The cell feels stuffy and cramped. The only respite comes when they open the food trap on the cell door. It’s about a one-foot by three-inch slot with a locked door that swings down so they can pass you a meal tray.
According to a May 6 update from Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, 486 Department of Correction prisoners and 278 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 up to that day, with 8 reported prisoner deaths. In a prior update, on April 30, PLS reported that “the first county prisoner died yesterday, a 41-year-old who was incarcerated at the Middleton House of Correction.”
The particular vulnerability of prisoners during this pandemic has been noted by this and other outlets. As have the various lawsuits and actions brought by prison reformers pushing for decarceration; on April 17, PLS filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners to significantly reduce the state’s prison population, noting that the way to stem “the harm caused by COVID-19 in prisons and their surrounding communities” is to force those responsible for inaction to take action, beginning with Governor Charlie Baker.
In much of the responsible as well as the lackluster reporting on incarceration during the pandemic, there have been numerous voices from outside the wall—law enforcement, attorneys, advocates of all stripes. But there hasn’t been much input from inside of state facilities, where isolation, confinement, and fear are constants during controversial lockdowns.
Though the perspective of a single prisoner, Shawn Fisher at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater, these entries shed light on the situation inside. They have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, but otherwise are published as submitted by Shawn. -DigBoston
My cellmate and I went to bed around midnight last night. When I woke up for count at 7am I tried to go back to sleep but all I could hear was heavy breathing. I cautiously peered over the bunk to see him doing pushups. That’s when I noticed something in the corner that wasn’t there last night … trash. Empty fish, rice, beans, and pickle packages from a meal he made in the middle of the night. Atop it all was an empty chocolate cupcake package. The same kind as the one I smelled on Good Friday. From all appearances this one looked and smelled fresh as well. I looked at him and said, “What did you have, a party last night?” That’s when he explained how he’s been up since 4am! I could see his energy building for the last couple days but he had things to occupy himself with. Now, he doesn’t.
During recreation I heard similar stories from at least three people. One said he’s getting “stir crazy.” Moreover, in the last two days I’ve heard the alarm go off four times. The latest sounding while writing this blog. I’m starting to feel some of the effects as well. My leg muscles are aching from not getting enough exercise. Even the breathing feels different. The window in the cell is small and with the cell door closed no breeze comes through to get fresh air in your lungs.
The pressure is building. What I’m hoping for is some kind of modified lockdown. I know the DOC is feeling the pressure too because the food portions are dramatically smaller and the meals they serve are becoming repetitive. Breakfast is either cold cereal or oatmeal and I can’t count how many times we’ve had rice. There are no extra rolls of toilet paper which means we get one roll each for the week. I know everyone is feeling the crunch, it’s just that when you live in a cell for 23-and-a-half hours a day with someone, the walls begin to feel a lot closer than they did the day before. Let’s hope a good night’s sleep will bring about a fresh start … as “fresh” as that cupcake.
Today has been frustrating. Somehow this dunderhead lost his reading glasses in a cell I haven’t left for 24 hours! It’s not like I have I0 bedrooms, 3 baths and a garage. It’s a bathroom the size of a pantry. We looked everywhere and they’re gone.
They weren’t prison-issued either. They were a nice wire frame pair. That’s what makes it so aggravating. To add to that frustration I’ve got nowhere to vent this irritation. I’m forced to sit in my bed and will my way through it. I can’t go somewhere to be alone or occupy myself with working out. All I can do is sit here and marinate on it. It’s so utterly frustrating.
In the grand scheme of things they’re just glasses. But when you’re in prison little things get magnified. It’s not as if I can go to the store at noon and buy another pair. It takes weeks, sometimes months to get another pair. Right now I’m typing with my arms outstretched and squinting my eyes to see these words.
This hasn’t been confirmed but the word is we are locked in until May. That means we will continue to come out of our cells for 30 minutes a day for another two weeks. I don’t know how most of the guys feel about this yet but I plan to find out. How can they get away with this when no one shows signs of COVID-19 after a 14-day quarantine?! They could be doing one tier at a time for one hour, twice a day. As it stands they’re completing tier times by 6:30 pm, which leaves the guards plenty of free time to watch movies on the computer until their shift ends at 11:00 pm. There must be some kind of recourse for us.
In the meantime my cellmate, Tito, is working on making his fifth necklace of the lockdown. For years Tito has perfected a way to make jewelry out of trash bags and shoelaces. He begins by extracting each individual strand of thread from the shoelace to make a durable twine. Next, he cuts the trash bags into strips, paints each one with a watery concoction made from crushed colored pencils, and then stretches each strip until it looks like one long and very skinny piece of licorice. For the final stage, he sits for 16 hours tying one fancy knot after another until a beautiful piece of jewelry emerges. As I said before, prisoners are the most resourceful people on planet earth.
The world is in chaos and apparently that has affected people’s logic. Yesterday morning I was watching a segment of Court TV and they were discussing the man from Tampa, Florida who was charged with murder. He was one of 164 prisoners released from jail because of COVID-19. One of the guest hosts said, “It was only a matter of time … I’ve been around criminals (my whole career) and that’s what they do—they commit crimes.”
How ignorant is that? The real kicker is I think she’s a defense attorney. I wish I was one of the guests because I would have told her, “You may have ‘been around criminals,’ but that remark shows you’re no expert on the subject. I’ve LIVED with criminals every day for over 30 years and I can tell you with 100% percent certainty not all criminals get out and commit crimes. To have that platform and make ignorant remarks is reckless. It creates a long lasting ripple effect and pollutes people’s existing fears with its toxicity. That is a crime.”
I spoke to someone today who said mental health staff put in a proposal to ease the restrictions on the lockdown. Apparently, there are some prisoners on “watch,” which means they are placed in a monitored cell. In addition, there have been quite a few inmates who have called “crisis” in the last week. When an inmate’s in distress, he tells the officer “I want to call a crisis.” At which point the inmate is escorted to another area of the prison so he can speak to a mental health clinician. Depending on that conversation, the inmate returns to the unit or he may go on “watch.” It’s become a very positive tool for inmates so that we can either vent or seek alternative solutions. Needless to say, the whole time I’ve been wrong, things have actually been hectic behind the scenes here. I guess amid the crisis chaos reigns supreme.
I don’t think prisoners as a whole are a naive bunch. We’ve become accustomed to being told one thing and getting another. So, I think it’s fair to say no one was surprised that we’re STILL locked in. One thing is certain, a lot of prisoners are venting their frustration to the staff when they walk by. None of the prisoners agree with the logic behind keeping us on a 30-minute tier time schedule. The math is obvious, the reasonable middle ground alternative is to let 10 guys out for an hour a day.
The frustration is slowly building. One prisoner vented to his mother about being locked down longer, so she called the facility out of concern for his safety. He’s now being told by mental health they want to put him on suicide watch and he’s livid!
I share in the feeling of anxiety. The cell feels stuffy and cramped. The only respite comes when they open the food trap on the cell door. It’s about a one-foot by three-inch slot with a locked door that swings down so they can pass you a meal tray. Whenever they open it at meal time it gives the illusion that the cell has opened up. You can feel the air flow in the cell change. Opening it allows the air to move more freely. Similar to what a casino does. Every few hours they turn on the air flow and it revives people.
It gives you the sensation of the cell being bigger than it is.
They just opened mine and I passed some food to my neighbor. The guard scolded me and promptly shut the trap. I proceeded to yell at him out of sheer frustration over this lockdown and his ridiculously asinine reaction. My irritation is building. It’s times like this when I wish I was naive enough to believe this will all be over tomorrow.
Today was so quiet. I barely heard anyone even talk. Come think of it, even when I came out for tier time the guys who were out with us barely spoke.
As for myself, I spent the day reading religious literature that the prison’s Catholic deacon prepares for us from his home. He emails it to the Director Of Treatment who then forwards it to us.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not walking the path to sainthood anytime soon but I’m inspired to do more. Unfortunately, none of this is recognized by the parole board. Which is a shame. For whatever reason they don’t feel religious participation is an accurate barometer of a person’s rehabilitation. They would rather more scientific and analytic programs be utilized. Which is fine because I do them too. But it really is a shame religion doesn’t get its fair shake. It is because of my faith that I am who I am today.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter because whatever I do I do for me … and NOT the parole board. That probably isn’t a popular statement but it’s an accurate one. Everyday when I look in the mirror it’s me I have to see, it’s me I have to answer to, it’s me who has to ultimately answer to Him. If everything I did was to impress the board I would miss the lessons of the journey.
What do you do when you eat the same bland food over and over again? You make something different. During normal times the whole prison system follows a winter menu and a summer menu. Each has a three week cycle before it starts over. The goal is to serve the same food but not always on the same days. For example, hotdogs are always on Fridays, chilli on Sundays, and chop suey on Saturdays. But burgers and chicken stew are scattered about. The point is, it gets old quickly. To change it up, we sneak spices to the chow hall. Yes, “sneak.” If caught, they confiscate your spice. Some bring a bag and try to smuggle it back to the block. Again, if caught they take the food and may discipline you for “stealing.” Yes, stealing the food they gave you!
However, in a lockdown…it’s Hell’s Kitchen up in here. We’ll save the burgers and turn it into fajitas or pick out all the chicken from the stew and make a chicken stir fry (a reasonable facsimile of). That is about the only highlight of lockdowns. We can freely use the state food to create masterpieces.
Last Wednesday, in the unit across the hall, an inmate died of natural causes. Robert Dadja, a former Marine who served during the Bay of Pigs and had been in prison for 30 years. His health had been deteriorating long before this pandemic. His battles for getting medical treatment were epic and much like the Bay of Pigs was an utter failure. Only in death was he able to go beyond the ten-foot razor wire fence. Let’s hope he’s at peace.
Robert was wheelchair bound and in a medical single cell. Who knows if he struggled to get the attention of the guards. If someone’s incapacitated what could they do? When I lived with my best friend, William Barnoski, who was like a father to me, he always used to quip, “If I ever have a medical emergency, you better be in segregation when I get back from the hospital.” Meaning, I better break every rule possible in getting the guard’s attention so they can alert medical [staff]. As his cellmate it wasn’t hard for him let me know when he needed help but when we both moved side-by-side into single cells … that required a little creativity.
I took several empty ink tubes from the inside of BIC pens, curved them to go around corners and passed a thread through them. I then placed the tubes strategically about three feet up the wall and down along the base where the wall meets the floor, around the corners under both doors from his cell to mine. On his end of the string was a handle for him to pull and on my end of the string was an empty coffee cup. In the event of an emergency he would pull the string, the cup would lift up and fall to the floor with a loud clanging sound. I would wake up, run barefooted to the door and start mule-kicking it. It became known as our “Emergency Alarm.” He used it at least three times and once at 1am it saved his life.
We’ve officially reached the three-week mark. Calls to end this lockdown from the men in my block have subsided. I think the majority have settled in. Most prisoners, if not all, have done some form of solitary confinement during their incarceration. Believe it or not, getting through it is more mental than physical. Of course, it’s easier to rationalize when you’ve done something wrong. When it’s arbitrary your mind takes a little longer to process and settle in. Once you have, there’s no telling how long you go. The longest I’ve gone is two-and-a-half years with one hour of recreation, five days a week.
Still, there are days when you feel anxious and the walls are closing in but getting into a routine and exercising helps. In those two-and-a-half years, recreation was outside in a dog kennel. But I got to tire myself out, which made the remainder of the day in my cell bearable. In addition, showers and phone calls were at separate times: three showers a week, two phone calls a week. That’s not the case with this 30 minutes we’re out.
Everything has to be done during our recreation which is inside the unit. So, we may be feeling the effects physically but mentally we’re settling in. I know people on the outside feel confined and are filled with anxiety from being quarantined in their house. But if you get anything from reading this know that if an individual can overcome this isolation in a prison cell, you can do the same in a house or apartment that has no locked doors or limits on coming and going. Remember, conquering this is more mental than physical.
Yesterday, they quarantined an inmate from my unit. They have set aside several cells in the segregation blocks for those who show signs of COVID-19. What happens from there is a mystery. The commissioner did issue a posting advising us that the lockdown will continue and that it will be up to each facilities superintendent to ease restrictions. They also hired professional outside contractors to “clean” all hotspots in the facilities.
This afternoon they passed out disposable masks to every prisoner and told us we “must wear them whenever we leave the cell.” One guy asked, “How do you put this on?” Someone yelled, “You put one leg through the loop and your other leg through the other and wear it like a thong.”
Some of the high-risk prisoners are so concerned about getting COVID-19 that when they come out for recreation they take a shower and go back to their cell. They made homemade masks and won’t go anywhere else or deviate from that routine until it’s safe to do so. They communicate with their family via email on the tablet only. I’ve been asthmatic since childhood yet I don’t have the same fears others do. I wash my hands and refrain from touching surfaces which include my face. There’s not much else I can do other than to wear the mask and hope my legs fit inside those loops.
I can’t overstate how ridiculous some of this prison’s decisions have been during this crisis. Just before the lockdown they started with enforcing a rule that only 10 inmates were allowed in the library at one time, but they would call 180 inmates to the chow hall to eat meals together. Then came the absurd rule of having cellmates observe social distancing by sleeping with their heads at opposite ends of the bunk. When they initiated the lockdown, they cut off access to the kiosk during tier time because it’s a highly touched area, yet we can touch the phones, books, and showers all we want. Now comes letting extra inmates out of the cell without any increase in time. The longer these absurd rules continue I will have a bald spot on my head from scratching it so much.