Florida Update From The Inside: Life in a Post-COVID-19 Hot Spot Prison
Over my 32 years of incarceration, there have been some situations that made me fear for my personal safety. Most of those situations were due to being in extremely violent prisons. Being at a “sweet prison” for the last 7.5 years, my only real concern has been the arrival of flu season.
In the first six years at this prison, I caught the flu or some other severe cold bug. Two things contributed to this: I live in an open-bay dorm with 91 other men, with three of them only three feet away on either side and at the head of my bunk; and there is a huge chicken farm across the street that seems to blow viruses and other sicknesses our way.
I didn’t get sick over the 2019-20 winter. That is until COVID-19 hit my prison.
As COVID-19 started to make headlines, I wasn’t really concerned, but then it was declared a global epidemic. The reports about how easy it was to contract and its lethality caused me to become very concerned. In mid-March, the Florida Department of Corrections announced only staff members were allowed to enter the prisons. That made me feel a bit safer.
It was a fleeting feeling. In the last week of March, two prisoners in my dorm became very ill. The first positive case of COVID-19 here at Sumter Correctional Institution came on April 8, and the entire compound went on medical quarantine. That lasted almost two months. In the interim, about 30 prisoners from my dorm were placed in another dorm because they either exhibited COVID symptoms or had a positive test result. We had 104 positive cases and three deaths here over that period. At least four men out of my dorm went to the hospital, and two of them said they are fortunate to be alive after being placed on respirators.
At one point, 10 prisoners were randomly tested in my dorm. Of them, one refused, one was negative, and eight were positive. Astonishingly, no further random testing was conducted in the dorm. We estimate that 90% of us had some type of symptoms, myself included.
During the quarantine phase, we received one hour of recreation twice daily, and our meals and canteen orders were brought to us. With the heat of summer, it became a rough time. Mask wearing became mandatory unless you’re sleeping, eating or showering. A mask is now considered part of our uniform.
When we went to phase two after several months without a positive case, groups of nine were permitted to go to chapel, library and education.
We were then allowed one dorm at a time to chow, but seating has been limited to two prisoners per table. What a relief it was to get out of the area. We continue, as of September 13 on this phase, but they have been relaxing things a bit because we have gone over four months without a new case here.
The roughest part of this situation, besides being confined to the dorm area, has been the isolation from outside contact. Oh, we have been provided a free phone call and two email stamps each week, but there is no contact with anyone except other prisoners and guards. I took advantage of the blessing of communing with chapel volunteers and the occasional visit from my family. The last six months have been like being in confinement in many aspects.
It was announced on September 11 that visits will resume on October 2, 2020. We heard it on the news, but we have not been provided official information. Nothing has changed otherwise around here. We just keep on keeping on. Doing time has always been about staying strong mentally to cope with the isolation from society and family. You learn to be a survivor or you become a victim.
That was evident around me. We all became germophobes, and I saw more hand washing in the last few months than I’d ever seen. The dorm is now cleaner. I must give credit to the staff here. They really did a stellar job under unprecedented circumstances.
Now we look forward to the future. Whether things have become pandemic normal or the new normal is the question. Restricting movement and activities even further than before will make counting time even harder than it normally is. Warehousing of humans is what these places are all about, and when you enforce idleness, it has negative effects on those prisoners who obtain release.
I can’t help but wonder, is this currently playing out in society? I don’t believe it is a coincidence that violence and protests have flared following the pandemic being declared. Sure, there were police-related events that precipitated the events, but how much can be attributed to idle, angry people looking for a way to vent and rally for a just cause? One thing I’ve learned over the last three decades is that idleness causes minds to turn inward, and the result is often explosive.
So, I pray for a return to normalcy as I sit in what once was a COVID-19 hot spot prison. I hope that out of the trying circumstances and isolated lives we’ve lived in the last six months, we all learn to be more understanding and loving.