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IDEAS

‘It’s not possible to isolate yourself or social distance in here’

When America went into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, the incarcerated were locked in with it.

One in five prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times higher than that of the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.
One in five prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times higher than that of the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.Steve Griffin/Associated Press

Rodney Bush, 53, is serving the last year of a 10-year federal prison sentence for robbery. His life, he says, “is like two different books.” In one, “I grew up in an educated, middle-class family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I did well in school and went on to study at Howard University. I have a beautiful daughter and granddaughter.” In the other, Bush says, “I was a casualty of divorce, raised by a single working mom who didn’t have much time to supervise me. Because I was smart and school came easily, no one really noticed when I became a juvenile delinquent. I started using drugs around age 13.”

Bush has been in and out of prison since an arrest for selling drugs when he was 21. Heroin addiction, he says, has derailed him many times. Before COVID, he found purpose in prison by staying busy. “I worked in the kitchen daily. I’ve taken college classes, learned trades, even studied Spanish. I attended religious services twice weekly. That was my routine for seven years, and it was working for me. But COVID-19 had other plans.”

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At FCI Fort Dix, the federal prison in New Jersey where Bush is serving time, at least 1,838 inmates and 86 staff have been infected with COVID-19. That number includes Bush. “We weren’t allowed to leave the building, even for a breath of air,” he says. “Basically, they just locked the virus in the building and let it run through here.”

A spokesman for the prison did not respond to requests for comment from Ideas.

According to data collected since March 2020 by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press, at least 386,765 men and women in American prisons have been infected with the coronavirus. That’s one in five state and federal prisoners, an infection rate more than four times that of the general population. For at least 2,459 inmates nationwide, the virus was a death sentence. Prison staff have not been spared: At least 105,602 employees in US prisons have contracted COVID-19, and nearly 200 have died.

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As Americans pass the one-year mark of life in lockdown, prisoners like Bush have been marking time in a different way: infection by infection. “The way this place is designed,” Bush says, “it’s not possible to isolate yourself or social distance. They put up signs saying ‘Wash your hands’ and ‘Stay six feet apart.’ But there’s just no way to do that in here.” Bush’s attorney, Liz Oyer, interviewed him for Ideas. His comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

I first heard about the coronavirus watching the news from Wuhan, China. At first, I didn’t think about it a whole lot, but when it jumped to this country, I started to become concerned. I kept hearing the advice to avoid congested areas and large groups. I knew that if it hit the prison, it would spread like wildfire. There would be no way to contain it.

Last March, they decided to lock down all the prisons to keep the virus out. Later, they handed out face masks, but most people don’t [wear them], and with one officer for about 300 inmates, they don’t enforce it. It’s just not possible. The only time they’d make people wear them was if someone was coming through for a tour or inspection.

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When we went on lockdown, my daily routine came to a screeching halt. All programming and visitation were canceled. There were no more classes, no religious services, nothing to keep our minds busy. It was very depressing and discouraging. Guys were walking around lethargic. Some were sleeping all day. Older guys worried they’d been left to die in here.

I sleep in a six-man bunk room. There’s a guy above me and a guy next to me. They told us to sleep “head to toe” to keep from getting sick.

The first COVID case in my building was reported in October. A few nights later, I woke up and heard my bunkmate thrashing around in his bed. I thought he was having a nightmare, so I tried to wake him. By the expression on his face, I could tell he was really in distress. He said, “Rod, I can’t breathe.” We went to the on-duty officer for help, but he said there were no medical staff on duty. The officer said he’d just have to “tough it out” until morning. My friend was panicking. He was really scaring me. But the way it works in here, if you don’t fall down on the floor, they don’t call an ambulance.

All of us were tested a few days later. Everyone in my room had it. Out of 232 guys in the whole building, all but eight or nine had it. They removed those guys and locked the rest of us in.

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I have health conditions that increase my vulnerability to the virus, so I was praying I wouldn’t die or wind up on a ventilator. I was feeling pretty bad for a while. I lost my taste and smell for a week, suffered the worst headaches I’ve ever had in my life, and felt pain in my kidneys and legs that lasted for weeks.

The craziest part was how they scrambled after the virus hit — working backwards to address it. After our building was hit in October, they started running around putting up signs everywhere, installing soap dispensers, putting six-foot markers on the floor. But it’s hard to stop the water when the dam has already burst.

When they learned that some state inspectors were coming in, they raced to make everything look as good as possible. One of the inspectors noticed the mold growing all over the bathroom ceiling because of poor ventilation. Instead of fixing it, they just had some of the inmates scrub it with bleach and cover it up with paint.

We noticed they put only rookie officers in here after the virus hit. The senior officers wouldn’t set foot in here. The unit team staff stopped making their rounds and locked themselves in their offices. We were on our own.

The prison’s medical director came in for a “town hall.” She and her staff were dressed in decontamination suits, with face shields and eye goggles, the whole works. This made us feel like we were toxic. She told us we’d just have to “ride it out.” She said they’d let us off lockdown after everyone in the building tested negative.

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After this meeting, animosity started to build. It was obvious that there was no plan. Depression set in deeper. Some guys were sicker than others, but we were all suffering in our own ways. My roommates and I recovered, but a couple older guys were taken to the hospital and I never saw them again.

After 45 days, they suddenly announced that the lock-in was over. I don’t know why. My last test said I was positive. But they told us we were all recovered, just like that. Nobody believed it. They sent us back to work that day. We all thought this was crazy, but we put our masks on and did as we were told.

The worst part is that it’s dragging on. New cases keep popping up all the time. I don’t want to use the word “hopeless.” But it messes with your hope a little bit. Everything feels out of your control. It’s very depressing. There’s nothing we can do about it. You just have to learn to live with it.

I’m at the age now where I can feel my own mortality. I lost my mother in the middle of all of this and I couldn’t even be there. This pandemic has put me through all different emotions: fear, because of the horror stories I’ve heard about people dying from the virus; anger, because it seemed as if we were being forsaken; hopelessness, since we have no control over our own welfare in here. With no programming and no visitation, the days creep by and I feel more isolated than ever.

What keeps me going is that I focus on the future. My family helps. It’s a joy to hear my new granddaughter laugh or cry over the phone. I try to stay focused on what life will be like after this.

The virus is in here to stay. That’s how it seems to me. Thank God I don’t have that much time left. The way things are going, I will be out of this place before the virus is.

Liz Oyer is senior litigation counsel to the Federal Public Defender in Maryland.