COVID Status: Code Red – Report from a Prison Cell

by Daniel A. Rosen |

I’m an inmate at the Greensville Correctional Center in southern Virginia, the state’s largest prison with over 3,000 inmates. Until now, we’d been spared much of the chaos engulfing other prisons – no inmates were reported positive for COVID-19 and only a handful of guards had been confirmed cases. All that was about to change.

On Thursday, May 21st, everyone was finally tested for COVID-19 by the National Guard. On Friday night, May 22nd we went on full “Code Red” lockdown, because testing had at last turned up some cases here.

Now, as any inmate will tell you, there are ‘lockdowns’ and then there are no-kidding, full-blown lockdowns. We’re now clearly in the latter category. In fact, we’d been on a sort of modified lockdown status for about 75 days prior to this new situation.

Since early March, the modified lockdown meant that virtually all classes, programs and non-essential work were shut down. Visitation was cancelled, and outside volunteers no longer allowed. The chow hall was closed and meals were served in cells. Outdoor recreation was curtailed to just a few hours a week, and we were restricted to cells for all but a few hours a day. Workers in the housing units started cleaning constantly. Any mixing of inmates between pods was basically eliminated.

These changes were unwelcome and there was some grumbling, but for the most part we understood they were necessary to protect us – and surprisingly, they seemed to be working. We heard rumors of sick inmates being pulled out of their housing pods, but never any confirmed cases. We hoped it would last a few months and then we could all get back to our normal prison routine. We marveled at our having escaped the fate of other compounds in Virginia – especially dormitory-style facilities – where ten percent or more of the inmates had gotten sick. We waited to see if the other shoe would drop.

Well, it didn’t just gently drop – it came down hard, and the noise it made was that of a cell door slamming shut. The early word was that two cases were found once they tested, then it was five cases in a pod upstairs. The latest rumor is that over a hundred people are sick in another building; it’s tough to get facts here. DOC updates the number of positive cases daily on their website, by facility, but we have no access to the internet. And since we’re locked in our cells full-time, the phones and email kiosk are off-limits.

My cellmate asked me the other day, “How long have we been locked down now? A week?” I just looked at him and shook my head, as is often the case. “Uh…it’s been a day and a half,” I had to burst his bubble.

A full lockdown isn’t easy, especially if you have a cellmate. Those lucky enough to have single cells have it a bit better. I know people out there have been stuck at home with family (or alone) these last few months, and that’s fraught too. But sharing 60 square feet 24/7 with a stranger, when that space includes your bathroom, is no picnic. When one of us has to defecate, we tack up a sheet across the middle of the cell, crank up the fan, and get through it. Once every three days they’re required to let us out to shower, and you savor those 15 minutes for all they’re worth.

Two inmate ‘housemen’ are allowed out of their cells to clean up, pass out supplies, help serve meals, and get ice or water for those of us behind our doors. They’re good people to keep on your side, and I’ve seen housemen elsewhere take advantage of inmates’ needs to charge fees for small favors – hot water for coffee or a message delivered to another cell.

Right now, I’m just grateful to have some books and a television, and enough commissary items in my box to augment the often-inedible meals. I have letters to answer and other writing to do, and can find ways to use this downtime productively. Others like my cellmate have little to keep them engaged and will try to sleep away the time until the doors open again. Everyone figures we’ll be on this full lockdown for at least two weeks, if not longer.

I saw on the local news yesterday that over 1000 inmates in the Virginia prison system have been infected and six have died. I doubt any of those six were sentenced to death by a judge.

Those six families are likely wondering whether the VADOC did everything possible to keep inmates safe. I’d say the powers-that-be at this facility have done a reasonable job under difficult circumstances, at least so far. It’s easy to complain that they’ve gone overboard in their caution, that our rights are being trampled, that this full lockdown isn’t necessary.

Denying us phone and email access or daily showers certainly seems like overkill. After all, people want to stay in touch with loved ones out there, and staying clean is important. But there are too many vulnerable people here at enhanced risk if the virus spreads. The three riskiest underlying co-morbid conditions – high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity – are common in prison. This is especially true at places like Greensville which house long-term offenders, many of whom are older and have been in the system for decades.

Besides locking us down, the most effective thing VADOC could have done to reduce the spread of the virus was thin out our ranks. To that end, the Assembly gave DOC authority to release a couple thousand inmates who were deemed no threat to the community. Only a couple hundred early releases have been approved so far. Given the number here of probation violators, the very elderly, those going home shortly anyway – it’s hard to fathom why more haven’t left.

The virus is in here now, the illusory safety bubble has burst. All we can do is wait for this to be over from behind our doors, and hope for the best. Or at least hope that no one in this unit gets sick, and our loved ones out there stay safe. We will make it through this, whatever color they code this pandemic.

[Editor’s note: 233 inmates and 43 staff at Greensville Correctional Center have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.]

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