Awkward Timing

Due to overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions, reports the Times, prisons and jails account for the highest concentrations of COVI-19 infections in the nation. In Tennessee the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center reported 1,284 cases of COVID. In Ohio the Marion Correctional Institution confirmed 2,439 cases. At the Oakdale facility in Louisiana where the first federal inmate death occurred, at least seven are prisoners have died from coronavirus.

Here in West Texas we've been fortunate. To date only four officers have tested positive for the virus, and no inmates have shown symptoms. Part of our good fortune is likely due to the Permian Basin's obscurity; Howard County's infection rate is relatively low compared to other parts of the state. Masks, temperature screenings, and social distancing between staff and inmates have played an even greater role in containing the virus.

Yet for all precautions taken some risks get overlooked, either because of carelessness or because addressing them would prove too difficult or impractical. Logistical oversights have allowed inmates quarantined in one dorm to cross paths and mingle with inmates from another dorm. Door handles and fingerprint scanners at the commissary aren't sanitized between shoppers, and purchases are passed directly from officer to inmate. Inmate food service workers living in separate buildings are made to work together in the kitchen, where inmate-staff interactions are most frequent.

To be fair, it's unreasonable to place blame squarely on the shoulders of the prison's staff. Rather it's the nature of an overcrowded prison system that has put incarcerated men and women at highest risk for contraction COVID-19 In jails and prisons across the country, infection rates are as much as seven times higher than that of the communities in which they reside. At regular intervals throughout the day, a friendly prerecorded PA announcement reminds us to wash our hands and to practice social distancing. But it's impossible for inmates to keep six feet apart when we're forced eat, sleep, and shit within four feet of each other.

Lately the public has grown weary of sheltering in place. The sense of urgency and immediacy that marked the beginning of the crisis has waned and the country, despite the overwhelming evident danger, has decided to reopen its doors. Here in West Texas the desert's obscurity, which thus far has shielded us from the ravaged cities and brunt of the virus, now encourages a dangerous false sense of security. I've noticed the change in the staff, the growing complacency. Officers frequently remove their masks when their superiors aren't around. Staff no longer practice social distancing and at mainline cluster comfortably in the building's shade. Temperature checks have all but stopped. Soap dispensers in the bathrooms go unreplenished. An officer unwittingly hands me her pen to sign a document.

More concerning is the increasing denial among the Republican majority staff. Mandatory masks infringe on our freedom! some have said. The Democrats are inciting panic in an effort to overthrow the election!

Ironically, I overheard the prison's head of Safety say to a colleague that wearing masks poses more harm than the virus itself. "I don't know," he said with a sigh. "I'm just not buying this whole COVID thing."

As attitudes relax and as dissension and misinformation spread, it's possible, even likely, that our good fortune may soon end.

A friend told me on the phone that the world has changed a great deal in the near decade I've been locked up. He wasn't just talking about the pandemic. He meant too the nation's growing political division. And he spoke of society's over reliance on technology, the increasing influence of social media, the repudiation of science and fact. "You'll be getting out at a very awkward time," he said.

As to prove the point, in April a black man in Minneapolis named George Floyd died after a violent confrontation with a white police officer, inciting protests and riots that would rage across the country for many months. Concerned that outside tensions might provoke violence within the prison system, the Bureau call for a mandatory lockdown of all federal prisons.

Of course most prisons across the nation were already at least partially on lockdown due to COVID-19, so the new restrictions didn't amount to much. What few recreational privileges anyone might have been enjoying were suspended. Many institutions revoked television privileges as well for fear that provocative scenes of looting and destruction might plant seeds of disobedience in the inmate consciousness (we could still follow coverage of the protests on the radio). The one amusing outcome of the lockdown was that with the prisoners confined to cell, pod, block, and dorm, inmate labor fell on the shoulders of staff, so that whatever resentment we might have felt for having our televisions and commissary taken away was mollified by seeing our captors grudgingly forced to wash inmates' laundry and prepare inmates' meals. After a week of pushing clothes bins and rolling greasy bologna, staff decided the lockdown wasn't very necessary, and we were sent back to work.

There was one allowance made during the week's-long confinement. The staff wasn't up for hauling 3,000 breakfast, lunch, and dinner sacks to the dorms in 100-degree heat, so they let us loose long enough to walk to the mess hall to pick up our meals ourselves. Guards swathed in riot gear stood the sidelines carrying rifles, but nobody cared. The sun and the stretch made us giddy. Men laughed. Someone cheered,"I can't breath!" Another, "Black lives matter!"

Filing through mainline I looked to the serving line and was taken by how different our captors looked in their new roles. Donning beard guards, hairnets, and gloves, armed not with rifles and pepper balls but with serving spoons and spatulas, they'd become inconsequential, drained of substance and authority. Was it me, or had it seemed they'd lost an inch of height? Had their complexions not grown darker, their features vague? They seemed less like our captors and more like inmates. Only after I'd inched to the front of the line did I recognize the no-name pulling chicken from the hot box as the prison's psychologist, the figure doling out green beans as the mail room officer.

At the end of the line someone handed me a soggy dinner bag. It was my Case Manager Ms Bynard. I asked her if my halfway house date had come through. She said it hadn't yet.

The cook said later, "it seems unreal, us leaving soon." Like me, the cook is also awaiting his halfway house date. In all likelihood we'll be released from prison within a few months of each other, him to the Seattle area to be near his son and daughter, me to Dallas.

Unreal? I nodded, though it didn't feel right. Incomprehensible seems the more appropriate word for when the world you've known for nearly a decade ceases spinning. In the prison library I watched a documentary that imagined different ways in which the the world might end. One scenario asked what would happen if the earth stopped dead in its orbit. Propelled by inertia, everything on the panel's surface—people, buildings, trees, rocks, oceans, even the atmosphere—would be blown into space like dandelion fluff. Such is how I imagine leaving prison to be. Everything I've know so abruptly and totally ended. Fences and razor wire. Locked doors and lockdowns, strip searches and shakedowns. Census counts and controlled movements. TV room and mess hall, pool hall and gym, chapel and track. The people I've known and the alliances I've made and the burdens we've shared. My job in the Officers' Mess. My carefully tailored routine. The profound loneliness and isolation. All of it obliterated with the true of a key, one step across a threshold. Steel, bone, and clay flicked clean into the other. And I wonder: Where does it all go? What, if anything, did it matter?

I came to prison nine years ago at the age of twenty-four. Guys said I looked so out of place. I was like a turd in a punch bowl. On my second day in prison an Aryan Brother followed me back to my cell, uninvited, and settled down beside me at the steel desk where I sat writing a letter to my family. He called himself John Wayne (Wayne was his middle name), and he said I had pretty teeth.

Taking a kind interest in this fresh young soul, John Wayne decided he would school me on the ways of prison. While I fiddled anxiously with my pencil he explained to me who ate where in the chow hall, who controlled which TV and who sat at which table in the day room.

"You'll do just fine," he cooed, before adding, "So long as you ain't a rat or mo." He looked at me. "You ain't a rat or mo, are you?"

"No," I said and tried to laugh.

He leaned in very close, licked his dry lips. He wasn't stupid. "Are you sure you ain't a rat or mo."

My grip on the underside of the table tightened. "I'm sure"

He sat back and grinned at the ceiling. "That's good. That's real good you ain't a rat or mo."

At the top of the hour when the PA clicked on and the ten-minute move was called, John Wayne stood and adjusted himself. I noticed a dark spot on the crotch of his shorts. He said he'd see me around, he had to go clean the come from his underwear. He asked if he might get a little kiss first before he left. I said maybe another time.

Later that week I called my father and instructed him to doctor paperwork that would fool John Wayne and the other white boys into believing my crime was computer fraud. I still keep the forged document in my locker, though I've never needed it here in low-security custody.

In the over three years I spent in Mississippi at the medium-security prison, the only time I ever felt safe was at evening's end when we were locked in our cells for the ten PM census count. Hearing that lock click meant I'd survived another day, that for the next nine hours I wouldn't have to worry about being beaten, stabbed, or possibly killed for being a "mo." Many nights I stayed up reading into the early morning thinking it better to enjoy those precious hours than waste them on unaccounted sleep.

Even here in lower-security custody the treat of violence is never absent. It persists as white noise in the back of every man's mind. Only occasionally do we become conscious of it when at night after lights out the volume is suddenly cranked to 100 and one hears in the darkness the wallop of locks and boots on bone and flesh. Then the danger becomes real again, and what scares me most, what makes me feel most small, is realizing I'd almost let my guard down.

What's most incomprehensible about releasing from prison will be the abrupt absence of that decade-long fear. In a few months or perhaps weeks the bullets, unimaginably, will cease, the sky will hold, the earth will settle. I will crawl from this foxhole. I imagine then that with the balloon-shaped hollow left behind when the terror leaves, I might float, not walk, out of prison.