Nascimento Blair //
I am writing an auto-ethnographic piece where I, the author, a formerly-incarcerated man, present my own testimonies alongside material that has been shared with me by “Carey,” who is currently incarcerated. It is based on anecdotal experiences and juxtaposes the premise of rehabilitation against the practice of incapacitation of prisoners.
There are more than two million people incarcerated in the US, while another four million are under some other form of community supervision (parole or probation). As the coronavirus spread, the prisoners could only watch helplessly. Having known quarantine for decades now, the men and women sitting inside prison cells laughed cynically at themselves and feared the inevitable. But people on the outside don’t know quarantine. They know going for a drink, watching sports, going to the movies, meeting with friends, hugging their children. These are the alluring freedoms of America. Juxtapose that with the socially exiled who have had their rights extirpated upon their conviction, an extirpation that foreclosed freedoms such as drinking and smoking at will, while any attempt to exercise them adds length to existing sentences.
The quarantine suspended the normal structure of American lives. The hidden violent effects of the pandemic fundamentally changed the status of the US as a first-world country, left everyone shaken, and caused a general anxiety as the death toll rose and, in most cases, transcended class, color, and creed. Strict orders to shelter at home have produced massive layoffs from work and the categorization of jobs and activities as essential or nonessential. Those still able to work from home are considered lucky as this massive restructuring of the world’s largest economy adapts to the new reality. But the pandemic has caused uncertainties and has intensified racism, ethnocentrism, and economic violence against the least protected of America’s citizens: history has shown that the people affected the most by pandemics are usually those living in clustered conditions—the poor. It is no different now. The death toll is the highest among impoverished people of color. People bearing the brunt of economic disadvantage are also bearing the brunt of total statistical deaths.
Can this type of viral violence and social isolation be compared to people in social and political exile and their constant subjection to structural and physical violence?
Waking up to the violence of social exile in prison is a constant. While in the public opinion incarceration is the consequence of criminal choices, new research shows that some incarcerated people are actually innocent of the crime(s) for which they were accused. This shift has allowed for a more humane look at justice, even though the economic violence suffered by the family of a wrongly-convicted person is still not taken into account, and its economic violence comes with a stigma that results in social isolation, maintains deviance, and foments mistrust. The pandemic consolidates this reality that many of us, incarcerated people, face. With the coronavirus, hope is dissipating in prisons while the courts stall.
In our own words
For this project, I spoke with “Carey” who is serving 27 of an original 25-to-life prison sentence. He accepted the opportunity to tell his story from the same prestigious Honor Block where I, too, did eleven years. I have changed his name so as to protect his identity, security, and privacy, and I am providing a translation of the specific idiolect of our discussions.
Carey is located in a maximum-security prison in New York. The cell block is a massive three-level structure: E company on the flats, F on the second tier, G on the third tier. As one walks in, to the left and right are individual cells that hold a bed, a desk, two lockers, a toilet, and a sink. The bed is but twelve inches from the seat of the toilet, and there is one mesh-covered window that provides poor visibility through the thick glass pane and can only wind up and down. Most cells have a book shelf. Carey is a member of the Hudson Link College Program and would want to earn at least one of his degrees before his next Parole Board appearance. He does not believe in social distancing and laments how the superintendent is cutting class size to eight people when school restarts in September .
It was the morning of May 20 when [my] phone rang.
“This is a collect call from a New York State Correctional facility, to accept and pay for this call press 1 now. Thank you for using Securus, go ahead please.”
Carey: “Yo mi bredda wah gwaan [hey, my friend, how are you doing].”
Blair: I am doing fine. What was it like waking up this morning and the situation of a new reality of the coronavirus killing people in prison and the governor resisting calls to free people on humanitarian grounds?
C. Well you know how you left it, just imagine worse.
B. Well, Carey, for the purpose of this interview we need more clarity to understand what the setting looks like.
C. Am I getting paid? [laughs]
B. Yeah maybe when I get rich by then though you might be out of prison.
C. Well bregin [brethren] from your lips to the ears of God.
B. So explain to me what your routine was before the coronavirus.
C. Well I man used to get up inna di maanin whole a fresh and get ready fi guh a work ah di aspital [I would get up in the morning bathe and go to work at the hospital]. Now wi caan go nuh weh because a di lock dung [we are unable to go anywhere due to the lockdown].
B. Well tell me a little more about how you go about your day now?
C. Well bregin, life rough and tings tuff, but wi aff press on [well, things are hard at this time but we have to live no matter what]. Rite now mi a look pon tings regarding my appeal. Di man dem lick mi fi di natia ah di crime [I was hit at the board due to the nature of the crime, so now my appeal is most important to me].
[At this point I will stop the immediate translation, and I will give you the gist of the conversation in reduction.]
Bregin now dat man ah dead because ah di yah virus, mi nuh guh a di yaad, because a pure foolishness di man dem a gwan wid. Rite now, wi affi ah step to di police dem fi get face mask, yuh nuh see it? My routine a fi just cook eat duh some book werk an stay helty because dem man yah nuh care fi wi at all. You lucky because yuh lef jus in time wen tings bout fi get red. Mi ah fret fi mi family ah road right now because if certain people dead fi mi a problems rite now star. Di atmosphere inna tence cause nuh bady nah know wah fi expek. Di virus ave di man dem a panik.
Reduction: Carey expressed his concern for the unknown regarding the coronavirus inside the prison. He told me how lucky I was to have been let out just before a panic ensued inside prison. People are dying, and everyone is in tight quarters because of the prison lay-out. He also expressed how his usual routine of work had been upset because the virus created a new daily social experience, and that he avoids going to the mess hall for food, so he cooks on his own. Because of the added time, he is now anxious about these two extra years. He was hoping to leave as he had an impending order of deportation, explicitly disregarded by the Parole Board. He is also worried about his family out in the world, doubly concerned because they are his financial lifeline. Now that he is doing 27 years to life on an original sentence of 25 years to life, Carey spends his day reading more of his school work.
I realize that uncertainty regarding death is more of a worry for people like him. He is 55 years old and worried because he is in a vulnerable group. With the virus spreading wildly inside, the usual routine of most of the men had to be changed, and the structures that some men had managed to create for themselves had to change drastically. Therefore, as did the outside world, inside the prison, there was the same extirpating of social practices in order to survive this pandemic. Now that a new sentence was added on for Carey, despite an order of deportation, the idea that he might become incapacitated while in prison becomes a real possibility.
There are many requests to release vulnerable non-violent prisoners, that those who pose no threat to society should be allowed to go home, especially with the threat of the virus, and the resistance by the state to this request exposes it for what it is: state-sanctioned violence, as it shows that the goal of imprisonment is incapacitation, not rehabilitation.
Given all this, is there a way to talk about similarities of the experience of prison isolation and the coronavirus isolation?
When the governor of New York State ordered a shelter-in-place as a measure to combat the infection, many railed at the idea of social isolation, but the party scenes began to dry up as the state went into “lockdown.” “Social distancing” became a policy concept, and people were now asked to keep a distance of six feet from each other; stores placed footprints on the ground to herd people in an attempt to combat “silent spreaders,” or asymptomatic carriers; panic ensued and scarcity followed as people started stocking up on tissues, toilet paper, hand sanitizers, toiletries, and food staples. But essential workers on the front lines still had jobs, and they kept the state going, the hospitals functioning, the people fed; they picked up trash and stocked food pantries.
On March 12, as I watched, a guard worked “my” specific housing unit, exhibiting signs of a cold. She coughed repeatedly during her eight-hour shift as she moved throughout the recreation area to the rooms and dorms. The next day she worked in even closer contact with us. She coughed harder and was asked by a few men on the unit to get something for her cough. She gave the usual response of “I am here now and if you don’t like it, go home.” So most of the men just moved out of the area to avoid any “ultimate confrontation.”
On March 14, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) issued a memorandum effective immediately, at 3:00 pm, to lock down correctional facilities for visitors and outside civilians. The order would immediately end all Family Reunion Visits (FRP), visit-room privileges, and classes and would temporarily close the package room until DOCCS figured out the logistics. I watched in horror as the guards who worked at my correctional facility came and went without mandatory testing and without practicing physical distancing. Cell searches were still allowed, as was the occasional six-hour block search, where the entire unit, on one evening, would have to surrender to the search teams.
On March 16, all programs within the correctional facility were closed, and a quasi-quarantine of inmates started taking place. Movement became very limited and inmates could only go to the yards, gymnasium, and chapel. The officer had been overheard telling various inmates that she had just returned from a cruise in Italy and had just managed to bypass the recent quarantined-ship mandate. Because of her symptoms, she was escorted by an area supervisor out of the facility, out the door, and through the gates—but not before walking through and spitting in our unit. For the rest of the week more and more inmates were confined to their housing units. None of us were told what was happening, and no one was given any updates. For the most part, inmates glued themselves to the television set in the recreation area as the news became our only source of credible, reasonable information in an environment filled with uncertainties. This eventually proved insufficient, and soon inmates began to complain to the area supervisors who now began to realize there were problems brewing.
Eventually, juggling fear and truth, information was passed to the Inmate Liaison Committee (ILC), who told us that positive tests had been confirmed inside the facility. Prison being an already quarantined place, this caused agitation, and prisoners were peeved whenever anyone coughed without covering their mouth. The virus spread like wildfire in the prison, and the exposure became so severe that blocks were separated from blocks and recreation became a thing of nostalgia.
The services of the prison system began to wane, and the commissary began rationing food, claiming scarcity of supplies. The fight to have food in abundance became a priority because a lockdown was imminent. Men called their families asking for a package. On April 2, one inmate inside the dorm setting was complaining that he did not feel well. He was encouraged to go to sick call because his condition constituted an emergency. The guard on duty made a call, and the man was removed, never to return.
On April 6, two members of the Executive Team came to the unit and announced a unit quarantine because of a positive test; a twice-a-day temperature check; and a mask mandate outside our rooms and dorms. But we had minimal necessary tools against the virus. Social distancing and hand sanitizers were almost impossible, and obtaining masks was more of an illusion than a possibility. The alcohol content in hand sanitizers made them a controlled substance, so prisoners were not allowed to use them, and when the order for masks came, prisoners were allowed one. Breaking either of these two rules meant solitary confinement, “The Box.” Normally, bleach would be regarded as a weapon, and possessing it could land the inmate in solitary confinement indefinitely, but porters were now given bleach to wipe down phones and common areas every morning as part of their duties. But it was just a Band-Aid. None of this solved the fundamental violence of the spread of coronavirus in prisons. For the first time, I became worried because I was at the end of my prison sentence, and I became anxious about the possibility of not being released as scheduled.
While quarantine was possible for the wider society, it was impossible for us inside. The lack of information inside was in stark contrast to outside, so we had no confidence in the possibility of surviving the type of social exile that is prison, and no one was offering us the mental stability that was needed. Not since the Attica riots of 1971 had the tactics of three Cs (Care, Custody, Control) become so evident and so strictly enforced as when the virus came to the prison. Still, men and women in prisons were falling down to the coronavirus. In an article that appeared in the Marshall Project on May 28, 2020, Christopher Blackwell spells out how “In Prison, Even Social Distancing Rules get Weaponized,”
After close to 22 years inside, I thought I had seen everything when it comes to the department of corrections using impossible rules to punish prisoners. I was wrong. Social distancing is not possible. In fact, it’s a joke. More often than not you’ll brush against a half a dozen people before making it up the two flights. This is how traffic inside works, no matter where you plan to travel.
While people on the outside were told to cram inside their apartments, they could still go to pharmacies and grocery stores, or have food and liquor delivered. For the most part, the virus shocked the social structures of American society and many people, for the first time, experienced a world with limited or restricted freedoms. Yet, to say that these measures were just like prison suggests a naïveté and a misrepresentation of what punishment is and does. Prisoners are exiled from society not just because of their crime, but because they have been deemed irredeemable. Thus, the punishment meted out to prisoners as deterrence has rested on the ridiculousness of withholding hand sanitizer.
 This is a native term used to define prisoners. The idea is to convey a more humane understanding of incarcerated people.
 There is a pattern where many guards create a disturbance and then call the squad and have the inmate sent to Solitary Confinement.
 FRP is a reward program for good behavior that allows for an extended visit for prisoners who are either married or have family members. It involves a two- or three-day visit in a two-bedroom cottage where the atmosphere resembles a home. Any infractions can result in the loss of such a privilege, including tickets for fighting, weapons, drugs and alcohol, or unresolved misbehavior reports.
 This is the intermediate body, elected by the vote of the entire prison population, which acts as a buffer between prisoners and the executive staff. It is responsible for dispensing information, recording any issues affecting the population, and reporting them to the administration. They are given special passes that allow them to go everywhere and anywhere inside the prisons. They are both hated and feared equally by inmates and staff.
 The executive team of the prison is headed by the Superintendent, and includes deputy members of Security, Administration, Programs, Health, the two Captains, and the ILC Sergeant.
Author bio: Nascimento Blair is a motivated individual. He has a Bachelor’s degree from Mercy College and a Master’s degree from New York Theological Seminary. He is a poet at heart. His short story “it’s the wait that gets you,” detailing experiences of the Parole Board, was published in three parts on the blog Minutes Before Six. He is a lover of football and has followed Manchester United since Eric Cantona wore the #7 shirt. He loves learning and enjoys cooking different dishes.
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.