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"Now I'm Stuck in Here": Mass incarceration and Coronavirus

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By Matthew Vernon Whalan

For several months, I've been writing an oral history on mass incarceration, poverty, and racism in Alabama. In the weeks and months before and during the spread of Coronavirus increasingly changing life and death for everyone, I spend much of each day interviewing, corresponding with, and listening to the life stories of the individuals (and friends and family of the individuals) who live in the country's worst, most deprived, abusive environment and institution of the era: American prison.

I also interview employees, volunteers, activists, lawyers, ministers, and others connected to prison-life.

Starting between February 11th and February 18th, 2020, inmate sources in Holman prison tell me inmates there are rapidly becoming sick, and soon after, that the majority of them "on all eight tiers of the prison" are sick during that week. From early February until now, several sources in Alabama prisons correspond and interview with me about life behind bars on the front-lines during the past couple months. Correspondence and interviews are ongoing following this writing. Inmate-sources for these stories communicate with me on the condition of confidentiality.

During that week in February from the 11th to the 18th, an inmate who does unpaid labor in Holman is working constantly because each tier only has "one to two hall-runners" (inmates who pass out food trays, along with other tasks), while on a normal week they have five to six hall-runners, he tells me. He says a large majority of inmates were sick that week in February, that in the more than 15 years he's lived there, he's never seen so many inmates sick at the same time in Holman as from the 11th to the 18th of February -- surprising, given Holman prison's poor reputation on living conditions and healthcare. I refer to this source as X in this and subsequent stories.

X is lucky not to get sick that week from the 11th to the 18th of February, he says, but because he is well, he works so often and so hard that the work makes him "exhausted, mentally and physically" by the 18th.

He says as early as that February week, Holman is already experiencing glove shortages. Holman normally "gives gloves to the hall-runners," but, he says, "sometimes the gloves have been in shortage" recently, and "before guys in here got the Coronavirus, there was always plenty of gloves before that." (X and other inmates believe coronavirus first hit the Holman population around the week from Feb. 11th to Feb. 18th, 2020.)

Paid employees, X says, "wear gloves when they pass out trays and stuff but they don't wear gloves all day." X is careful to wear gloves when working the hall, especially when passing out food. But recently, in early March, during "a shortage of gloves" in Holman, X continues, "I had to share the gloves I had with one of the runners on another tier that had to share some gloves with me." He and the inmate he has to share with did their best to use the gloves only when passing out food trays, remove them right afterward, and wash their hands when possible, about a 30-minute process in total each time, he says.

As of this writing, inmates believe the glove shortage is still a problem. X has never seen so many people sick in Holman simultaneously. In well over a decade of life there, he "can't remember seeing anything like" the things he saw in the week from the 11th to the 18th of February, 2020.

"They've had the flu bug here before but this was worse than that," he explains. "This right here, 75 percent of everybody on every tier had that virus. That's an estimation because I was able to go in other tiers and see other guys. 75 percent on every tier was sick. Every tier maybe had one or two hall-runners."

Average months, tiers have five or six hall-runners, X continues, but that week in February "it was just one or two hall-runners that was able to work the hall. It impacted the main hall-runners because some of the guys got so sick [that the main hall-runners they had to work double shifts. Some of them main hall-runners [had] to work all day and all night." "Hall-runners" in Holman are unpaid laborers who often work alongside paid employees.

X has been a hall-runner in Holman for over ten years, working twice a week. His shifts were eight hours a day for the first six to eight years of the job. Starting "about four years ago," he says, his shifts became 16 hours-long each. X says he works more than other inmates and always has. Just days before our most recent interview-correspondence (early April, 2020), he says, new rules were instituted preventing prisoners from working more than eight hours, so X's shifts are back down to eight hours a day as of the past week or so before this writing. X says he works the hall more than most inmates, always has and always will value and enjoy his work a great deal, sees it as a "platform for kindness," as he once put it, a way to create a sense of community, and a "chance to witness and share the gospel." But that week in February, 2020, was different, he says.

"You've got to understand something," X continues, "I think too many times, when you have somebody coming out on the hall back-to-back, it eventually wears you down because you get no rest. You have to get up and you got to be a servant. When you work the hall you have to have a servant's attitude. That means you've got to humble yourself, and stay humble, even when people are being rude to you. So that mentally poses challenges to me, and physically because I had to work the hall two weeks straight. I never worked the hall like that."

X has not gotten sick as of this writing, but sometimes, by February and March, 2020, "spiritually felt disconnected from God," he says. "Another thing, I was trying to avoid getting sick [that week in February] because if I'd gotten sick, we wouldn't have a hall-runner." Regarding proximity between himself and other inmates while working, "They right up on you," he says. "I could reach out and touch them." "Absolutely" less than six feet away, he says.

The suffering of one inmate who X believes had coronavirus that week in February is particularly painful to witness and work amongst, X recalls: "One brother was really sick. He had a 110 temperature. A guard told him he could've died." X went to get guards for help. Upon arrival at the inmate's cell, the guards said, "'You look terrible brother.' He looked very terrible," X agrees, "they had to give him shots and fluids. That was one of the baddest ones that I saw personally, up close. Later he came back and thanked me because he said if I hadn't got them he thought he would have died. A hundred ten [fever]."

Between mid-February and early March, X said Holman had made certain medical expenses to prisoners free, but that was before Alabama announced publicly that they would do so. A few days later (and after the State did publicly announce it would suspend medical fees to inmates), X believes that, despite reports issued close to the day of this interview, Holman has stopped doing that and was "only doing so for the moment [in early-mid February] because I think the whole prison was on panic to try to keep [the outbreak] on the low, because I think if they were charging people, a lot of guys would have called their family and told them we don't have no help and you got to pay to go to the hospital. So they said this day there's free medical attention."

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Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer and contributing editor for Hard Times Review. His work has appeared in The Alabama Political Reporter, New York Journal of Books, The Brattleboro Reformer, Scheer Post, The Manchester Journal, The Commons, The (more...)

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