Luke Ross Lyons //
Let me help you focus on the impact of COVID-19 on our “invisible population,” the incarcerated, locked behind barbed-wire fences, steel doors, and concrete walls, only hoping not to become infected. Let me share my own personal experiences inside prison and in the world of COVID-19 and the effects that my recent past reality has had on this new reality in my life. Let me share my own reflections on life inside because I, myself, was incarcerated for twelve-and-one-half years in two state terms in a correctional facility in New York State. And let me give you the personal account of a friend who is currently incarcerated, the fears and hopes reflected in their and my poetry while inside a prison before and during this pandemic.
I left prison in November of 2019, but my mind and heart felt heavy, knowing that I may never again see the people I had grown to care about. However, these friends, whose own words I share with you, hold an even deeper love in my heart, mind, and spirit. A trust and love that is so hard to find in the outside world, and which inside prison walls is very rare. Each and every day, I worry about my friends who are incarcerated, knowing that they are at a high risk of contracting this virus because of where they must live and survive.
The one I call my brother, I feel such sorrow for because of the love and bond we share to this day although we are not able to be in physical contact. Yesterday was his birthday, and on such a day when he should be celebrating, he was stressed worrying about an invisible enemy.
This is his poem that he would like to share with you, so his voice, pain, and anger could be heard. People need to know what’s happening inside prisons from the people inside them.
Untitled 1 Locked up during a pandemic so many weary eyes, so many frantic cries Our world is a boat, and it’s the Titanic – Confusion and Panic Wild thoughts, anger, and madness is our everyday. Are we gonna die here, – should we try to escape – or just sit and wait for COVID-19 to invade this place these are our fears, our cries of pain, plus tears Will we ever make it outta here Alive? Hey Mr. Cuomo, we’re not SAFE In the hands of the Department of Corrections We’re living in buildings the same way as them nursing home blocks With the same kind of medical unprofessionalism, attention filled with Negligence, Racism, Hate, and Discrimination, along with being misdiagnosed. So, we won’t reach out for help if we need it We would rather die in our bunks or cells If you know you’re sick better keep it a secret Social Distancing in prison is a Joke, just like Rehabilitation We’re overly populated by the forces of Evil, Hateful beings That only care and believe in one race Profiting off the souls of other human beings The reason why this world seems to be coming to an end Do you know if these are the signs, with history repeating itself, With God saying: Let my people Go? “A national disgrace” More than 40,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. A have been linked to nursing homes. (USA Today)
I am adding a text sent from him to me in May 2020:
“Bro, from one day to the next they keep me locked in my cell. I knew it was a matter of time [before] this virus would enter this prison. I was watching the news, the number of people passing away and getting sick was crazy. I started to panic and I was thinking this prison is most likely gonna lock us all in and leave us here to die. So, I needed to figure out how to get out of my cell and refuse to lock-in once. I said to myself If this shit [virus] is airborne we are all assed out.
“One day we were all locked in and the doors were not opening at the usual time. We found out the little old Italian lady was sick and taken off the unit. Then we heard Ms. Bee was also sick and in very bad shape still in her cell. She contracted it the worst, she couldn’t breathe, coughing up blood and shitting on herself. The medical staff, doctor and nurses treated her terribly, only picking her up off the floor and plopping her back in the bunk then leaving the unit. These people had no empathy or compassion for a woman who was someone’s Mother and Grandmother horribly sick from the Corvid-19 virus. She was finally taken off the unit, after many of us yelled out and complained to the officers. We also found out there was a third woman from our unit who was sick and positive from the virus. Many of us prayed for these women, by the grace of God they did recover from the COVID-19 virus and have returned to the unit.
“In the beginning when this first happened, the officers were only letting six of us out of the cells at a time. They would keep the C side and D side separated. But when recreation time came to go outside, they would mix us all together, it made no sense. But nothing in this place makes sense on any given day. Then they stopped that completely and proceeded to lock us down for 22 hours a day in our cells. Our food, meds and packages were delivered to people. No more visits and drafts, we were cut off completely from family, friends, and one another in the prison. No one to talk with and no one from the Office of Mental Health [OMH] came to check on us. We were on our own inside our own minds, afraid and alone.
“Officers, sergeants, and staff were treating us like we had the virus, when it was them bringing it inside the prison. Then four of my peers and myself from the honor floor were stripped of our earned housing unit for no logical reason. We were forced to become essential workers in the prison. They forced us into the back buildings and a dorm setting with forty-five other people. The prison administration was exposing us even more to COVID-19 virus, and threatening us if we didn’t comply and refused, we would be put in a Special Housing Unit [SHU] for problematic inmates.
“My biggest fears were and still are, what if this virus really gets out of control in here, and, God forbid, what if something happens to the people I love? Then we found out Ms. Lulu passed away from the virus. They’re not testing anyone, unless you’re showing real bad signs of sickness. But people are hiding it if they’re sick because this place would rather we die before they help us. This place is so congested and the higher ups are so hateful, that it has become a scary dangerous place to be now. Nobody is clapping their hands for these doctors and nurses or administration. Officers, sergeants, lieutenants and maintenance men do not even wear masks. Even after some of them came up positive. Nobody knows how many times you can get COVID-19. THERE ARE NO HEROES IN HERE BRO. They write tickets for not social distancing. But they don’t even follow their own rules here. This place is chaotic and scary, bro. All I do is pray and take one day at a time. Love you, bro, stay safe.”
My brother and I met inside the prison, and we developed a friendship and bond unlike any other we had experienced before in our lives. Our friendship is rare, especially inside prison. We attended college classes together and went through transition together. Now, we are separated and it lays heavy on my mind, every day. He is there surviving day by day. There is nothing I can do to get him out. I give him support the best I can, as any real brother would for their little brother who’s locked behind prison walls. My experience inside prison was chaotic and scary but not to the extent or level he is experiencing now; while in prison I never had to fear for my life from an invisible enemy lurking, waiting to strike and kill without knowing.
This is a place I know well. And these are my thoughts before COVID-19
Structured Insanity Each day I am woken to the noise of loud voices Banging doors and yelling up and down the corridors My mind is painfully awakened to the reality of where I am By these voices hurting my ears as I start a new day in prison I am living with people who are not easy to talk with or even trust It feels sad to me if I dwell on the thought but I don’t I get up and get ready for work at 16 cents an hour Starting another day living behind barbed wire fences steel doors and concrete walls, in a world of structured insanity.
When I experienced jail, from January 2013 to June 2014, and then prison until November 2019, it felt like a sad, depressing place. The isolation was damaging emotionally. Human beings are not meant to be locked up like animals in cages. When I first arrived in prison, and as punishment for not giving them my medication, I was locked up 23 hours a day, getting one hour of recreation. This lasted for 45 days until the superintendent at the time gave me a time cut; I beat the tier-three ticket, the highest ticket you can get while incarcerated, which led to my 23-hour isolation. I have always been a loner, but this incident only helped me stay introverted. I didn’t trust anyone, and I always observed my surroundings and watched people. I have been doing it since I was a kid. Survival for me meant being smart; this wasn’t the problem. It was me that was the problem. I suffered from anxiety and depression and destructive behavior most of my life. So, self-isolation I could handle physically; it was the mental part that stressed me out. I would be put on meds and assigned a doctor and therapist. Not that they really cared about me; it was policy and procedure under the Office of Mental Health and The Department of Corrections. I was given a job as a porter and decided I was going to get involved with the Family Violence Program. God knew I needed help, and it was time for me to face myself and all the demons haunting me. Prison became the healing place for me, even though it may sound crazy. I decided for myself that I was going to use the time in prison constructively even with all the negative surroundings. There would be many challenges along the way. But I was my biggest challenge, trying to keep my mind and emotions in check. It’s very easy to act out in negative ways in prison, especially from the stress and close proximity of people and officers constantly testing one’s ability to stay focused and not react towards them.
My personal transition and education became the blessings that set me free inside prison. I am a transgender man who was able to begin this process behind barbed wire fences inside a maximum-security women’s prison. At the same time, I was also able to attend college inside the prison. These dramatic changes in my life inside a prison would become the stepping stones towards changing my life forever, becoming the man and student I was meant to become, all inside a prison environment. Now, I fear for those people whom I had to leave behind, who are now dealing with a pandemic inside the prison walls, unprotected. Living in a heightened fear with no control. This stirs up many feelings and emotions for me and those I love and care about, inside and out. I just want to scream and ask GOD WHY? WHY? WHY… it is consuming my thoughts, my heart, my spirit, and life today as I write and try my best to express for my people and myself to maybe help others who read the truth and testimony of my friends and myself, our thoughts, worries, concerns, fears, and hope towards the future. How the joy and pain of loving another human being is the most precious part of living and being a part of life on Mother Earth.
Education was the key which helped me feel challenged, stimulated, and hungry for knowledge. I met an educator who was very passionate about teaching and helping people. She would change my life as I knew it forever. She is my mentor and a woman I feel very blessed to have met. She teaches college inside prison and on the outside. Her teaching methods and strength have touched many lives for the better. I spoke to her regarding college now, dealing with COVID-19 and how it has affected her as an educator, her students and teaching inside prison. She expressed her worries for her students inside prison and how this pandemic has affected the students and her. Now the college program and professors must try to figure out how they can move forward with teaching and how this can be achieved.
College programs in prison have a positive impact on people who are incarcerated and for society. I am a testimony to this, as are my peers in my college class on the outside. We are former inmates. College changed our lives, giving us a vision for a better future. College enhances one’s self-esteem and confidence while reducing violence in the prison through structure and discipline. Confinement without education as a rehabilitation method is an overwhelming stress when there is no stability and mental release. This only increases a person’s loneliness and isolation. Inmates gain a sense of stability from the structure, school work, and attending classes. According to Sean Simms, a student in the Prison University Program at San Quentin, “The College Program has created such a positive, energetic environment that it is completely separate from the rest of the prison.”
There are approximately 2.3 million people in the United States locked up in jails and prisons today. This is the highest number and rate compared to any other country in the world. Now, they are faced with a pandemic entering at a dangerous rate without proper protection. Their educational and college programs are being interrupted on a level which hurts any attempt to receive a classroom education. On the outside we, college students, are using Zoom for class. Students in prison are not afforded that privilege or any opportunity to return to class with the professors. I myself will say class over the Internet is not even close to the classroom experience. However, it remains a portal to continued learning. As professors and college programs in prison try to figure out a way to continue teaching inside, it will be a challenge for both the students and their educators. We all have a new virus to face, confront, and survive. We try to contain it by wearing masks and gloves and maintaining social distance; however, in prison social distancing is hard to obtain because of the proximity of people. Everyone’s lives are being changed forever, and in prison lives will change, too, but not for the better. It has exacerbated the negative environment in prison to a whole new level.
Only time will tell whether people will start believing in science. When we protect ourselves, we protect others. Masks, gloves, and distance must be taken seriously. Or this virus will continue to spread. In ten weeks some 40 million have lost jobs. Our food banks are running out of food. The virus has fueled widespread fear, frustration, pain, and sorrow and brought to light our many faults as a nation, exposing the differences of color, class, and privilege. Who are the deliverers, and whom are delivered to, in a world where we must all be united to win this battle against an invisible enemy?
I will continue to stay connected to my brother inside prison, giving him love and support the best possible way, similar to what was so freely given to me when I was inside the prison walls and also outside now, in society. I pray and hope for the best, with regards to friends and family on the outside in this reality, and for a brother whom I love inside prison and don’t wish to lose.
Luke Ross Lyons
JIE Scholars Program,
 Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. 2014. Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison. New York: The New Press, page 61.
Author bio: Luke Ross Lyons was raised in Long Beach, Long Island, by a single mother, the youngest of four kids. He loves to read, write, and watch documentaries and sports, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite football team since he was a young child. He learned to love the sport from playing football with his brothers. He is a transgender man and is transitioning to be a complete male. He became involved with educating himself while incarcerated. College and the wonderful people he has met inside and out in the world have helped him change his life for the better. He has goals and ambitions today: he wants to finish college and earn a BA in social work because he would like the opportunity to work with transgender youth. He is also involved with a couple of his transgender brothers who are still inside those walls that introduced him to college, to whom he gives emotional and, occasionally, financial support. He has a bond with them and truly loves them, and he misses them every day.
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.