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My COVID Prison

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

A quarter-century in prison and this decade past now in solitary confinement is part of my integrity. As responsibility for the serious transgressions of my past, prison is not a good place no matter how well a fellow strives to do his time here.

COVID-19 is a weird, weird nemesis once it invades your body. This is the saga of my battle with a virus and a plea to friends in closing. From Coffield Prison in Texas.

As COVID-19 overwhelmed the prison where I live, I observed that guards and prisoners alike disregarded wearing masks as often as not. Even nurses wouldn’t wear masks, complaining that they were “too hot” and made it difficult to talk. Prisonacracy provided everyone with masks, including two cloth versions for each prisoner. I’d “modified” my masks to better fit my face and added a big happy face to each one. I was the only prisoner who always wore a mask outside the cell on my housing line of forty-two fellows. I’m also older than most prisoners and respiratory illness frightens me. I trot eight kilometers a few times a week and do a daily exercise program to maintain better-than-average physical conditioning, because prison is not a place to expect much help if one gets sick. That physical conditioning is a thing of the past now.

Every prisoner was offered two COVID-19 tests. 04 June and 06 July were my test dates. Most prisoners did the testing, although some refused. No housing changes or other repercussions came with refusal.

Coffield has done two separate precautionary lockdowns. The first was from 05 May until 10 May after a prisoner had tested positive at an outside hospital. The second started on 17 June, has “restarted” with each new case confirmed numerous times, and remains in effect as I write this on 31 July – with no end in sight.

Lockdown is the best way a prison administration can try minimizing a communicable disease outbreak in an unsafe environment that doesn’t allow for social distancing. A lockdown nonetheless creates challenges of its own after a certain amount of time.

12 July. I had an earache, sore throat, and slight fever. Since cells here are triple-digit incubators all summer long, I don’t recognize a fever as such unless it ligers once the cell cools in the evening. This fever didn’t fade, but it wasn’t too bad for a few days in the beginning.

14 July. A prisoner three cells away from me was one of several notified that their 06 July tests had been confirmed positive.

15 July. Coffield had 752 confirmed positive cases, according to the Texas Tribune. Almost 20 percent of the prison population in Texas’ largest prison. I wasn’t nor would I ever be included in the numbers since my tests had both been negative.

16 July. COVID-19 and I went to war. An old killer stumbling through a practice of non-violence for years now and a new killer with hundreds of thousands of bodies already on the sidewalk in its campaign of mass destruction. Even as I engaged the battle I wondered what would winning really be? A virus isn’t a living entity. The only thing we could fight over was my life. In that regard, ultimate stakes.

The fever flared suddenly and raged like a wildfire for the duration of the conflict. My body burned constantly and yet I never produced even a drop of perspiration. I’d drink sixty ounces of water several times each day and neither sweat nor pee. Gallons of water intake wouldn’t relieve my feeling dehydrated. Weird, weird scenario. (I remain convinced the water ultimately saved my life).

My senses of taste and smell disappeared completely. Eyesight, hearing, and equilibrium crashed soon thereafter. I couldn’t breathe except in desperate gasps as my lungs largely ceased to function. Something like a vise under my sternum tightened and locked until I was no longer fighting as much as I was just waiting for the end. COVID-19 winning every round in every way. Decisively!

Death would have been a relief. I lingered in misery. A Quaker prays. A stubborn fool refuses to surrender. Those would remain my battle strategy. As COVID-19 continued to torture me, every joint and muscle in my body hurt. Standing up became a precarious exercise far beyond the vertigo I’ve lived with for a lifetime. Falling down in a cage on concrete and steel soon left me battered and bruised. A few attempts would at least land me on the toilet facing the sink to fill and drain a water bottle a few times. Otherwise, I existed entirely on the floor as COVID-19 kicked the life out of me.

Two sick call requests I’d submitted early into the ordeal haven’t garnered a reply. Nurses had stopped coming onto the housing lines except to deliver medications ordered and abruptly leave. Or when a medical emergency broadcast on the radios required them to show up somewhere. Guards started doing counts by tapping on cell doors, and if a fellow showed any sign of movement the guard moved to the next cell. A few prisoners died, including one on the housing line next to mine.

Fever deliriums became a source of relief and amusement from my miserable state. For a while, my cell was a spacecraft orbiting too close to the sun. I couldn’t steer the capsule away from the heat.

Guards I enjoy good rapport with would offer encouragement. “Hang in there, Quaker,” “Fight, brother, you can beat this.” One peered into my cell and queried, “Man, are you going to live?” I laughed. “Do I look like I have any f-ing answers right now?” COVID-19 couldn’t beat my dark sense of humor, at least. It might sound crazy, but that became an important encouragement for me in a war I was clearly losing. Laughing at COVID-19 and how it was wrecking havoc on me became an actual weapon. If this virus was going to kill me, I became determined to laugh in its face until the Elders came for me.

Amazon delivers anything, anywhere to anyone, but it can’t get a steering gear repair kit to the hot side of the sun? Maybe the drones melt trying to get there? Or else they’re intelligent enough to avoid this burn zone entirely? I’d sure like to try rebuilding the steering gear, though. As Doris Day would say, “Que sera, sera.”

The steering wheel wobbled completely loose in my hands. I held it momentarily. A sense of doom settled in, I released it and watched it drift casually around the capsule.

“Okay, God, I’m done. I’m a Quaker. I don’t even know how to be a warrior anymore? COVID-19 wins. Whatever, you drive. I’m just going to stare out the window and enjoy the scenery. You let me rejoin humanity after I’d been a monster, God. Creation and evolution are both beautiful! It’s been a wild ride. Thank you!”

The spacecraft crashed or melted? It’s nowhere to be seen. I wake up in a swamp. On Mercury? Science can figure that out eventually? My body feels like it took the full impact of the crash. I’m sprawled face down in a swamp. That really stinks! Wait a minute, a swamp on Mercury looks just like a prison cell in Texas.

26 July. I’m sweating! Both the sheet that I sleep on and the concrete beneath it are soaked in a small lake of perspiration. My equilibrium is still off, but I stand and stagger my way to the sink. I drink 60 ounces of water like a famished camel on a desert odyssey. I turn back towards the front of the cell. Time out! I steer to the toilet and stand there peeing like a stallion.

I’m quite ill, but I feel much better than I did. The fever is essentially where it was in the beginning and I have a few commissary aspirin packets left. My taste, smell, eyesight, hearing, carpal tunnel, cognition, and equilibrium remain noticeably affected. For how long? Sweating and peeing are nice, though.

Did COVID-19 win? No. Did I win? I’m just glad to be alive.

Plea one. COVID-19 is serious! It can hurt you to a point where you’d accept death just for relief. It can kill you.

Please wear your masks, wash your hands, and practice all reasonable precautions. Any alleged leader who says precautions are unnecessary is a fool, a selfish soul, or worse. Ignore that nonsense! Be blessed, be safe.

Plea two. We stand at the precipice of advancing the light of equality in many ways right now. Us versus them is not how we win, it’s the problem itself. We must stand together and demand systemic change in the interest of equality for one and all. We must stand together until that change happens. Now is the time, friends. Stand as one humanity, please.

As always, the only Quaker in Texas prison welcomes Light at:

Christopher Dye
805217, 2661 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, Texas USA 75884

(no adhesive labels, white stationary only).

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