Comment: For a prisoner, protecting health is an infraction

A Muslim resident at the Monroe prison is penalized for making masks out of discarded material.

By Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald

Living in a 100-year-old prison with open-bar cell fronts and extremely poor ventilation is hard enough in normal times. With the advent of the covid-19 pandemic, incarcerated individuals, especially those with underlying health conditions, have been forced to take their health and safety into their own hands.

It hasn’t worked out well for everyone.

John James has been incarcerated in Washington state for 26 years and has spent the last two years at Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC). He is a devout Muslim, husband and the father of four children. He suffers from a variety of health issues including Crohn’s disease, which requires infusions of Remicade at a medical center in the community, outside of the prison complex. However, these treatments compromise his immune system, leaving him at tremendous risk of contracting the virus, which could be deadly if he were infected. And in the latest outbreak at MCC, he is one of the prisoners who has tested positive.

At the beginning of the pandemic, James was working in a shop rebuilding used wheelchairs which are donated to communities that suffer from devastating levels of poverty. This is a program many prisoners take great pride in because it allows them to give back to society while they are serving time. In the shop, excess material that cannot be used in refurbishing the wheelchairs is often thrown away. James has used some of these discarded scraps to create masks to protect himself from covid-19. He was not the only prisoner to do this, but he was the only prisoner reported to prison staff by another incarcerated worker. This information lead James to be fired from the shop and given three “major infractions.” Until that time, he had not had a “major infraction” in 12 years.

The infractions claimed James had stolen hundreds of dollars in material, yet the search of his cell only turned up a small handful of hand-made masks and pouches; clearly not worth hundreds of dollars. Additionally, the infraction report dramatically claimed, “We [were] unable to complete wheelchairs due to the shortage of material from offender James’ theft.” There is no way this is a true statement.

The guard writing the report included exaggerations and lies, including an accusation that James had “massive” amounts of food in his cell, using this to bolster a claim that he was trading stolen goods, or the masks he made from them, for food (for which he actually had receipts).

The hearing officer’s decision concluded the true value of the material was unknown and never mentioned the false claims of trading masks or materials for profit.

Another infraction accused James of possessing clothing or assigned equipment of a staff member. This claim derived from protective gear he was given on a recent medical transport trip by an EMT to protect himself while on his way to treatment at the outside medical facility.

When it came time for James to attend the disciplinary hearing, he thought he would be released from the major infractions. To his surprise, the hearing was nothing more than a staged procedure. He was denied witnesses and promptly found guilty on two of the three charges; one was reduced from a major infraction to a minor infraction.

Hoping for better luck on appeal, James was again met with disappointment. In the appeal, he informed the appeal’s officer of clear procedural violations that disregarded his due process rights during his original infraction hearing, violations that should have resulted in the dismissal of his infractions, but the decision was upheld.

In his own words, James told me he felt targeted, that he was the only prisoner to suffer such harsh consequences. “I was not the only one making masks to protect myself, so it’s hard to not think I may have been singled-out because I am a Black, Native, Muslim man.”

The more James tried to plead his case, the more he became a target for the state Department of Corrections.

James has been caught up in an appeal process that has lasted for months and resulted in countless punishments including: the loss of his job, earned good time (15 days), the loss of privileges (30 days) which consists of the ability to order from the commissary and the use of all personal property (such as a fan, cup, bowl, TV, etc). The sanctions just continue to be piled on.

And now, James has tested positive for covid-19 along with 115 other prisoners on his unit. He is currently in what is called “medical isolation,” but what is actually a cell meant to house a single person when they are put on the Intensive Management Unit (commonly called, “solitary confinement”), except he is in the cell with another covid-19 positive prisoner. One of them sleeps on the floor with their head near the toilet.

James has been helpless, frustrated and angry for months. Now, with an underlying condition that compromises his immune system, he is in grave danger. He and his family have spent too much time and energy fighting the whole process; time and energy that should have been spent protecting him from contracting a virus that could threaten his life.

James will now be forced to spend more time incarcerated and away from his family for doing nothing more than trying to protect himself while being an incarcerated Muslim of color in this country.

Christopher Blackwell is a writer incarcerated at the Monroe Correctional Complex for convictions of murder and robbery. He is to be released in 2045. He has written previously for The Marshall Project, Buzzfeed News, The Washington Post and The Herald. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWBlackwell.

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