classroom size was reduced so that the prison could practice social distancing.

And the water fountains were turned off. The department shut off the water fountains in the hallway with a notice that said: “Closed due to COVID-19 until further notice.”

With this decision, no inmate can get water while they are in the education department. Isn’t there something wrong with this situation in which one cannot drink water?

The tables in the library are marked, “Don’t sit here; skip this seat to maintain social distance.” There are signs all over to remind inmates to keep six feet apart. While this sounds legitimate, it isn’t. Let me use myself and my unit, to prove my point.

I live in B2, a dorm with over 100 inmates. We have modified movement, meaning we are allowed to move around the dorm, without social distancing. But I can sit at a table with three other guys, or watch television with 10 other guys, all within inches of each other. In the dorms, social distancing does not exist.

Yet, when we all go to the library, they expect us to practice social distancing. Why? We’re around each other all day, every day. We can sit four to a table and play cards in the dorm but have to be social distanced in the library. But I get it: we’re trying to give the impression we are practicing social distancing.

In the classroom, the staff does not practice social distancing protocols either. When they call us to move for recreation, they call a unit, which consists of two dorms. In my case, that’s B1 and B2. I have been around those who live in B2 all day, every day, but not B1 because that is a different dorm. Therefore, social distancing might be appropriate.

However, once we are in the classroom, the staff tries to crowd the students, which has drawn concern from some cautious inmates who insist that the prison practices what they preach. If we are supposed to be socially distant, then don’t cram 20 people in a classroom. One inmate I know left the classroom and went to do his work in the library because he was concerned that the staff wasn't taking social distancing seriously.

Back to the water fountains. Why cut them off, preventing inmates from drinking water? Students need to have access to the fountains. It is especially baffling since the inmate bathroom, which is a couple of feet away from the water fountains, is open for full use.

The inmate bathroom has two sinks, a hand dryer, two urinals, and two toilets. They are all fully operational. I can go in, use the urinal and the sink, touching everything before I leave. It is not cleaned. But the water fountains are cut off to prevent the very same thing.

I can’t get a drink of water from the water fountain, because of COVID-19, but I can go to the bathroom and cup my hands and get water from one of the sinks. What is the difference? And is the staff water fountain turned off?

There is no difference between inmates and staff when it comes to COVID-19. Why cut off the water when we have access to everything in the bathroom. We touch the urinal, sink, faucet and everything else in there just as we would touch a water fountain. If a person was really cautious, they could push the water fountain button with a shirt or a tissue.

It just doesn’t make sense.

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.

Frederick Mason is a writer incarcerated in Arizona. He has penned over 200 essays about prison-related topics including the COVID-19 pandemic situation.