Tanya Pierce //
In this auto-ethnographic piece on the current COVID-19 health crisis, I present my reflections on my own imprisonment through the lens of a returning citizen. In addition to exploring my own incarceration, I will tell the story of my friend Vanee Sykes, a returning citizen who survived prison but passed away from COVID-19. I will tell the story of how her death had a powerful impact on my own life. This piece, and the stories told herein, will invite you to think about whether there is a correlation between the COVID-19 pandemic and being incarcerated. My own thoughts will be found at the end.
In 2015, I was sentenced to thirty months of imprisonment. I was designated to Danbury Federal Prison Camp and was allowed to self-surrender on Monday, August 17 of that year. That was the worst day of my life. My family drove me to the prison, my three-year-old son asleep in the back seat of the car. I gave him a kiss. As I said good-bye to my loved-ones I made one request of them— “Please back up, for I cannot bear to see you leave. Let me go in before you drive off.” As I entered the Main Lobby of the Danbury Federal Correctional Institute, on the inside I was dying of grief. But outside I stayed strong and held my composure both for the unknown that was to come, and for the known (which is that my life was over).
The fear of the unknown is overwhelming. I walk in, give my name to a correctional officer, and I am told to be seated. Shortly after, another female officer comes out and thus begins the humiliating intake process. I am given a piece of paper and a pillowcase filled with sample-size toiletries and one set of used and torn dirty sheets, along with a ripped hospital-grade plastic pillow with Poly-Fiber bursting out of it.
I am then escorted out the door and told to walk up the hill to the camp. I cannot see the camp from where I am standing, and I begin to wonder if this is some sort of setup to have the federal marshals shoot me. How can it be? How am I in prison but allowed to walk unescorted? This is the first time that I am afraid for my life.
I walk to the left and find the path. I start up the hill and finally come upon an old, dirty, dilapidated structure. I say to myself, that must be it. I walk in, holding the small piece of paper the officer gave me, and I am greeted by a woman—I will come to know her as Vanee Sykes. She looks me in the eye and says, “My sister, it will be okay.” I freeze and want to cry, but I hold on. She asks to see the paper with my room and bed assignment on it. I had chosen an upper bunk—being a bit claustrophobic and afraid of someone being over my head. She escorts me to the room where five other girls are already living, four white and one black. Shocked to see more white girls in prison than black or brown that moment, I set aside all racial, economic, and social differences. We are all inmates at the 4:00 pm count time, and we all have to stand by our beds to be counted. My true prison stretch has just begun.
December 25, 2015, Christmas Day. It has been four months since I came to the camp. Today is especially important to the women, especially those with families. Danbury offers an expensive video chat, $6.00 for 28 minutes, which you must schedule and your family member must accept 72 hours in advance. I chose the video chat to see my son open his presents and pretend to have a normal Christmas, at least in his young eyes. Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, on Christmas morning the video chats did not work. As usual, the correctional officers on duty are rude, and I can sense the mockery coming from them, gloating in seeing us in visible pain. Instead of the video, I called and spoke to my son, but felt no better. The excerpt from my journal: “Today the Trulincs video did not work for my 8:00 am video with Dom, so I missed his Christmas. I spoke with him. Thank God he’s an amazing boy, and he’s happy.” After the video failure my adult daughter and mother came to visit me. They tried to make me laugh, and we talked, but it was clear that I had ruined Christmas for my family. Why did the video fail? Why does everything bad happen to me? I must be the worst person on earth, because I am the Grinch that stole my family’s Christmas. By now, I should know that nothing in prison is guaranteed, but I still trusted the video system to work, and it failed. I felt like a fool and a failure again. How do I continuously harm my family? This is that fine line where one can start to develop suicidal ideations. Since there is no one to talk with, you find yourself talking and answering your own questions.
In the Federal Prison System, Thursdays are Chicken Day for lunch. It is considered the best food day of the week and the day the warden and officials come to the camp to allegedly make themselves available for the women to speak to. But if you’ve been around the block for a while, you know that is not true, and you keep your distance. On Thursday, October 20, 2016, a year and change after my commitment, I was sitting in the TV room alone as usual because most of the women work or do other activities that keep them busy. Since I had vowed not to be a slave to the system, I spend my time doing meaningful things like teaching the LexisNexis Law Library System and preparing legal documents. The prison had implemented the new law library without training classes, and I found most women lacked the computer literacy to utilize it. I helped the women mostly on the weekend and nights.
About 10:30 am, in walks the warden, who sees me watching two television screens alone, one television with Maury Povich (typical episode “I am Not the Father”) and the other with Wendy Williams. She comes close and asks why I am not working down at the FSL (Federal Satellite Low) that they were building. I reply, “The Judge sent me here for a staycation, and not to build a prison.”
“I will make sure that you go down there to build the FSL,” she says, “and we pay $50 for a month of work.”
“I do not need the government money, and slavery was outlawed a long time ago,” I reply. The women worked an average of 160 hours per month (forty hours per week). Even though Danbury also had a men’s facility, they were not required to help in building the FSL.
The warden walked away and said she was going to have the televisions shut off during the day—and she did. When I went to have lunch, she called me off the lunch line and made me sit with her. I was so humiliated because sitting with the warden at lunch is a no-no in prison. The perception is that you are snitching on your fellow inmates, and that was certainly not the case with me. But in prison the truth rarely exists. Well, that interaction changed my bid. After that day, the retaliation was overwhelming, I was consistently called for a urine test, my video conferences for which I had paid were cut off after one minute (and not refunded), and my voice was no longer recognizable by the phone system, so I was unable to make calls home. I was the subject of many shakedowns, and my belongings were trashed by staff. My visitors were always screened last even if they were there first. It became an emotional torture for me, but I held my stance and refused to assist in building a prison.
During 2016 and early 2017, Danbury was building a new prison, the Federal Satellite Low. While organizations were protesting to close Rikers Island and to end mass incarceration, the federal government was building a new prison and using the incarcerated women of the system to build it. The contractors had built the structure, just a shed—as the FSL is a dorm facility—but that was it. The women were forced to complete the building by finishing the entire interior. The women finished the indoor plumbing, put together the metal beds, lined them up, and attached them to the floor, mounted the four televisions, and completed the grounds work outside. The women worked daily down there for months. I never helped build the FSL.
I went there one time, when they forced us to do a trial run of the show by having lunch there. To my dismay, the place had no kitchen, and food was put on carts and handed to us. There were four tables, one in front of every television. The beds were low, and the bunks were less than five feet tall. I am 5’8”, and I could see the entire room. The location had 190 bunk beds, which were compacted with the bottom bunk almost touching the floor. There were only four televisions that lined the front wall, each one of them with a table in front of it that could seat about eight people. There were not enough table seats for the facility capacity. The women who were to be housed in the middle or back could not see the televisions. I wondered how the women would be able to function in here, it was so draconian. I knew this place was going to be traumatizing for whomever would be unfortunate to end up there.
December 25, 2016, Christmas Day. In the past year, quite a bit has occurred while some things have stayed the same. I still have not been able to forgive myself for the pain I have inflicted on my family. I still view this day as a day of great sadness. I am locked inside my thoughts of failure, and of how do I?—how do I pass this second, how do I live in this moment? Yes, the looming question in my soul is simple: how do I? I do not know what is next for me, but today I will start with a backup plan. Once again, I scheduled the Trulincs with my son—do call me foolish, but I had to try. This year it worked. I was able to see his Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Oh, my goodness, what had happened? The tree I had left was gone and replaced by a tree my son had chosen. He loved it, I loathed it. I guess this is part of the ramifications of having been gone for eighteen months and counting. Bits and pieces of my existence are disappearing right in front of me, and I have no control over anything. The realization that prison has not only taken my freedom and liberty away but that my home life has changed without any notice hits me hard. I could feel myself slipping away and the prison anger growing inside of me. I could now understand how a person can commit a new crime in prison against staff and other inmates. There is a silent rage that slowly builds up and festers in you. Unknowingly, a person can snap. I am fighting like HELL on the inside with every ounce of strength. I must maintain my sanity.
The woman who walked up to me in the camp, Vanee Sykes, died May 24, 2020, from COVID-19. She had been released from prison in November 2015 after serving 5 years. She came home to co-found Hope House, a safe place for women returning from prison. Our sisterhood was a bond that carried us through the five years that I knew her. While we were in Danbury, we often talked, laughed, and cried about the family we left behind and the family that had died during our incarceration. She had lost her husband, and the prison had refused to let her attend the services. People often categorize the prison “camps” as some sort of resort, but they are not. The truth is that prison is very much prison, and an individual in their custody has no rights or liberties. There is no distinction between a prison and a prison camp. I began to learn through her experience the emotional isolation that being incarcerated creates and, later, I would develop my own emotional isolation. The isolation is internal; it has no taste, no touch, no smell; and it looks normal from the outside.
Vanee came home to make a difference, and she did. The toll of her emotional isolation was displayed in her work. When I returned home, I often told her that I credited her with making a difference for me when I entered the camp; she always chuckled and said, “I heard God say, ‘Help her.’” We would go to dinner, chat on the phone, support one another. I never in a million years would have imagined she would be infected with COVID-19, let alone die from it after surviving prison. Unfathomable, but real. I still see her face smiling. Her passing away has left a hole in my heart that will never be filled. I spoke with her at the onset of the shelter-in-place order. She had followed the rules. When I last FaceTimed her in the hospital, she said she was okay. I texted back and forth with her on Mother’s Day. She was a mother and a dear friend. Her loss has me feeling that semblance of failure. Was there something I could have done or said to help her? I am left wondering “How do I….?”
Today, I still feel the effects of having been confined, I am not the same person I was prior to incarceration. I feel a deep hole in my heart for Vanee. I miss her dearly; we had a short but life-changing friendship. Worst of all, I still live with the anger of the slave labor of incarcerated women requisitioned to build the FSL, which right now confines more incarcerated women than the camp does. The tragic blessing-in-disguise of COVID-19 is that most of the women from the camp have been released to home confinement.
There is no comparison between the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order and incarceration. Incarceration drives at the fabric of one’s soul. The confinement factor diminishes a person’s sense of humanity. The difference between being told that you cannot go outside because of a health risk and losing the freedom to go outside for any reason is astounding. There is a physical and mental compass that exists when a person is incarcerated. The COVID-19 pandemic is still a choice that the public decides to make when they follow the shelter-in-place order. In prison there are no such choices. As of today, in prisons across the nation there are no visits, no programs, and no activities. And some prisons are planning to remain in pandemic mode, which is the new sad norm.
Author bio: Tanya R. Pierce, MBA, is the co-founder of Life Unbolted Inc., one of two “For Us by Us” organizations in Brooklyn, NY, and Director of Operations at “A Little Piece of Light.” Her work focuses on advocacy, empowerment, and facilitating healing for women and girls impacted by mass incarceration, trauma, and physical disabilities. Her email is Pierce@lifeunbolted.org.
Image note: Several essays are accompanied by photographs that editor Neni Panourgiá took of flowers at Riverside Park in spring 2020. They are meant as temporal transitional points during the time that the workshop took place, from the last day on campus in the fall semester of 2019 to the last day of class in June 2020.