Pandemics and Prisons

by Kenneth West

Human beings thrive on being in control. We like to feel we’re in complete control of our lives, destinies and fates. We do this in a million different ways both consciously and unconsciously, by choosing what we wear, where we work, the places we go, who we love, cars we drive or don’t. However, if we are honest we know that our sense of control is more illusion than reality. As we all know someone who took care of themselves but got sick, or who is a great person yet still ended up in divorce court, or who passed in any number or senseless tragedies. But we persist in our sense of control because we’re human and it’s seemingly in our nature to do so.

Being in prison relieves one of this illusion. In here other people and arcane politicians dictate the minute details of everday existence. Such as what time you shower, eat, go outside, congregate, worship, even relieve yourself (depending on how long it takes the CO to let you in your cell to do so).

For those reasons when the Covid-19 Pandemic first appeared on the horizon back in 2019, many of us who are trapped inside the prison system weren’t very hopeful for what it would do once it got inside – and not if but when.

As prisons are enclaves of inhumanity surrounded by the hustle and bustle of modern society, physically isolated from, but engaged in constant intercourse with society.

Add that to the fact that there is no such thing as social distancing in prison. When the United States began its social control system, known as mass-incarceration, prisons were designed and built to warehouse human beings as cheaply and efficiently as possible. As a result everything is communal: I shower with fifty to sixty other men at a time, and eat in a cafeteria with another hundred or more men three times a day. The 9×6 foot cell I have to share with another man is less than a foot away from the neighboring cell that houses two other men on both the left and right. Each cell block/living area is made up of twenty to thirty cells on four rows called tiers. If a guy on two tier is sick, then several other guys in the area are likely to be as well. That’s how it has always been with common colds, the flu and other communal infections, so we had little reason to believe Covid would be any different.

On top of the infrastructure situation, are what I like to call the human factors. Prisons are staffed by people who are indifferent at best and downRIGHT callous at worst. Most men who have been incarcerated for any length of time know of other incarcerated men who have died from treatable illnesses that they wouldn’t have died from had they been free. Everything from stomach cancers mis-diagnosed as ulcers; stroke victims who didn’t make it to the hospital till thirty minutes after their stroke when it was too late to do anything; untreated infections. The list is endless.

Mixed with this common knowledge was the fear of this new virus Covid-19, with its menacing shape and scary spike proteins. Stories and rumors were rampant and most of us were glued to the TV and newspapers trying to glean what information we could. Being proactive, I had another prisoner sew me a face mask from a old therma top, that I started wearing. This was in April of 2019, before the prison system required all officers and inmates to wear face coverings. It was also the time when the dysfunctional Trump administration was chasing its tail, saying one thing one day and then changing it the next.

Here at this prison Covid exploded like a car bomb in May of 2019 and several hundred inmates tested positive, with many have to be hospitalized for breathing problems, and at least three men passed away. The first time they did mass testing my cell mate tested positive, and I tested negative. I found this strange, and didn’t understand how if Covid-19 was as infectious as we were being told, how was it that he had it and I didn’t. My cell mate was put in quarantine for ten days. Then two days after he returned they did another round of mass testing and this time I was positive. But unlike my cellie who had appeared asymptomatic, I was sick as a dog. I had every symptom with the exception of breathing problems for at least a solid week. After I recovered from the initial infection, it took me another month to completely feel like myself.

That was a year ago and because of the uncertainty from the medical community about how much protection natural immunity provides and for how long once recovered. I was eager to get vaccinated as my experience with Covid and incarceration was a extremely trying one that nearly turned my prison sentence into a death sentence. And while society at large appears to have gotten a partial grasp on the Covid-19 Pandemic, the same can’t be said for the prison system. As a result I have been writing the medical department, asking, demanding and pleading for a booster shot. While options exist out in society, in here they are get sick and potentially die, or get vaccinated as one’s best chance of survival and I chose to live.

published in Handout issue 7

Kenneth West is a incarcerated artist and writer from Houston. The author of 19 books, he has been incarcerated for two decades fighting a wrongful conviction. You can learn more about him here.