It’s popular right now for media to mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic by sharing people’s memories of “the moment” when COVID-19 first became real to them. It is important to assure that voices of people who are incarcerated are heard as well. Following are edited transcripts of interviews conducted by Pam Bailey with three Black men, originally from Washington, D.C.
Colie Levar Long, D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility
All we knew at first was that there was a virus that allegedly came from China. Honestly, we all thought it was sort of funny early on. Based on the first reports we heard, it seemed like only older white people were catching it. It was a joke amongst ourselves: It’s a white person’s thing, sort of like karma. That was the general consensus amongst the guys in my unit.
We were seeing cases crop up on TV, out there in the world. And then things starting to shut down. And I’m like, whoa. Maybe this is kind of serious.
A few weeks after that, mid-March, the first case was confirmed in the jail and released to the media. Still, no one was affected in the CTF, so it was still a boogie man type of thing to us. It was only a matter of time, though, and by the end of the month it came to us.
There were two inmates who had diabetes. One went out of the unit for dialysis and the other to have his blood sugar tested. When they came back, they were cursing. This dude was there while they were being treated and suddenly the CO runs in with a mask and gloves on and grabs him, saying he’d been exposed to the coronavirus. That means the two guys who came back into the CTF had been around someone who might have the coronavirus. And I’m thinking, hold up. Why the hell are you in the block with us then? The two guys came back at 5 and it wasn’t until we were locked down around 10 when medical staff and the COs escorted them out of their cell. They posted a little paper on the door, saying, “This cell is not to be opened, it’s been medically locked down.”
Then, seemingly out of the blue, I got news about this older dude named Darrell. He used to ask me to play chess all the time. I don’t really play too many board games, but to indulge him, I played with him. Three days later, another inmate told me, “You know, they got Darrell locked in a cell.” I look and sure enough, he had a sign on his cell too. Then they moved him off the block. But I’d just been playing chess with this dude!
When they took Darrell off the block, medical staff finally started coming into our unit. Just as a precautionary measure, they said, they took everybody’s temperature. And it just so happened that the same night, I had a fever of 102. They locked me in my cell and about 3 in the morning, a nurse came in and put a little swab stick in my nose. First she tested me for the flu and then for COVID. It came back positive for COVID.
I packed my stuff and moved upstairs into the quarantine unit, and that’s where I stayed for 11 days: in my cell in the same clothes, including underwear and T-shirt. I wasn’t allowed to take a shower or wash my clothes for 14 days. We were filthy. The only good thing was that we lost all sense of taste and smell so we couldn’t taste the garbage we were eating.
There were 13 inmates on the bottom tier when I arrived and seven of us on the top. We were not permitted outside our cells. We could only talk to each other through our doors. That’s the only way we stayed sane.
I think it was on the 12th day when a lady named Grace Lopes came in. She was appointed by the court to review the conditions of the jail and the CTF. That was the result of the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the D.C. Public Defender Service.
Things changed after the lawsuit. Suddenly, a cleaning crew came in with these vats of bleach or something. It was like a show to say, “See, we’re doing our part.” But it’s clear they didn’t really give a damn about us.”
The Washington Post reported at the time: “Painting a squalid if not shocking portrait of sickness behind bars, the inspectors — two veteran D.C. criminal justice experts — said inmates with the virus are isolated and prohibited from showering or cleaning their cells. The inmates are also barred from contacting loved ones or attorneys and cannot change soiled clothes, linens or masks for the duration of the illness, inspectors said.”
Frankie Hargrove, then in FCI Oakdale, Louisiana
It was in mid-March and I’d been in the yard, playing guitar. Inmates literally started dropping. By that I mean passing out. Right there on the rec yard. I saw an ambulance outside, waiting to come in. And all the nurses and three guys were standing at the door, telling everybody, “Go back to your unit, go back to the units.”
When we were back in, they started issuing masks and bottles of water, not just one or two but a whole pack.
That evening. I got up off my bed and passed out. I don’t even remember hitting the floor. Then the chills hit: chills, the sweats and a severe cough. I knew what the flu felt like, and I had gotten a flu shot anyway. I knew it wasn’t the flu. The next morning, I fainted again. One minute, I was standing up, the next minute I wasn’t. I heard one inmate saying, “Oh, it got old Hargrove. It got him too; he got the virus.” The CO came and took my temperature. Then I started throwing up. Before I got out of the unit, diarrhea hit. They sent me to the quarantine block, and that’s when it really hit me. It was so bad, I told people, “Let me die. Just let me die.”
Quarantine was just a cell block. They emptied out a cell block and used it as a quarantine unit. We could talk to people only when they opened the door. They were always reporting who died. The inmates were all afraid. They were trying to call home, call their parents to get them transferred. I’d give the prison a failing grade in terms of how they handled the pandemic. They didn’t warn us, and they could have. It turned out that almost two-thirds of the prison caught it.
According to Reuters: Oakdale was among the first federal prisons to experience a serious outbreak of COVID-19, and one of its inmates — Patrick Jones, who was imprisoned for nearly 13 years on a nonviolent drug charge — was the first in a now lengthy list of federal inmates to die from the disease. Inspector General Michael Horowitz faulted Oakdale prison officials, saying they “failed to promptly” implement COVID-19 screening protocols, took too long to limit inmate movement and failed to properly quarantine and isolate inmates, among other issues.
I was in quarantine from March 27 to April 23. I started feeling better around April 14. Usually, when they brought your food it would be in a paper bag, but I didn’t have an appetite for it. Then, all of a sudden, I knocked off all of it. My appetite came back and I was more cheerful and they said, “Oh, you’re getting better.”
When they told me I was ready to leave, I thought I was going back to the unit. But they said, “Nah, you’re not going to the unit.” That confused me. I said, “Why not?” They said, “You’re going home. Your property is already up front.” I was scheduled to be sent home in 30 days, but they were responding to instructions from [then Attorney General William Barr] to release vulnerable inmates close to the end of their sentences.
But that surprise wasn’t as nice as you might think. They flew me from Louisiana to DC, and boom, I was on my own. They gave me enough money to catch a cab to DC but that was all. I walked around, looking for places that could assist me, for three days. But they were all closed. So, I went to CSOSA [the federal agency that supervises adults on probation]. And they locked me up in the D.C. jail for 30 days! They said, “They let you out 30 days too soon.”
When I came out again, the jail officials gave me $70 on a debit card, a train ticket and a couple of bus passes, and told me to go the halfway house in Baltimore.” I didn’t know how to use them though. I met this stranger, a woman, and she told me how to navigate. She got me on the train and showed me where to get off and which bus to catch. Thank God for her. And that’s where I stayed until February 9.
In the next post, you’ll learn what happened to Frankie following that day, and how to help him.
Delonta Williams, then at USP Thomson, Illinois
We didn’t hear anything about the pandemic at first. Then the BOP sent a memo to everyone, letting us know we were going to be locked down because of the pandemic. It was around March 18 and that’s when, I believe, America started to take it seriously, but it was already widespread.
We were all locked down in our cells and not able to communicate with our families; we had no way of finding out what was going on with them. Before then, we really didn’t know anything about it. The only thing the officers told us was that it was something going around that was just like the flu, and it wasn’t that serious. They said we shouldn’t really worry about it. I didn’t believe them, though, because they locked us down due to it. I knew it was more serious than the flu.
People started to order USA Today so we could find out more. We wanted to know exactly what it was that was going on because we started to hear that people were actually starting to expire because of the pandemic.
In the beginning, the BOP was actually sending inmates from other state facilities in Illinois to our prison to quarantine them. A lot of the other prisons were overrun with the pandemic and they didn’t have anywhere to house them. Thomson is a fairly new institution and holds 1,400 federal inmates, so they figured we had a lot of room.
It was maybe September before the time we all started to get it too. And then it became widespread pretty fast within the prison. I feel very fortunate I didn’t catch it. I was worried, because I have underlying health conditions, asthma and high blood pressure, that were serious at that time. I was afraid because the staff was all walking around without gloves, without masks.
And even once the attorney general made an announcement about the seriousness of COVID in the federal prisons, they still brought people there. We’d see them congregating, no masks, coughing and hacking all night around each other. It was a real lack of concern for our wellbeing.
From the QC Times: “It’s clear that under the previous administration, (Bureau of Prison’s) repeated failure to implement widespread COVID-19 testing or provide sufficient vaccinations have led to unnecessary infection of inmates and staff,” U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos said, adding that the outbreak at USP Thomson was caused by transferring untested inmates from a different facility with a COVID-19 outbreak. “It is shocking that BOP would repeatedly delay taking action as staff and inmates continued to fall ill. In order to avoid more death, we must take immediate action to address the previous administration’s complete failure to protect BOP employees and inmates.”