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I’ve Spent 35 Years in Prison. I Live Each Day Fearing Another Wave of COVID.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the poor conditions that I’ve experienced for 35 years in prison.

People display a banner reading "COVID BEHIND BARS = DEATH" during an outdoor protest against ongoing incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic, on June 19, 2021, in New York City.

Part of the Series

For me and many others in prison, COVID-19 has been an emotional roller coaster. The Delta variant wave is just one more ride. I made it through the first round, will I make it through this one?

I’m 53 years old and I’ve spent 35 years of life in prison. I’ve long since come to grips with the powerlessness that is every prisoner’s lot. But COVID has taken that powerlessness to another level.

Many of us don’t know if we are going to live long enough to finish our prison sentence no matter how short it is. The vaccine, for those of us who have gotten it, has reduced the risk of death drastically. Many haven’t gotten the vaccine due to lack of trust in the government. But I got it, because after what I have witnessed during the first wave, I felt it may be my only way to get out alive.

But that is not our only concern. An immediate concern now is how the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) is going to respond to the new wave of the pandemic and what policies they are going to enact this time. Throughout the pandemic and long before that, DOCCS has lost trust through its actions. The pandemic only gave more proof of how cruel the prison system is.

COVID Exacerbates Abuse and Neglect of Incarcerated People

In prison, our medical care is subpar to begin with during the best of times. Since the pandemic started it has gotten much worse. The State of New York has used COVID-19 as an excuse to take away our rights and privileges as well as to abuse and assault prisoners. The state also refuses to provide necessary medical care, including in my own case.

I myself had two issues that needed addressing when the pandemic hit: a sebaceous cyst that was pushing against a nerve in my neck and was scheduled to be removed, as well as a molar tooth that broke off at the root. When the pandemic started, all outside appointments were canceled. Over 18 months later, I still have not received treatment for either issue despite multiple requests. I deal with constant untreated nerve pain and chewing my food is extremely difficult and painful.

My story is far from unique. Many people I have talked to have had their medical issues sidelined since the pandemic began. Since the Spring of 2020, all outside medical appointments and only the most immediate emergencies were seen in the prison hospital.

I am known as a guy who writes about what occurs in prison, so people talk to me about what is happening. In addition to medical issues, I hear about physical abuse at the hands of guards, which has increased as well. Neglect and physical assaults of prisoners by guards in New York State has been the worst that I’ve seen in the four states I’ve done time in over the past four decades.

In recent years, these assaults and deaths by lack of medical treatment have led to lawsuits and news stories that have brought attention to the issue. For example, in 2015, Samuel Harrell was killed in Fishkill Correctional Facility by guards known as the “beat up squad.” And more recently, Layleen Polanco died at Rikers while in solitary confinement, after the jail’s failure to treat her medical condition.

The state has placed more cameras in the facilities and mandated that body cameras be worn by some officers. The problem is that the guards know where the cameras’ blind spots are and who is wearing a body camera. They are then able to abuse people out of sight of the cameras, and I have witnessed this several times.

And I have also experienced abuse. I have been relocated to many different facilities throughout the state. The medium-security facilities are worse than the maximum-security ones. There are many more blind spots.

The main “beat down” spot in Franklin Correctional Facility is in the back of a van they use to take you to the box (solitary confinement). The driver takes the long way, and the guards in the back dump you on the floor (while you are handcuffed behind the back) and proceed to “tune you up.” This can include knees, feet, elbows and fists applied to your face, head and torso.

When it happened to me, they pulled my legs out from under me so I landed hard face first, taking most of the fall on my shoulder (by ducking my head and twisting), and then they kicked me once in the kidneys and left me there.

Maybe it was the gray in my beard and possibly my white skin that got me off light. I have heard about and witnessed the results of much worse attacks. When I was in Upstate Correctional, a special housing unit/restrictive housing facility, they put a kid in the cell next to me who had both eyes closed and what looked like a broken nose. He screamed when he used the bathroom to urinate.

As bad as you think you have it these days, try experiencing this crisis from a position where you had very little control to begin with, then having that stripped away entirely. There’s an old saying in prison: Shit runs downhill, and prisoners are at the bottom of that hill. At no time has that been clearer than now.

While things have gotten better since the vaccine was offered, DOCCS has continued to deny people basic rights and privileges. For a long time, there were no regular visits from family and friends or “family reunion visits,” which are overnight trailer visits with partners and kids. These are crucial for families to stay connected. As of September 2021, DOCCS has reinstated family reunion visits. But as a result of not having these visits for a year and a half, people had much less contact with loved ones, and this has led to increased tension, violence and mental health-related incidents.

I am very concerned about what this new phase of COVID will bring. While the Delta variant is much less deadly for those who are vaccinated, we can still get very ill if we catch the virus. Add to that the fact that a large number of people in prison are not vaccinated, partly due to the mistrust generated by DOCCS since the pandemic began.

So we will see what the next round has in store. I’m not optimistic. Just like everyone else in the world, we wonder: Will it ever end? Will I survive? But in prison, we are even more powerless to protect ourselves, especially since COVID is only one of the threats we face. We also contend on a daily basis with abuse from correctional officers and lack of medical care. The pandemic has only exacerbated the poor conditions that I’ve experienced for 35 years in prison.


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