On the morning of January 6th at 8:43am we hear the page over the intercom: “All inmates return to your housing unit, all inmates return to your housing unit.” I could feel the collective sigh in the air. We all knew it – Covid had found it’s way onto the compound and we were going into full lockdown. I came back to our unit and the red light was on, meaning no movement, stay at your bunk. We waited for updates and received none. Eventually, lunch was delivered to us in clam shell containers, hours later dinner came. At 10pm we still hadn’t received any news.
Roughly thirty hours after the lockdown began we are told if you have symptoms to let staff know and you will be tested. The facility didn’t have enough Covid tests for everyone so we stayed in lockdown through the weekend, waiting for extras to arrive. We read books, played cards, worked out and rested. I logged more hours of sleep that weekend than any other since I’ve been here, so that was a plus. The Stoic thought on my mind: “There is only one road to happiness – let this rule be at hand morning, noon and night: stay detached from things that are not up to you.” So we wait, stay calm, and roll with the slow pace. With the extra free time the guys I live with wake up a few hours later than me and it would be inconsiderate to rise and make noise. Once I come out of a slumber I turn on my small reading light and read until I either fall back asleep or they wake up. That second sleep, the one from 6am – 9am is the deep zombie like sleep that is immensely refreshing. There are certainly worse ways to start the day.
On Tuesday morning, January 11th, I am tested. The sixth day after lockdown started. Four hours later staff come to the range I am housed on and begin reciting names of those who are positive. We’re all holding our breath…then it comes “Laney, you’re positive.” We are told to immediately pack our bags and bring nothing extra. No food, no books, no magazines or newspapers. Only carry with you a clean t-shirt and boxers plus shower slippers and any medications you have.
I’ve been through a covid quarantine before and it gave me an appreciation for what I have this time around. I’m more aware of how to handle incarceration and the lack of control. We still haven’t had access to laundry, phone or email since this started, but I won’t let that bother me. Stay mellow, the hours will pass and turn into days. Do what I can to make the best of this because eventually it will be over and I’ll still be in prison anyway.
Day 1: As we walked to the isolation unit I relished in the final rays of sunshine I would feel on my face for awhile. We “check-in” and are given a small toiletries supply (toothbrush, toothpaste, razors and soap) as well as a child size spork and an orange jumpsuit. “Change in to your jumpsuits and put the clothes you’re wearing in the bag, leave the bag outside your door. Make your utensil last, it’s the only one you’ll get.” There’s nothing like an orange jumpsuit to set off the covid positive, isolation experience. Inmates are fuming that we couldn’t bring books or magazines. The prison was concerned that books could transmit Covid. Because Covid can apparently be transferred via books. We already have Covid – it’s an isolation unit. However, we couldn’t bring books and they weren’t there, so there was no point in talking about it further. The nurse gives me my bunk assignment and I walk into the room. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. The lights are turned off, blinds are shut, and both of the guys are asleep. I have never met either of them. One just transferred from a prison in California, the other lives in a different unit. I lay in my bunk quietly and take in the fact that I need to ease in to this. The next 11 days are going to be exceptionally slow and mundane, so that’s my new baseline. My perception of this and how I manage to walk through it is on me.
Day 2: I wake up and quickly realize the above thinking is easy when you’re feeling strong…to simply accept what is and move through it with grace. Reality isn’t always that way. The prior night I went to bed at 10:30 and woke up at three, five and finally seven. Come ten in the morning my cellies are still asleep, motionless. The room is dark and out of respect and boredom I am confined to my bunk until they wake up. I’ve been laying there for over three hours; me and my thoughts. Not always, but in times like these, I feel as if we are living registration numbers that need to be counted, feed, and in this case, sequestered away to build up antibodies to a viral infection we had minimal chance of evading – nothing more. Perspective is an interesting thing. I miss my friends and family, but oddly enough I also miss my unit and the people I live with. I even miss our limited sense of freedom and the controlled moves as they were comparatively good living. Ironically, a lot of what I miss involves being incarcerated. Home feels far away and I’m too isolated in this small room to go down the rabbit hole of missing that.
Day 3: The bad news continues to roll in. The room is already cramped with three of us. We are now having two additional Covid positive inmates move in today. I was also informed that a 10-day quarantine actually comes to 12 days. The first day and the last day do not count. It needs to be ten full days in isolation. On Day 1 the prison did not have enough extra bedding, so we were told to pack our bedding but we couldn’t bring any reading material. Between a constant code-red modified schedule, controlled movements and inmates allowed minimal time outdoors I sometimes feel that I’m not at a minimum security prison. I also tell myself I have no basis of comparison.
Day 4: The two guys who joined our isolation room are ironically a welcome addition and proof you never know what the next hour will bring. When housed with people who have spent inordinate amounts of time incarcerated there can come a high level of civility, calm demeanors and good stories. This is the fifth time being locked up for one of the guys and he’s spent more than half his entire life in jail or prison. You wouldn’t guess it but he’s been a source of engaging a deep conversations. Still no laundry access since this began a week ago yet we’re making do and washing our clothes in the sink. At least every day is one less I have to serve. Recently finishing “Miracle in the Andes” provided me a healthy perspective. I’m glad to not be fighting for my life in the fuselage of a crashed airplane wondering if I will ever see my family again. Much like the book I read about the Holocaust, I think of this one often. I could complain about Covid, how we’ve been treated and confined to such a small space with no entertainment or opportunity to better ourselves. I could whine that we should be able to exercise, read a book or have a few minutes of fresh air. But in all reality, who else had to deal with far worse? That Uruguayan Rugby team and every person in the Holocaust as well as countless other people across time and the world.
Day 5: While the days are dragging by I will one day look back and this isolation will be a faint memory devoid of jagged edges or irritation. It may be unnecessary to quarantine us this long, the room may be jammed full, but no matter what I think about it in these moments I might even look back and laugh at the absurdity of it. This helps me stay centered. If that is how I might feel in the future, why not now? Sure, there is a sense of being trapped what with no outside communication, no ability to move around. On the other hand, we’re going to survive and we’ll be fine. I was upset that two additional guys moved into our room and look how that turned out. I’ve been through a prison quarantine before and I need to use what I learned from that experience to find peace in this moment.
Day 6: The old version of me would have been more frustrated in here. I’d be talking about whatever I felt wasn’t fair, wasn’t right. I would have thought about what might occur had I tested a day or two later – could I have been negative by then? If so, I would be back in the unit using the phone, talking with family or watching a movie. That’s not what happened. I tested positive. However I feel about it now is irrelevant. Why? Because this is the present – it is the only actual time I have. This may only be halfway over but that’s not the way to look at it…one day at a time.
Day 7: Today had an easier flow to it. Not upset about much if anything. We are where we are. Enjoying the company of the guys I am with and being aware I must continue to ease into everything. This isn’t the type of ‘vacation’ I would have chosen, but in a twisted sense of the word it’s a vacation from prison. They bring food to the room, you sleep in and I don’t have to wear my composite toe boots. Not the ideal getaway but it’s the one we have.
Day 8: I’m more mellow than I imagined I would be. The days roll by slowly, yet no longer in a repressive way. They don’t have as sharp a sting and it has been a time to slow down. Around 2pm this afternoon we heard a hoard of inmates outside. The compound is locked down so that can mean only one thing: more guys coming to isolation. There was a frantic energy in the air and within minutes we heard the commotion in the hallway. You could sense the despair and frustration. I felt somewhat guilty as I lay in my bunk, chipping away at my seventh full day and at peace with the circumstances. If I remain unbelievably present the hours click by and the time is manageable.
Day 9: It is 9pm in the evening. The day went by as quick as I could have hoped for. The two guys who were here when I first showed up are gone and two new guys joined us as part of yesterdays chaos. Plenty of time for banter and discussions on any number of topics as well as a prison favorite, absurd stories from others prison experiences. A unanimous statement is that none of the guys coming from other facilities have ever heard of or experienced a prison camp that restricts movement via controlled moves. Inmates at camps move about the compound due to their custody classification, which allowed them to come to a minimum security prison in the first place. I tell myself there’s no need for me to be upset. I’m not at those other places and I have no desire to be given the chance to confirm these statements. Even more people showed up today and now more than half the prison has been infected. Hopefully I will have exceptionally strong Covid antibodies after all the time sharing stale air with so many sick people.
Day 10: Today flew by. It was eerily similar to all the other days but it went faster. The five of us get along well and it’s possibly a combination of acceptance and being trapped in here but I don’t think I’ve had a day in prison where I laughed this much. All of our expectations have been realigned. We had a few flakes of cinnamon toast crunch for breakfast, a small serving of tuna salad for lunch and over cooked shredded chicken and noodles for dinner. No one said anything negative about any of it.
Day 10: While I still have a ways to go in terms of prison, the light at the end of this particular tunnel is getting brighter.
Day 11: “Laney, pack your bags!” I left the isolation unit today around noon and headed back to my unit. What a feeling walking out and breathing in fresh air as I walked across the compound. As we made it back and through the main door we were happy to reunite with our fellow inmates. It was a trip, coming back here, back to prison, yet feeling a sense of relief. The feeling was most similar to coming home after a long weekend. You catch up with your neighbors, start a load of laundry, grab a snack from the pantry (your locker) and take a warm shower. I dig back into the two books I was reading before I was taken away and am glad to be where I am. The first time I came out of quarantine was much different – I had just arrived here. Now I come back to friends, a locker of clothing and food, my work detail is sorted and I know the compound and people here. This was a good way to test myself and the ways I’ve changed. I accepted what was out of my control, stayed present and found serenity where it likely wouldn’t exist. It provided my mind and body a break from the normal routine. In certain aspects of life, namely physical pursuits, I like the suffer. I willingly engage with it, I embrace it. Why not do so with the harder times in life?
We’re still in quarantine but at least the whole building is locked down and we can move about – use the computer, watch TV or workout in the basement. February is almost here and spring is around the corner. It’s been a long, dark winter but things are starting to look brighter.