Prison in the Virus Time
I must begin these notes by sending out my love, well wishes, and support to those who have lost a loved one or friend. Please know that I care deeply for all of you.
I LOVE New York!
By now most of you who are regular readers of the Brooklyn Rail know a little about me and my prison abolitionist politics. I am an imprisoned journalist and activist, currently housed at a high security US penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana. United States Penitentiary Pollock is located in close proximity to Alexandria, Louisiana. We are approximately 50 miles from another federal prison, FCI Oakdale, which has been plagued by COVID-19. I have reported extensively on the deaths and infections at FCI Oakdale in the hope that the US government will take immediate action to free those most vulnerable to contracting this deadly virus.
Thus far we have been virus-free here at USP Pollock. This has something to do with the architectural design of the unit. However, it also has a lot to do with the way our warden, Chris McConnell, has responded to the pandemic. Warden McConnell has impressed upon his staff the importance that they submit to daily screenings for COVID-19 symptoms prior to entering the prison complex. He told me personally that if an officer even feels sick he does not want them to report—period. Aggressive screening, cleaning, and social distancing have been embraced by both prisoners and staff at USP Pollock. As a result we continue to enjoy a virus-free environment. But all is not well here.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, USP Pollock was on regular lockdowns due to pervasive violence. Nothing has changed in this regard; in fact, it’s getting worse. If I don’t get COVID-19, I could easily get caught up in the violence. You can just be minding your own business and get stabbed up here. That is the harsh reality of life in a federal prison.
Many people throughout the United States and the world have become very familiar with the terms “social distancing” and “lockdown.” I personally have been incarcerated for 13 years straight. Since arriving in federal custody in August 2019 I have not received one visit from anyone, and very rarely has the prison been up and running consistently for more than a week. For prisoners in Amerika, social distancing is a way of life. Imagine decades trapped in a cage: no sunlight, no hugs, and no love.
I now would like to take you inside this federal prison and provide you with a glimpse of what life is like for us amidst this global pandemic.
There are approximately 11 open housing units in USP Pollock. The Segregated Housing Unit (SHU) makes it 12. There are three buildings housing prisoners in general population: A, B, and C, with four units in each building. I live in B-Building. A housing unit consists of 64 cells split between a top and a bottom tier. The cells are made to be occupied by two human beings. So at full capacity the unit can house 128 men. A cell is about 9 feet by 12 feet, with a sink, a toilet, two lockers, two plastic chairs, a small metal table, and bunk beds. This makes for a cramped existence, especially when you stay locked up as much as we do here at USP Pollock.
I failed to mention that we do have a window in our cells. We can clearly see the sky, the grass, some trees, and the birds. I often wish that I was a bird, so I could fly free of this horrible place.
In order to comply with Center for Disease Control guidelines, the Bureau of Prisons implemented protective measures. From March 13 until May 18, USP Pollock officials instituted a policy under which only eight cells, with 16 men, were allowed on the bottom tier. We prisoners call the bottom tier “the flats.” Three times a week, eight cells were open for two hours. During these two hours of out-of-cell time we must shower, use the phone to call loved ones, or use the computer to send and receive emails. Two hours every second day is not much time at all.
I must admit it is easy to social distance when there are only eight cells let out at a time. The reason why FCI Oakdale, FCI Elkton, FCI Terminal Island, FMC Fort Worth, and FCI Butner have been ravaged by COVID-19 is that in those places prisoners are stacked on top of each other like sardines. If only one prisoner or staff member becomes infected the entire population is vulnerable.
For literally months we have been trapped inside this prison unit at USP Pollock with absolutely no opportunity to go outside. All meals are served to us in a slot in our cell doors. Human beings do need exposure to natural sunlight and we also need fresh air. These are human needs. At times our minders seem to forget that we are human.
On May 18 we were offered a change from the “normal” routine. We are now provided the opportunity to go outside for up to two hours on the days we are allowed out of our cells. The schedule alternates. As I understand it, 16 cells will be given 2 hours a day outside of our cells. This is a departure from the 8 cells every other day schedule that we followed for over two months with no outside time.
Personally, I am thankful for the small things. This time in federal prison has been a really bad experience. For years in Texas and now here in Louisiana I have been denied access to a phone, email, fresh air, and sunlight. I now think about the long-term effects of such social and natural deprivation. We are expected to go outside, shower, use the phone, and check emails all within a two-hour period, then back in our cells! Talk about multi-tasking.
I have been wondering why they do not allocate separate time periods for outside and another period for phone, email, and showers. Truthfully, it may be a combination of things: security concerns, health and safety issues, staffing shortages…There are many complex dynamics at play that the prison administration must take into consideration. Things are not always as easy to solve as they may seem.
Remember—they give us four phones for 128 people. Black and Brown people are disproportionately represented inside these prisons. COVID-19 is also killing our people at an alarming rate. This is a stressful environment. Men have stabbed each other over phone access! Does anyone hear me?
An issue that has revealed itself here at USP Pollock and throughout the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is the fact that the BOP only tests those who are symptomatic for COVID-19. That means that if you do not have a fever, congestion, or a dry cough you do not get tested. I have constantly presented the prison administration here with the issue: How does the BOP address the threat posed by staff and prisoners who are asymptomatic? They present no symptoms but are spreading the virus. So far the BOP has ignored me.
The messaging coming out of the White House has been ambiguous to say the least. One minute we hear how many COVID-19 tests are available. The next minute Trump is saying that testing is not that important. Then Trump’s personal military valet gets infected, then Mike Pence’s press secretary, and then Ivanka Trump’s personal assistant! Now the entire West Wing must get tested daily! It is May 11, 2020, and still no COVID-19 testing is available for those who want it at USP Pollock. Why is that?
On or around March 23, 2020 I was informed about the first federal prisoner who died from COVID-19. His name was Patrick Jones. Patrick was 49 years old and housed at FCI Oakdale, just a few miles down the road from where I am housed here at USP Pollock. As the virus tore through FCI Oakdale I began crafting urgent updates in an attempt to attract help for our imprisoned comrades. With the help of my sister in struggle Mary Ratcliff, the editor of the San Francisco Bay View—National Black Newspaper, I was able to have my updates posted on the Bay View website for all to see.
Amidst this pandemic, my focus has been on strongly encouraging the US Department of Justice to release to home confinement the elderly, infirm, and those with pre-existing conditions that make them especially vulnerable to contracting this deadly virus. My thinking on this: If I don’t fight for the lives of prisoners, who will? Anthony Fauci? Deborah Birx? There are not many prisoners in Amerika with a platform and a “voice” that is respected, heard, or even listened to. As I do, I know that I have a duty to fulfill: to provide a voice for the voiceless. I am not unique, however; there are others who have the ability to articulate the nature of the wrongs to which we are routinely subjected. It takes courage to speak truth to power. Not every prisoner can stand up to the retaliation and abuse. I am a witness!
Some of you may have heard about the CARES Act. This law contains provisions that grant the Federal Bureau of Prisons the authority to release prisoners, especially those at risk of contracting the virus. The BOP has been slow in implementing these new policies giving the Bureau authority to release prisoners to home confinement. As a result of the BOP’s lackluster response, precious lives have been lost. Infection rates are rising and so are deaths. Prisons and jails are just as much hotbeds for this virus as nursing homes. However, the mainstream corporate-owned media, such as CNN and Fox News, minimize and devalue the lives of prisoners by providing very little if any coverage of the cruel, unusual, and inhumane conditions inside Amerika’s world-leading prison-industrial complex.
I would like to tell you about a federal prisoner named Andrea Circle Bear. Please say her name: Andrea Circle Bear! She was serving a 26-month federal sentence at Federal Medical Center (FMC) Carswell, located in Texas near Fort Worth. Andrea was pregnant when she was diagnosed with COVID-19. On March 31 Andrea was placed on a ventilator. The next day, April 1, 2020, Andrea’s baby was delivered by C-section. Sadly, on April 28, 2020, our sister Andrea Circle Bear died.
Andrea’s death and the inability of the BOP to release her in a timely manner provide a case in point that clearly illuminates the fact that prisoners’ lives simply do not matter to US Attorney General William Barr. As of May 7, there were approximately 2,000 federal prisoners infected by COVID-19. This has been spread over 51 facilities. Shockingly, over 70% of all COVID-19 infections in the federal system have been at FCI Terminal Island in California and FCI Butner, located in North Carolina. Approximately 40 prisoners inside BOP facilities have died of COVID-19. I’m sure by the time this essay goes to print those numbers will have greatly increased.
Here at USP Pollock, as I said, we are still free of the coronavirus. The prisoners here wear masks and we practice social distancing, especially in relation to the BOP employees who come and go daily. Correctional officers present the greatest threat of spreading the virus to otherwise healthy prisoners. With this in mind, I plead with all human beings reading these words to contact the US Department of Justice and encourage William Barr to release all elderly and infirm federal prisoners now!
I want to remind all of you that I am not a prison reformist. I am a prison abolitionist. I have comrades in Brooklyn, members of the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (RAM), who continue to support my work and stand in solidarity with me. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee continues to be at the forefront of the prisoner human rights movement. The National Lawyers Guild and Amani Sawari of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak have provided much needed legal and media support for oppressed prisoners across the United States.
Sisters and brothers, I have been keeping a secret which I am now prepared to share with you: In mid-April I was informed by my case manager here at USP Pollock that I have been approved for placement at a federal residential re-entry center. That is a fancy term for “halfway house.” My halfway house release date is in early September 2020! San Francisco, here I come.
I will be working alongside Mary Ratcliff at the Bay View. In time her plan is for me to eventually assume the Chief Editor position in order to carry on the legacy of our nationally known Black newspaper. Sisters and brothers, I don’t have clothing, glasses, or a bike to ride, but I do have my health and a tremendous will to succeed. I also have a beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate life partner and soulmate. Her name is Nube Brown, and we are preparing to serve the people and enjoy the rest of our lives together.
I want to thank Field Notes editor Paul Mattick, editor Charlie Schultz, and publisher Phong Bui for providing me with the opportunity to share my experiences with the Brooklyn Rail family.
But most important, I want to again bring to your attention the numerous elders who are trapped inside US prisons and jails. There are two specific prisoners in New York who deserve our support. Help me advocate for the freedom of respected elders David Gilbert and Jalil Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom).
On August 21, our Solidarity Actions for the Prisoner Human Rights Movement will begin. Collectively we can change this world. My comrade and friend Jason Lydon always would remind me that “Once there were no prisons; one day that time will return.”
Rest in power, Andrea Circle Bear.
Rest in power, Ahman Aubrey.
Your lives mattered.
Dare to Struggle, dare to win. All power to the people!