The coronavirus behind bars: A letter from a Michigan jail

click to enlarge The coronavirus behind bars: A letter from a Michigan jail

Note: Ray Gray, an artist from Detroit, has been behind bars for nearly 50 years for a crime he says he didn't commit. He sent us this dispatch from Muskegon Correctional Facility.

The coronavirus has impacted every human being on earth, even domestic pets in some ways. It has leveled the field and bespeaks a commonality with the “shelter in place,” turning even a palace into a sort of prison for those who find themselves becoming stir crazy. However, the major difference is the free will of choice to, for example, leave your dwelling and shop for something as simple as toilet paper (in prison, it’s two rolls a week per prisoner). But even out there in the street, it’s flying off the shelves or it’s unavailable. I’ve been “sheltering in place” for 47 years, and during the course of this journey I’ve borne witness to some unusual and life-challenging situations, but never anything remotely like the coronavirus. There was the Ebola virus, but it didn’t cross the entire earth and enter even the prisons. The virus cares not nor respects the “No Trespassing” signs.

The coronavirus came into the prisons like a lit match in a dense forest, igniting only one tree at first, but then rapidly spreading throughout the forest. The first case of the virus was a probation officer in Jackson. Someone brought it into the prison at Newberry Correction 1, then Lakeland 2, then Kinross 3, and Parnell 4. The virus moved in like a flash, just like it has on the outside, because it is not a respecter of persons or borders. It went from 7 to 14, to 80, then to 122, and as of this writing, 238 inmates and 50 correction officers. So far, two inmates have died, one at Parnell and one at Lakeland.

Prisons are, in a way, a reflection of the outer society. Inmates who were raised by television, cellphones, video games, and instant gratification tend to populate the prison, and there is an unfortunate disinterest in the news or documentary-type programs, such as those shown on PBS. Most inmates prefer a more escapist form of entertainment. There’s nothing, in itself, totally wrong with that, but it’s like a diet of totally candy every day. It’s not a healthy way to live. Surely one does not live by candy alone. As a result, one is left with misinformation, rumors, gossip, and speculation. Someone goes to the health service for anything, and the word is that he has the virus. Then someone might add that they saw people in hazmat suits, and on and on. Then, like the virus itself, it spreads misinformation.

Fortunately, we now have kiosks where we can update our tablets and get current (albeit censored) information. Speaking of health services, if a prisoner goes off-site for any medical reason, they will be tested and segregated until the next day, pending the test results. If they test negative, they’ll be returned.

The virus came uninvited. It was not on the approved visiting list. Fortunately, it hasn’t arrived at either of the two correction facilities in Muskegon, where I’m imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. Some of the precautions being implemented are loads of disinfectant and paper towels to wipe down the phones, microwaves, and tables. A prison by its very nature is an extreme form of communal living. There are hundreds of people using the toilets daily. There are five on each of two floors, the lower floor being the favorite, so it gets used by people from both floors. It’s near the door, so it gets crowded around chow time. There are four phones on the lower floor and three on the second floor, one of which is for the hearing-impaired. Like the restroom, the lower-level phones are the most popular. There are tables with paper towels and sanitizer.

The Department of Corrections has instructed the Michigan State Industries (the prisoner workforce) to make face masks. Each prisoner is to receive three masks, which they are to wear at all times, with the exception of sleeping and showering. There are some inmates who have factory-made masks, as well as homemade ones, and there are some staff members who are wearing masks.

Being in prison is otherworldly; the virus seems like something out of a sci-fi horror movie or the four horsemen of the apocalypse plagues of the Bible. To wear a mask almost constantly will take some adjustment. It seems to me that the staff should all be mandated to wear face masks, since they’re the ones who can introduce the virus into the prisons. The virus cannot move by itself. (Note: Masks for the guards have since arrived and are required to be worn at all times.)

There is a shower area that consists of eight open stalls, but there’s an unspoken rule that only four are used at a time, as prisoners are very self-conscious. Today, for the second time since the virus lockdown, we were given a rag with bleach to wipe down the room that houses two to each room, with a door, as opposed to a cell.

Each day, for the most part, the Department of Corrections gives an update on the virus as it spreads, and the safeguards being put into place. There is a great deal of stress and anxiety here in Muskegon, even though there are no reported cases. It’s probably double that in facilities where there are positive cases. The stress is compounded by family concerns. There are inmates who have family and friends who have tested positive, and some who have passed. As expected, there is no visitation allowed at this time. However, the phone vendor allows two free five-minute phone calls every Tuesday, and JPay allows two free “stamps” for emails every week, as well.

A lot of inmates here are from Detroit, which has one the highest coronavirus infection rates in the nation, particularly among Afro-Americans. As it is on the outside, individuals have to work together and separately to stem the tide of the virus. Personal likes and dislikes don’t count anymore. The same applies to the medical fields and first responders; we have to respect each other and the protocols put in place.

Some of the federal prisons have begun releasing prisoners who meet certain criteria. Of course, my first thought is that non-violent or misdemeanor offenders might be released. However, there are prisoners who have been “sheltering in place” for decades, even half centuries in some cases, who are considered “model” prisoners. To me, that equals a rehabilitated person — one who enters the prison in one state, but who, over the decades, has been “corrected.” One who was lost but now is found and redeemed. A prisoner like that would have no problem staying inside his home until the virus subsides and even goes away.

Oh, I can dream, can’t I?

The virus has inspired me artistically and moved me on many emotional levels. I want to express my deep appreciation for those who put their lives on the line to save others. The least we can do is to “shelter in place.” That means a lot. It’s time for a virus of unity and compassion.

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