Commentary: When you are cellmates with a pandemic

Monroe complex prisoners are finding themselves trapped between the virus and state budget cuts.

By Christopher Blackwell / For The Herald

As I sit in my small 6-by-9 cell watching my 15-inch TV, I am disheartened by how politicized the move to reopen the country has become. Kids are going back to school, colleges are encouraging students to return to campus, and entertainment sectors like restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, and casinos are beginning to reopen. All I can do is sit in amazement, wondering if a vaccine has somehow been distributed without my knowledge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and top doctors like Dr. Anthony Faucci are predicting a devastating rise in covid-19 cases in the United States during the fall and winter, with deaths expected to reach the 400,000 mark by this January. As a prisoner who relies on the Washington state Department of Corrections to protect me and those incarcerated with me from the virus, I do not like what I am seeing.

The prison administration at Monroe Correctional Complex has started to scale back the small protections they had put in place during the previous few months. Unit porters — prisoners paid a mere $55 a month to clean our common spaces — are being cut in an attempt to save the Department of Corrections pennies during a purge of the statewide budget demanded by Gov. Jay Inslee. These porters are the one small protection we have in keeping common areas, communal phones, showers and recreational facilities clean. Cutting such positions will leave prisoners vulnerable to an unforgiving virus and offer little if any relief to the Department of Corrections’ overall budget, yet these positions are the first to go.

One of the prison porters who was recently informed he would be losing his job was told by a guard, “the covid s*** is done, and there is no need to have all these extra porters walking around.” Comments like this leave prisoners baffled and concerned for our safety. Our health is falling victim to political views by guards and administrators, most of whom are supporters or President Trump and still doubt the virus is anything different than the common flu, regardless of the 200,000 lost lives in the US to date.

Even biweekly safety meetings held by administration with guards have become nothing more than “whining” sessions. Guards highlight simple protective measures like prisoners being able to cover small portions of open bar cell fronts — meant to offer us protection from respiration droplets in the air — though these measures are inadequate at best and useless at worst. The lack of true concern for our very precarious situation and refusal to acknowledge science or common sense, is yet another way the system displays its power over the oppressed.

Unlike people in the free world, prisoners do not have a home in which they can seek refuge from the poor choices of others during a pandemic. Our free will to protect ourselves has been stripped and left up to the prison administrators and guards and what they feel is in our best interest. Their decisions are often not in line with what would protect our actual health and safety. Prisoners can do no more than sit by and simply hope the virus spares us.

It is important to note that measures to protect prisoners and cutbacks that are sure to harm us are not carried out uniformly. Some Department of Corrections rehabilitation programs have been reinstated (without them, the agency loses funding), but when prisoners and their loved ones ask for reinstatement of auxiliary programs we value and contact visits with those on the outside, we are told those programs cannot be reinstated because the department cannot risk our health. If they were truly concerned about our safety, they wouldn’t cut our porters, would provide us with alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and would implement social distancing rather than doubling cells and continuing to transfer prisoners around the state from prison to prison.

If the Department of Corrections continues to cut corners, pinch pennies and follow foolish political ideologies, the population within its prisons will surely fall victim to the second wave of the virus. With little to no oversight and a focus on budgetary concerns, what is done to protect prisoners’ safety will remain a second thought. They may not have known better the first time, but they won’t be able to say that now.

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 and Buzzfeed News. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisWBlackwell.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary gave an incorrect Twitter address for Christopher Blackwell. The address is now correct.

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