Courage our network

A Prisoner’s Experience Behind Bars During COVID-19

Federal prisoners transferring through the Oklahoma City “con air” route usually spend a short time at the Oklahoma City Federal Transit Center, but because it is temporarily closed due to COVID-19, everybody coming in on the planes is being leased out to the local Grady County jail. Because the federal Bureau of Prisons instituted a nationwide lockdown, they are now telling us no planes are going out, leaving several hundred of us stranded at this raggedy jail where conditions are abysmal and woefully inadequate to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Conditions at county jails are often scandalous, and it is particularly egregious here at Grady County. They treat us like zoo animals, packing us into these dirty dorms with no air or sunlight. We are stacked in triple bunks thirty people deep to a 1736 square-foot dorm, allowing us only 27.8 square feet per person, not including the two toilets and shower. The food is of a terrible quality and low quantity, often served cold: baloney sandwiches every day, no fruits, no vegetarian options. There are no books to read, no radio to listen to, no educational or religious programming, leaving us with nothing to do.

They justify these harsh conditions by saying we do not normally spend more than a week or two here until our flight out. But considering that we are stuck here because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a desperate need for changes. I’ve asked about the six-foot social distancing rule and sent requests saying that we need masks, latex gloves, and sanitizers. Despite both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control recommending hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol to kill the virus for when hand washing isn’t a viable alternative, and the CDC now recommending face masks to help slow the spread of the virus, the staff won’t give us any hand sanitizers because we would “abuse it” and, as for the rest of the items, they only say, “We don’t have these items. The six-foot rule doesn’t apply to jail.”

Grady County has publicly stated that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, however when asked, they admitted that they have only administered one test. They say they “screen everybody”, but, in actuality, all they have done is take our temperature one time upon arrival. They constantly rotate people into different units, never leaving a unit not filled to capacity, increasing the possibility of cross contamination.

When I was moved to another unit, there were several people noticeably sick, coughing and sneezing. Within two days, nearly all of the thirty people in our unit – including myself – got sick. Numerous people go to sick call every day, at a cost of $8 per visit, and are given only Mucinex and antihistamines. We’re being told that it is either allergies or the common cold, and that they don’t do COVID-19 tests unless there are strong symptoms of dry cough and fever. Even then, we would have to pay for the test ourselves. They have joked that the entire fourth floor (eight units of thirty people) have the cold, and although it does seem likely that what our unit has is just a common cold, it is alarming how fast and completely it spread because of our close quarters and lack of sanitation. If the virus does get in here, we wouldn’t stand a chance.

The general griminess of the jail only exacerbates the potential for disaster. We get two sets of clothes upon entry and they only wash one set of clothes once a week. The clothes are all used and filthy, coming back from laundry smelling terrible. The blankets and towels are covered with fuzzies and little hairs. We wash our clothes in the shower and sink and hang them to dry on our bunks and clothes lines we hang everywhere. Every single morning, the cops yell at us to take them down, as if they have nothing more important to do, and refuse to turn on the power to the television until we take them down. The jail does not wash the mattresses before reissuing them to new prisoners; the kitchen workers do not wear hair nets and beard guards when serving our trays, and have repeatedly been observed sneezing and wiping their noses. The plumbing often clogs; only one shower works, and it blasts scalding hot water, and the drain is messed up so there is standing water. The roof leaks when it rains outside, dripping water onto the day room tables and chairs. They blast the air conditioning (even when it was 32 degrees outside) perhaps thinking that it would slow the spread of disease. They do not sell multivitamins on commissary, leaving us without proper nutrition to strengthen our immune systems.

The situation is worsened by the uncertainty as to how long we will be languishing here in transit limbo. We do not have access to counselors, case managers, wardens, or anyone from the Bureau of Prisons to answer any questions or deal with people’s upcoming releases or eligibility for early home confinement due to the CARES Act.

We know that this is a trying time for everybody, but prisoners’ lives should not be any less of a priority than the lives of those outside. Some have ignorantly speculated that we are somehow safer from the pandemic because we are locked down, but considering the closed quarters and unsanitary conditions, we are actually at an increased risk, and have no direct control over our fate. All of us would prefer to take our chances in the free world than be sitting ducks in these gulags. Despite our criminal convictions, we deserve to be treated like human beings, and should not be subjected to criminal negligence and cruel and unusual punishment.

We know that many countries around the world, such as Iran, France, and the UK, have begun releasing prisoners en masse. Considering the outbreak of COVID-19 in several US federal prisons, with the infection and death rate climbing daily, the US needs to start doing something to address these heinous conditions, and start releasing us immediately!