MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Wash. — Last night — on New Years Eve — in a matter of hours at least 70 new COVID cases seem to have popped up in my cramped, temporary home here in the Monroe Correctional Complex. But prison officials aren’t being straight with us, so we’re trying to work it out ourselves.
Last evening — as many of you on the outside were, rightfully, popping champagne with loved ones — some of my neighbors working in the prison’s kitchen witnessed a group of men — dozens and dozens and dozens — being escorted to segregation. That’s where those who test positive for coronavirus are currently being taken.
Rumor has it — and here on the inside all we have are rumors and they often prove true — that staff aren’t allowing prisoners who test positive for coronavirus to take personal items with them.
Guards working in units with confirmed cases have been putting in overtime in COVID-free ones. A neighbor asked a guard if she’d done this — do what prisoners can’t and avoid the virus-ridden parts of this sprawling complex.
“Don’t worry about what the fuck I do,” she snapped back. “Get out of my face.”
I had more luck when one guard told me they were wearing protective gear (or PPE) while working in another unit so that if anyone — like their bosses or even their bosses’ bosses… — asked, they could say they were being cautious.
Updates recently appeared on kiosks in our units informing us of a lot, though not enough, information. They give us the numbers of infections in various Washington state prisons, the total number of infected incarcerated individuals (along with numbers for guards), stats on those who recovered, and the measures were being taken to halt the spread.
They also give us the number of deaths. No matter the number, it’s always ominous.
Oddly, the numbers here at MCC — my state-mandated home — have been omitted from these memos.
The Washington Department of Correction provides numbers for MCC. But they’re slow to update the memos with actual confirmed cases, and they don’t specify which of the four prisons housed on this expansive complex they’re referring to.
On a daily basis, prison staff have been vague or withheld information from us, advising only that coronavirus is spreading and that the outbreak is “really bad.”
This is an unexpected blow. This year was supposed to be different.
Last year was terrible, but the New Year isn’t starting with the redemption, optimism, and hope you and I longed for.
You may have heard of us. We made national news last April when my neighbors here rioted, because they felt the staff mishandled the pandemic by not wearing masks — masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and local health officials.
Guards eventually consented to our basic demand that they wear masks, but only after their union — like many correctional officers nationwide — protested the basic health guidelines now in place outside of these walls.
It’s unsettling that this New Year is off to such a predictably bad start. A week or so ago — on Christmas day, actually — social media alerted my wife that there were nine new reported COVID cases here. This supposed sudden spike of 70 new cases is unsettling.
We may be prisoners. But we’re also humans. For now.