The pandemic view from inside Rush City

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Matthew Henry via Wunderstock

COVID- 19 has people staying away from each other out of fear of spreading and contracting the virus. It’s the right thing to do, but as a few researchers have pointed out there are some side effects that come with that: isolation, loneliness, and depression.

These are side effects of which those of us in prisons all across the world are quite familiar. As we watch and hear events unfold we go to a familiar place. For many of us, our sentence was a diagnosis and social distancing came with it: Our children were pulled away, women moved on, friends forgot us and family couldn’t bear the strain.

Staying connected to the outside world is a lifeline for some and a heartache for others. We search for ways to remain relevant in the minds of those from whom we were taken. We long for information about the communities we left so we can still feel included.

But on the flip side, our inability to help, to comfort and to participate, eats away at our hearts and plays a cruel trick on our minds. I go to my links to the outside: Minnesota Public Radio, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and family and friends, not with any specific expectations but just to see if I can find a place where I belong, a place where I’m represented and a place where I can be useful.

As social distancing goes on more of the free world actually begins to feel some of what those of us on the inside feel every waking day and every night as we fitfully settle in. Our visits have been taken away indefinitely, prison industry jobs are grinding to a halt, there are no religious services and we are all anticipating a lock-down any moment.

Today, prison officials notified us that a staff member in one Minnesota prison (Red Wing) and an inmate in another (Moose Lake) tested positive for COVID- 19. They didn’t tell us how they’re handling it.

I wonder how it will be dealt with once a staff member brings it to Rush City’s prison. Most likely they’ll punish us for it. Has anyone out there questioned what quarantining a prisoner would look like? I can tell you that, here in Rush City the only way to truly quarantine a prisoner is to put him in the segregation unit, which contains the only available single cells, and inadvertently subjects him to cruel and unusual punishment.

In this unit the cells are filthy, the bright fluorescent lights stay on from 5:50 am to 9:50 pm. At the end of the memo that was posted telling us about those cases of COVID- 19, prison officials reminded us to continue practicing social distancing.

So they want us to practice social distancing while forcing us to live in a tiny cell with different people who get moved in and out all the time, and while being forced to eat our meals in a dining hall where we’re forced to sit elbow to elbow?

It would be laughable except it’s not.

We’ve seen and heard about the conditions on Rikers Island, Angola and other prisons. And we realize that we are much better off than those brothers confined there, but we know too that we are all suffering.

What steps are being taken to minimize the damage this pandemic will have in the Minnesota prison system? Two weeks ago, COs passed out tiny bars of soap and a few days ago several hand sanitizing pumps were mounted on the walls outside of our units. The ombudsman for corrections, Mark Haase, pointed out in a letter to the governor last week that not enough is being done proactively to fight this pandemic.

People with 90 days or less should be getting released, all technical parole violators should be getting released and the sick and elderly should be getting released. This would immediately relieve the already understaffed prisons and make room for double bunks to be removed and for the DOC to start implementing some of the recommendations recently made by the Office of Legislative Audits.

Will the DOC get ahead of this pandemic or will it be another case of waiting until the problem is already out of control?

Antonio Williams currently resides at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Rush City.