Coronavirus in prison, when are inmates considered essential

When are Prisoners Essential? Locked Up During Coronavirus

MONROE CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX, Wash. —  There’s been lots of coverage of how  coronavirus’ long, dark shadow has engulfed our country’s most marginalized communities, hitting minorities, seniors, and low income folks hardest. But there’s been little talk of prisons. Which is insane. 

Prisons are homes to some of the most marginalized, neglected, forgotten, or, at least, the most stigmatized in society (well, ‘former’ members of society…). Sure, many of us made mistakes, and some of us made big, regrettable mistakes. But most of us aren’t here for life. The criminal justice system — which is administered by elected leaders of all stripes who make up either the U.S. government or a state one — tells us we have hope just beyond these thick walls. 

Yet, in the midst of this global pandemic, it often feels hopeless for many of us. 

The mass coronavirus outbreaks happening in prisons like the one I’m confined to — for about two more years — are all but ignored by most media outlets. Vaccines are finally being made available to vulnerable factions of society. My cell block neighbors and I are wondering: Can any prisoner be deemed an “essential” worker? Or are we just the forgotten? Or are we the remembered, though utterly neglected? 

My current home at Washington state’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) is just a little more than 20 minutes from Everett — the town with the unenviable distinction of being home to the first confirmed case of coronavirus in America. That was over 305,000 deaths, 16.8 million cases, and 11 months ago. 

My neighbors may not have the fancy degrees many on the outside have, but most can do math. And they aren’t happy. 

“Disenfranchisement, to me, means the people that nobody cares about,” John, a 41-year-old Black man from Tacoma, Washington, tells me.

“As prisoners, we are literally disenfranchised people” 


The building in which we live is over a century old, so it has terrible ventilation. The cells are tiny. They’re spaced just a foot apart from each other, with bars — rather than doors — to protect us from droplets in the air during the long hours we spend locked in them.

Year after year these conditions assure seasonal colds spread like brushfire. The flu is shared amongst those who, for one reason, conspiracy or another, refuse to get vaccinated. Our living conditions amount to a petri dish. 

That’s why, earlier this year, after coronavirus tore through a nursing home a mere 23 minutes from usdealing death to dozens of seniors in a matter of weeks — there was noticeable tension in the air.

“I feel like our environment plays a big factor in us being a higher risk for infection, because we’re in a crowded place. It’s like a locker room, and it creates a beef stew of diseases,” Chris — a 26-year-old neighbor who was born in Tijuana, Mexico, but who grew up in California — tells me. “It’s gonna spread quick. Look at MRSA, Staph, Hep C, TB, and everything else.”     

Our uniformed captors mostly joked about governmental fearmongering and assured us that coronavirus was less lethal than the flu. They resisted wearing masks while at work. Then when guards began testing positive back in March, they didn’t hesitate to lock down entire units for weeks at a time – imposing movement schedules identical to those used for disciplinary purposes.

I watched on my television as cruise ships floated off the coast of Florida with bodies in freezers, as tents were erected in New York City hospitals to hold the potential overflow of dead bodies. 

Then MCC — my temporary home — became the first prison in the country to experience an outbreak amongst the incarcerated. The coronavirus outbreak happened despite all visitation, along with all prison programs, being suspended.

“In Washington state, prisoners are the only segment of the population that actually knows where they’re contracting the virus,” my neighbor John asserts, “since all outside contact has been shut down for eight months, and the only way we’re getting it is from our captors.” 

Masks were given to guards, but with the option of actually wearing them. Most refused, so on April 8th, the first Covid-related prison riot in the country unfolded in MCC’s recreation yard. Within a week, they were mandated to wear their masks, even as we were still forced to live mask-less in confined spaces. New guidelines were immediately imposed on the inmate population that restricted us, almost exclusively, to our crowded living units where social distancing is nearly impossible. 

“DOC’s response to Covid stripped us of our programming, education, visits, mental healthcare, and most of our recreational times to maintain physical health,” my neighbor Brooks, 35, who was a police officer prior to incarceration, tells me. “DOC has done nothing, even after nine months, to accommodate these changes, or in other words, create a new normal here. Instead, their one tool is the hammer of lockdowns, infractions, and quarantine. I’ve seen mental health decline and waistlines expand, but DOC does nothing to adjust for the decline.”

“They keep taking steps to separate us from each other, but they’re the ones bringing it in,” Rocky — who is 33, deaf, and autistic — tells me. “We need to be separated from them.”

For a while we were. Moratoriums went out on pat downs and cell searches, but they were lifted shortly after. When Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) signed orders releasing certain prisoners — in a supposed effort to thin out the incarcerated population — it only applied to those who were already about to be released. Bunks were refilled as fast as they were emptied. 

“All smoke and mirrors,” 32-year-old Andy, a gay man from Kelso, says. 

Guards regularly move between units with confirmed cases and those without them; often on the same day. He’s felt an uptick in discrimination due to his sexual identity during the pandemic as well.  

“Whenever I have a complaint,” Andy tells me, “it’s more seen as me being dramatic and over the top.”

There are currently 69 confirmed cases of coronavirus in our home. Some Washington prisons, like Airway Heights Corrections Center and Washington Corrections Center, have hundreds of cases. Most of us suspect we will soon, too. 

Prisoners and guards alike have already died. In fact, there are currently 2,517 confirmed cases in Washington state, with 1,639 of them being active cases along with 4 reported deaths, although rumor has it that there are many more that records do not yet show.

According to C/, the vaccine will be distributed in order of priority, as follows: front-line health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, long-term care facilities, essential workers, people with medical conditions and adults over 65. Then the rest of the population. 

Earlier this year, numbers were publicized, stating that one in five of all coronavirus-related deaths had occurred in long-term care facilities. However, they didn’t include those who had died in prisons, which are, in fact, long-term care facilities. 

It remains ambiguous to my neighbors and me where we fit on the vaccine distribution list, but if our prioritization over the past year remains consistent, our vulnerable community will likely live with the virus longer than others. 

But we have essential workers in my home — prisoners who work in our health unit — do they get the vaccine first? We have people over 65. Do they get the vaccine first? The whole point is that we don’t know, and we don’t ever get to know. Well, maybe we’ll find out after it’s too late. 

Because this includes banned words that would not make it past prison censors, Michael dictated it to his wife from behind the steel and concrete of the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Michael J. Moore is a writer and journalist.  He's received awards for his work and been highlighted on television. He's written for various anthologies, journals, newspapers (including HuffPost) and magazines, and has been adapted for theater. His full bio is here.

Michael J. Moore is a writer and journalist.  He's received awards for his work and been highlighted on television. He's written for various anthologies, journals, newspapers (including HuffPost) and magazines, and has been adapted for theater. His full bio is here.

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