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Photos courtesy of Jeffrey McKee

Two years ago, I remember watching news reports of several people in a retirement home in Washington State dying from the coronavirus. Shortly after, I watched a news report about how several prisoners at the Monroe Corrections Complex refused to return from outdoor recreation because they objected to how the prison was responding to the pandemic. Several other protests followed, including hunger strikes that I participated in, some of which were investigated by the state.

About 30 days into the pandemic, I heard two prisoners and a staff member had tested positive in my prison. I sent a kite — an internal form of communication — to the superintendent and asked where those prisoners and the staff member lived or worked. “We will not provide you this information,” he said. I told him that I only wanted to know the areas, not who the individuals were, but I still didn’t get a response.

The prison finally started posting notices identifying the areas and the number of staff and prisoners who tested positive in the second year of the pandemic only after a bill had been passed in Congress requiring the information.

The type and frequency of masks has also evolved. The first memo from the department said prisoners and guards would be issued N95 masks, but I have only seen two worn by staff in the two-year period. Some staff wore bandanas, some wore surgical masks. One guard brought in a type of respirator that auto shops use when painting cars. Many just didn't wear any face covering. No N95 masks were provided to the prisoners.

The prisoners were issued a handkerchief, hair ties and a coffee filter to make a mask. They did not have any replacement filters so most of us wore it like a bandit robbing a train. After that, we were given an orange cloth mask made by prisoners. I sent a picture of myself wearing the issued mask to a news magazine run by a former prisoner. The picture was posted with the title “Useless DOC Masks” on page nine of the February 2021 issue that was sent into prisons across the country. Shortly thereafter, the prison issued surgical masks and banned the first two types of masks. This month we were finally given N95 masks.

Two memos posted from the secretary's office notified the prisoners they would receive an infraction if they were found not wearing masks outside of their cells. I asked if staff would also be held accountable for not wearing a mask. 

I received an answer in the December 23, 2021, Walla Walla Union Bulletin. According to the article, the state’s Labor and Industries Department conducted an investigation after a guard died from COVID-19 and fined the corrections department for failing to enforce COVID-19 protective measures. The article said that between August 2020 and April 2021, the department took no disciplinary actions against corrections staff for failing to abide by COVID-19 safety measures at any of the 12 prisons. But after the article was published, I noticed a lot more of the guards were wearing masks.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee signed a proclamation prohibiting certain state workers, including prison staff, from engaging in work after October 18, 2021, if they were not fully vaccinated. By the deadline, approximately 350 department staff, 49 from my prison, had been fired or had quit over the mandate, according to the October 27, 2021, Walla Walla Union Bulletin. Now I have to deal with the new replacements in training and avoid the disgruntled old guards who have to fill in the empty spots.

Although there have been many facility-wide outbreaks over the past two years, I’ve been lucky that there hadn’t been one in my living unit until January 12, 2022, when several of my fellow prisoners complained of symptoms. I told them they should keep quiet about it because they would be sent to segregation for two weeks with no shower or property.

According to a posted memo, two employees who worked in the kitchen had tested positive. The prison kitchen workers were moved to a quarantine unit. All prisoners were rapid-tested, those who tested positive were taken to solitary confinement, and my entire prison was locked down.

Because prisoners cook and serve the meals, clean the units, take out the trash, and wash the clothing and linen, none of this was getting done. The trash began piling up including the food trays brought to our cell. My neighbor above me, like many others, flushed everything down the toilet. As I was sitting on my bunk reading, I heard a flush and strange noises from my toilet. Then I saw corn, pieces of tomatoes, plastic jelly/peanut butter/cookie rappers, paper towels flowing from the toilet along with feces all over the floor.

The next week, we were tested again. I was very ill with COVID-19 symptoms but faked the test like I did the first time because I would rather die from COVID-19 than spend one day in the hole. This time they moved everyone who tested positive out of one unit and transferred those who tested negative into their old cells. I packed my stuff to move. When I entered my new cell, it was absolutely filthy. Among the mess was 12 completely soaked adult diapers piled up under the table. I figure I had COVID-19 because I could not smell it or anything else for that matter.

Luckily I had swiped two bottles of cleaning disinfectant, trash bags and rags the day they locked us down, so I spent 45 minutes cleaning it. 

By the third week, they moved everyone with COVID-19 symptoms into another unit regardless of whether they tested positive or negative and let them commingle in the dayroom. Those of us who continued to test negative remained in our cell with 20 minutes a day out to shower, clean our cell and use the phone.

I believe my area of the prison avoided an outbreak until now because of the isolated design. We have individual cells with a sink toilet that we eat and sleep in. There are roughly 30 people in each pod with three pods per unit and three units that commingle. In other areas of the prison, they are placed two to a cell in a pod of roughly 42 cells. The prisoners share communal bathroom sinks, showers and toilets, and they eat in the day room or a chow hall along with the rest of the prison.

We are now almost off lockdown and back to a semi-normal environment. It is hard to say what this next year will be like as the virus and the department’s response is ever changing. I am hoarding non-perishable food items, cleaning supplies, books and writing supplies in anticipation of more lockdowns.

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.

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington. He is a member of the PJP chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.