I sat on the top bunk of my 8-by-10 cell, a 62-year-old man with heart disease, anemia, worried of possibly having cancer and with COVID-19 in the air. I was the definition of “vulnerable population.”
Yes, I am serving a life sentence here, but I don’t want to die.
The prison still wasn’t handing out masks or sanitizer. There was no social distancing. I ripped off some disinfectant from my jobsite in the metal shop and used it to wipe down my cell twice a day. I made my own mask out of material found in respirators used in the grinding room, until my brother told me the carbon fibers in it could cause lung damage. I made one out of cloth material. I did my best to avoid people. I stopped going to the chow hall, instead subsisting on canteen food I had in my cell: dehydrated beans and rice, potato chips and cheese, peanuts, oatmeal and raisins.
When the prison finally started to take the virus seriously, they shut down the visiting room, club activities, chapel services and all programs run by outside volunteers. They started providing masks but didn’t make wearing them mandatory. Most inmates didn’t wear them. Neither did most of the staff. They put spray bottles of disinfectant by the phones in the buildings but not yard phones. The rags provided were used again and again. The phones were elbows apart from each other, with few inmates wearing masks. Whenever I got off, I headed straight back to the cell, scrubbed my hands and face and climbed back on the bunk.
The first reported case at Oregon State Penitentiary was in April, an employee. He worked in the housing unit, so everyone was put under quarantine. The men in the unit were kept separate from the rest of the general population. They could not work, ate last and had separate yard periods. Although we were kept separated from the rest of the population, we were still allowed to mingle in the unit at the card tables, TV room, exercise area and crowd the phone booths. I still had to worry about my cellmate who didn’t take the virus seriously.
After the unit went into quarantine, the nurses began coming around asking people if they wanted to be tested for the virus. Everyone knew that if they were found positive, they would be sent to the segregation unit where all COVID cases from other institutions were being housed. I didn’t want to be tested for fear of the outcome but chose to because of my being one of the vulnerable population.
Ten of us took the test. We were told it would take three days for the results to return. For three days, I sweated the outcome. On the third day, the nurses came back into the unit and had individuals roll up their property. They were heading to the segregation unit. I was not one of them. But the virus was in the unit. The nurses came around asking people how they felt and if they wanted their temperature checked. At first, I had mine checked until I realized that if I were found with a temperature, I would be sent to the segregation unit. So I told them I was fine and didn’t need it checked and not to bother me anymore.
On Memorial Day, I started feeling sick. My chest hurt like I was having a heart attack. I had a pounding headache. My eyes burned, and I had a runny nose. I was worn out. I did not want to self-report, knowing the possible outcome. But the symptoms grew worse. I informed the block officer and was sent to medical. The nurse checked my vitals, which were normal. I figured I would be sent back to the unit. But instead I was put in isolation to be tested for the virus, where I would stay until the results came back. I asked if I could go back to my cell to get some of my property: toothbrush, toothpaste, coffee, canteen, a cup, address book and envelopes, TV to name a few.
The watch commander said “no.”
In the isolation cell, the lights were already off, but I could make out the wool blankets, and a one-inch plastic mattress on the concrete sleeping slab. The officer said there weren’t any pillows, so he gave me an extra blanket. I was so physically exhausted from months of trying to avoid the virus that I crawled on top of the plastic mattress, covered my head with the blankets and went to sleep.
At 5:30 am, the light above the concrete sleeping slab startled me awake. It was bright; I had no way to turn it off. I sat up on the edge of the slab and looked around the cell. The walls were covered with graffiti and dried food. There was a stainless steel toilet and sink encased in concrete and a roll of toilet paper and a paper cup.
The food slot tray opened. It contained a plastic bag with a bowl of cereal, hard boiled egg, a piece of coffee cake, two packets of sugar and coffee. Passing out the bags was Officer Ruby. I asked her if I could get the property from my cell and make a telephone call. She said she’d check into it. A few hours later, she was back passing out lunches. I asked again about my personal property and a phone call. She said she was working on the property, but there was only one phone in the unit. It was being used upstairs for those who tested positive for the virus, and they didn’t want to cross-contaminate it. Wipe the damn thing down, I replied.
A few minutes later, the captain showed up at my cell. “I hear you are giving my staff grief,” he said.
“Am I being punished? I asked.
“No you’re not,” he said.
“Then why can’t I get my personal property or make a phone call?”
He wanted to know if I had sent him an inmate communication requesting one. I laughed and said, “Do you see anything in here to write with?”
That evening I got a couple of books in the mail. Officer Ruby brought me a plastic cup, a toothbrush and baking soda. I distracted myself with reading until the lights went out.
The next day a cordless phone was brought to me and I was able to call my wife, Donna. That afternoon, an officer delivered five bags of property: food, a TV, books, clothes, a guitar, soap, shampoo and toothpaste.
The first morning in isolation, the COVID-19 test was administered. Every day afterward the nurse checked my temperature and asked how I was feeling. I was still sick, but refused to admit it. I just wanted out of isolation.
On the third day, a nurse and officer came on the tier with the results. They walked past my cell and told someone down the tier they were negative to roll up their property. They were being sent back to general population. A few hours later they were back. Again, they walked past my cell. Again they told someone else down the tier to roll up. Now I was sure I had the virus. A few minutes later, the officer came back by himself and said, “Jimmie, roll up.”
“Where am I going?” I asked.
“You’re going back to general population.”
I walked back to my unit determined to not go through this experience again. I am a 62-year-old man with heart disease, anemia, and a fear of cancer who is living in a COVID-19 petri dish.
But I am in my cell. I am home.
Jimmie, a lifer at Oregon State Penitentiary and a member of Lauren Kessler’s Lifers Writing Group, has been in prison for 40 years.