Tone Shewprashad //
On March 20, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo placed New York on an unprecedented lockdown. Journalist David Marcus soon expressed his anger and anxiety in a New York Post article titled “End New York City’s lockdown Now!” when he wrote “…the Big Apple is dying. Its streets are empty. The bars and jazz clubs, restaurants and coffee houses sit barren… Instead of getting people back to work providing for their families, our mayor talks about a fantasyland New Deal for the post-Coronavirus era.” David Marcus is not the only person who takes this position toward the COVID-19 lockdown. Groups around the country have protested the shutdown order, while many believe that their rights and freedoms are being violated. Anxiety and uncertainty are compounded by a lack of mobility. The physical and emotional components to the lockdown, these overwhelming feelings of anxiety, have brought many people to claim they now know what it is like to be in prison.
This article will explore the effects of the pandemic and lockdown through the lens of incarceration, focusing specifically on the distinction between physical experience and emotional experience. In an attempt to understand the association between the COVID-19 lockdown and prison in New York City, I have spoken, in depth, to my best friend H.K., who is currently incarcerated in her thirteenth year of a twenty-five-year sentence at a state prison.
I have experienced the duality between emotional status and physical confinement in my own life, as I was incarcerated for ten years (2007-2017). I remember the mental anguish of not being able to see my family, the inconsistencies of the rules that governed subjects in prisons, and the dehumanization that incarcerated individuals faced. The idea of associating “shelter-in-place,” a measure implemented in order to protect the greater good of the people against COVID-19, with being in prison, an institution used to enforce punishment on individuals accused or found guilty of a crime, while an interesting premise, did not make much sense to me. As an individual who has been free for over three years and is living through the “lockdown” brought on by COVID-19, I could not understand the relation between the two. To be fair, I must admit that the lockdown has barely affected me at all. As a person who goes to work, to the gym, and to school, then back home to rest up and repeat the cycle, the only thing that has been different for me is the fact that I have to wear a mask anytime I leave my car (and I forget it in the car most of the time), and now I have to get up at 3:15 am to work out before I go to work because gyms are closed. Yes, there have been times when I had to wait on a line to enter a store due to the social distancing restrictions, but I would have never thought to say, “This is like prison.”
July 20, 2009, I walked off Bedford Hills correctional transportation bus with five other women. I had already been in the Suffolk county jail for two years waiting to be sentenced before brought upstate. I was twenty years old when I stepped off the bus. From the time I was arrested, in June 2007, until the moment I walked into the shower area of the RCOD (Bedford Hills’ decontamination/holding unit) I never took the matter of being “locked up” seriously. Of course, there were things that got under my skin and made my blood boil, like the tiny quarter-sized toothbrushes that you could barely hold, let alone brush your teeth with, or the fact that shower slippers were not provided upon entering the facility, and you had to wait for commissary to buy them.
I met H.K. under similar circumstances as she walked down the long walkway, past the big 113 yard from RCOD on the way to the “uppers,” the units in the facility where each individual is in a cell by themselves. Once I left the yard and went back to my unit, I heard someone asking if they could use someone’s Walkman for a little while. I went to the crack of the door to see who it was, and I found the same 4’10” person I had watched walk past the yard carrying the possessions the state gave her. I found out she was PHC’d (pre-hearing confined) for taking soap and stamps from someone in the general population while she was still in RCOD. I told her that I had gotten in trouble for simply waving to someone, and I gave her my Walkman to use until she got out of lock.
“The facility makes it seem as if we are a threat to each other. But the only way we can contract COVID-19 is from an outside source, which would be the officers and staff. Now we are forced to be isolated not only from the outside world but from our peers,” H.K. begins on the phone. I momentarily interrupt to state that the entire country is being shut down. I explain that there are now social distancing requirements and regulations, there are isolating regulations if a person is found to be positive with the COVID-19 virus, and there are strict restrictions against social gatherings. I explain to her that clubs, bars, restaurants, and all other small businesses are temporarily closed until further notice. H.K. lightly chuckles and says, “That’s not like this.” Though I’d been incarcerated for ten years, the remark made me inquire about how much more different it could be in prison now during the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked for a day-to-day description of what it’s like for her inside the prison now.
“Well, before the pandemic the doors would open at 7:00 am, so we could take a shower or whatever we had to do to get ready for our program. Now the way that things are set up, there are groups of fifteen people allowed out at a time, in a space where there are sixty women in the units that have cells, and seventy-two women in the back buildings that have cubicles. So, unless you have a decent officer, if you have to go to program, and it’s not your time to be out, you have to go to program without taking a shower.” I listened. H.K. continued, telling me that she goes to her first program, in the law library, from 7:00 to 11:00 am; then at 11:15 am everyone is called back to their units for the facility count.
“Okay, since now we’re only allowed fifteen people at a time, when the count is cleared [usually around 12:30-12:45], the times that we get out of our cells differ. Sometimes I get lucky and an officer will let me take a shower before they start this cycle of inmates who come out. My next program starts at 1:00 pm, and it goes until 3:30 pm. My afternoon work module is in the mosque. I’m a facilitator, and I also worship during that time. When I come back from that module, again, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to sneak in a shower. If not, it may not be until the next day that I’m able to take a shower. It all depends on when my group comes out for that day. How it works is, there’s four groups of fifteen women who come out at a time. Those four groups rotate, and each group is allowed an hour and a half out on the unit for that day. The only other time we come out of our cells for rec is to go outside for another hour, again, that too is rotated. So, if I was to come out at 1:00 on a given day, I have to go to program so my hour out on the unit is forfeited, which means I won’t be able to use the phone, cook, do laundry on the unit, or take a shower, again. Unless there is a decent officer on, they may let the women who work and go to program do things like use the phone for ten minutes or take a quick ten-minute shower.”
H.K. continues to tell me that she does not go to the mess hall, and she only goes outside to the yard if she misses her opportunity to use the phone during her hour-and-a-half recreation time on the unit.
“I have a friend on the unit that I usually cook with, but since the lockdown started, we haven’t been able to cook together because she is in a different group of women. It’s been difficult because most officers won’t allow us to pass food to each other, so we have to sneak and pass little things so we can both can cook. Last month was Ramadan, so things were a little bit different. I wasn’t eating during the day, and I was one of the women who served the other Muslim sisters their food to break their fast. So, of course, I had some extra food to hold me over in my cell.”
I waited, thinking that there was more to the day H.K. was going to tell me about, but the long pause let me know she finished summing up her day. The only thing that differed from when I was released, in 2017, was that the entire facility was only allowed out of their cells for three hours instead of the entire day. I told H.K. that, though I could see how that would be frustrating, it was being done to make sure the prison population was not put in jeopardy of infection. Aggravated with my comment, she began to tell me how the first group of women in the facility contracted the virus; she talked about the lack of care-giving to those who became sick, the inconsistency of the facility’s rules and regulations in handling the COVID-19 virus, and the many “little things” that make “it” so bad.
“Tone, you been here, you know how bad it is just being imprisoned, before all of this started. Now imagine having to be locked in your cell everyday as if you were keep-locked, and you didn’t do anything wrong. If anybody knows, it’s you. You remember how I was always getting locked, always getting in trouble, so where I am now—staying in my religion, reading, and just working on myself—to have to be locked in when you did nothing wrong for almost an entire day, and the only time they let you out is to work for them, that’s already messed up in itself. At least I could say Ι’m not locked in myself for 21 or 22 hours out of the day because I have to go to program, but a lot of people are no longer going to programs due to the virus.
“The crazy thing is, it all started from the civilian who works in commissary. He wasn’t feeling well, and because they told him that he would have to use his sick days, he decided to come in and put everybody in danger. And that’s exactly what he did. He had the virus and came to work, and all the women who worked with him got sick. That’s how the virus started to spread inside the facility. And what’s worse, the only thing they did was bring the females back to their units and lock the whole unit down for two weeks. After the two weeks was up, they opened back up the units, and those people that were still sick, on those different units, started to spread the virus. Now here’s why I feel like what they’re doing is not for the greater good of the women who are locked up: none of those women who got sick were taken to the RMU (the facility medical center) to be treated. They didn’t only lock the women who were sick in their cells and quarantine them for two weeks; the entire unit where each one of them lived was locked down. By the time the women were diagnosed, they had already come into contact with many other inmates, so to lock only those units down didn’t stop anything. All it did was make the women scrutinize each other; it made it so that if somebody felt like they were sick, they wouldn’t say anything in fear that the other woman on the unit would turn on them because then that unit would be locked down. That was at least a month before they started only letting fifteen women out at a time. At that point they still were not giving out protective equipment like face masks and gloves. Even now, we still don’t have hand sanitizers, and we have to use our own bathing soap to clean our hands. What many of the women started doing was using our clothes to wrap our faces with, as if [we] were masked, but the officers threatened and even wrote some of the women up for doing that. It wasn’t until Governor Cuomo stated that people had to start wearing masks [that] they provide[d] the disposable masks to us. They only give us one mask per week.
“All of this is only an added insult to the fact that they temporarily terminated outside visitations. What was the point of stopping visits when they have officers and civilian employees coming in and out of the facility? The women are getting sick from the employees, so why haven’t they limited the entering of correctional officers and other civilians? Why, when that commissary civilian got sick, did they let him come into work and infect five women? Why, when someone gets sick, [do] they leave them on the unit? You know there really is no way to quarantine someone on a unit! Yes, the unit is locked down for two weeks, we come out one by one to take a shower, [but] there is absolutely no way to sanitize that general area. If they are trying to “protect” us, why are the officers taking home masks that were donated for us. Get it? To be honest, the lockdown would have been necessary if it was for a common or greater good. But in here, the officers taunt us with this shut down. I don’t feel safe. The constant lies and misleading rules puts us at war with each other. They are using the pandemic to further oppress us, and they are trying to kill us!”
This was our third phone conversation in two weeks. I looked at my phone and saw that we were already on for twenty minutes. I had so many questions to ask. I wanted to know when the last time she spoke to her daughter was; now that Ramadan was over, how hard was it to maintain her vegan lifestyle; what did commissary look like during the lockdown? Quickly, knowing that the phone would shut off at thirty minutes exactly, I asked, “What do you think affects you more, the mental aspect of being in prison or the physical?”. And what did she see society looking like when the lockdown was over? With less than two minutes remaining, she said, “I’m affected by both the mental and physical aspect of being imprisoned. It’s mentally draining to know that something’s always changing, and it’s never for the better, and physically because there’s absolutely no way for me to be with my family and loved ones. I can’t predict exactly what society will look like, but there will be a new normal. Either way, it will look much better than in here. I’m thankful that I’m not sick, but if I were to get sick, I would rather die at home with my family than in this dark place.”
“Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye,” came the automated voice of the service. And with that, the phone hung up.
After the phone hung up, I wondered if H.K. would have enough time to take a shower, make herself something to eat, and use the “kiosk,” the computer plug-in where the women send out their emails, before her time-out-of-her-cell was up. I thought about how much things have changed in the time since I was released and how much it’s still the same. I thought about the fact that, even though the city is locked down, I am able to FaceTime my friends and family when I want to see how they are doing; even though I have to wait on a line to get into a store, I can still buy and make food as I please. When I get home from work, I can take a shower, and, most importantly in these times, I can keep myself safe— I can clean any area I go into with proper cleaning materials, I can sanitize my hands when I am at work, and I have soap to wash my hands before and after I use the bathroom.
The more I thought about all the privileges I have in general, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the more incomprehensible it becomes to me that anyone, as a free individual, would compare the shelter-in-place order imposed for the protection of people with the mandatory lock-up of prison.
Tone Shewprashad, JIE Scholar, Cohort 2019
 When prisoners are accused of an infraction there is a hearing, and, if found guilty, they will be kept locked in their cell for the length of time determined by the hearing officers.
Author bio: Cynthonia Shewprashad (she/her) was born in the Bronx but raised as a foster child in Suffolk County, NY, with six sisters and seven brothers. She currently lives in the Bronx where she found and is building a relationship with her biological mother. After her arrest at the age of nineteen and incarceration for ten years for gang-related activity, she has dedicated her life to help build communities and futures by helping elevate the youth. Her goal is to help kids and young adults to find purpose and belonging outside of gangs and violence. While incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility she earned her Associate’s Degree (AA) from Marymount Manhattan College. She is a JIE Scholar (Cohort 2019) and her most important thing in her life right now is building her relationship with God.
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.