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There is no doubt that the global pandemic has changed every aspect of what was considered “normal” life. Zoom calls and phrases like “masking up” and “social distancing” have become common. At the grocery store, toilet paper and bleach were as scarce as clean water in a third-world country at one point. Life within the walls of Cook Unit has been bad, if not worse, than being on the outside.

“Hey, CO, could I get a new mask?” one inmate asked of a corrections officer.

“Why can’t you just wash the one you got?” the CO replied sarcastically.

“I’ve had this mask for two months,” the inmate responded in confusion.

“No!” the CO answered as he closed the door to the Captain’s area.

We are now required to wear masks for almost every situation, according to the email we received on our tablets on November 24, 2020. Exceptions are when eating, sleeping, or using the restroom.

At prisons operated by the privately-owned GEO Group in Arizona, mask exchanges occur three times a week with a weekly allotment of toilet paper for every inmate. I used to be at a GEO unit in Florence, Ariz. previously. 

At Cook Unit, operated by the Arizona Department of Corrections, we get toilet paper every 10 days and we have no ability to request new masks.

In lieu of visitation, inmates were advised they would receive five envelopes and a writing pad as well as two free 15-minute phone calls per week. We were also told we would have access to necessary cleaning supplies to limit cross-contamination and exposure to the coronavirus.

While Cook Unit does allow two free phone calls per week — like all other Arizona Department of Corrections (AZDOC) facilities — they have failed miserably in keeping inmates and staff safe through what I believe is their negligence and unwillingness to comply with the safe and practical cleaning requirements mandated by the Arizona Department of Health. 

At the GEO Unit I was previously, less than two miles from where I am now, building porters and the inmates who worked there in yard control had cleaning supplies. They cleaned all contact surfaces on the recreational field and in every housing unit. Other porters did the same for the rec and visitation areas, classrooms and chow halls.

I asked a CO why we couldn’t have this same opportunity for cleaning and sanitation.

She replied, “We don’t have jobs available for this because of COVID-19.”

At other facilities, we hear that inmates are required to social distance by leaving an empty seat to their left and right in the chow hall and standing six feet apart while in line.

At Cook Unit, the staff gathers under the ramada during their breaks and cover their mouths with clothes rather than masks. I know there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every problem related to the coronavirus, but efforts to mitigate exposure seem to be grossly mishandled by some of the staff at Cook Unit.

The problems in the world are getting worse, not better. The staff, who come and go pose the biggest threat to us.

As inmates, we are willing to comply with reasonable methods to stay safe. The entire organization of the Eyman Complex, of which Cook Unit is a part, needs to be held accountable for their lack of due diligence in ensuring the absolute physical well-being of the DOC staff, its inmates, and everyone else who comes into the facilities, such as the vendors, visitors, and medical workers.

The cost of providing supplies should not outweigh the cost of saving lives. There should be a greater focus on the world’s issue of stopping the spread of COVID-19.

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.

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer and artist incarcerated in Arizona.