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It is 10:50 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. The cell is cold, dark and damp. I peer out the condensation-covered window in a cell designed to hold four women. These days, the cells hold as many as eight. I suppose I’m lucky that I only have five cellmates — four now, since one of them is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. 

To create some sort of privacy between myself and the other incarcerated women, I open the locker door as separation. It has become common practice since becoming confined to our quarters. There has been a surge of COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks. No one knows whether we will meet our ends, and I cannot help but wonder if I will make it.

If I do, I want to share with the world how terrifying it is to be confined in a cage while a respiratory illness takes the world by storm.

I did not panic at the beginning of the pandemic, or even when I noticed that the prison staff were not wearing masks. I only began to panic about two weeks ago when the ventilation system in the hall began to fail, and death began to ravage my small community. One by one, I watched women get “rolled up.” That is, they were asked to pack up their things and go into isolation after testing positive for the virus.

If I make it, I want to share how me and my peers’ mental health has deteriorated while sitting for days on end in overcrowded virus incubators awaiting death.

Some people welcome it because it means freedom from the slower death of a life sentence. To others, the feeling of helplessness is familiar, so they focus on reading novellas. But for all of us, the pandemic has added another layer to our dismal existence.

If I make it, I will do my part to effect change because the cruelty we experience behind bars is inhumane.

When I think about it, these places were designed to do just that: strip us of our humanity. I do not condone crime, but as someone on the receiving end of contempt rather than compassion, the system feels like it is only hatred disguised as justice. As a society, we rely on mass incarceration to heal societal ills, and as a consequence, it turns humans into disposable waste.

The sentiment “If I make it” is something that many people in marginalized communities feel. We did not create the conditions we were forced to navigate. We engaged in street economics and other survival strategies because of those conditions, but we were criminalized for trying to make it. Incarceration is on the same continuum of the exploitation we have always experienced. 

If I make it, I will tell everybody that what I needed from society was a chance to live, but it only ever gave me death. But only if I make it.

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.

Tasha Palmer-Brown is a writer from San Francisco whose passion is juvenile and social justice. She is incarcerated in California.