As I’m sitting in my cell on a mandatory, precautionary quarantine/restricted movement, I’m finding it difficult to make sense of everything that’s going on or what’s not going on.
It seems as though at the blink of an eye our world has been turned upside down and chaos has become the new norm. The days of coronavirus as this improbable distant “FOREIGN” invader the “OTHERS” problem has morphed into a worldwide pandemic, a word that I have to translate for my celly who’s a Vietnamese refugee who still struggles with English.
After we both come to an understanding of what we think pandemic really means, a look of concern takes place of his comprehension. He anxiously questions if this pandemic is going to affect his release from prison in a few weeks since ICE agents are scheduled to pick him up and transport him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma for the next leg of his incarceration.
It seems like yesterday that I was in the GED class that I helped tutor where I had my first encounter with this invisible adversary. Although this was over a month ago, in hindsight, this event served as cautionary warning of what was to come.
This experience occurred on a morning I reported to class and was at the back of the room at my desk preparing to pass out assignments while the teacher conducted a “current events” exercise. Somehow the conversation shifted from reports of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China to a debate regarding whether or not Japan was a part of China. WTF?
While I personally thought this was the most ridiculous debate ever, I was just happy that the students were actually doing some work and utilizing their brains for once. However when a white student exclaimed that it didn’t matter if they were different countries or not because they were all “gooks” anyway, I panicked, not necessarily out of any fear for myself, I panicked because I was the only Asian American in the classroom and as somebody who’s been incarcerated for over a decade and counting, I knew what was supposed to happen next and it’s usually never anything good.
I sat there hoping that somebody would speak up on my behalf, contemplating as to what I was supposed to do as a committed practitioner of nonviolence, yet still abiding by my convict code. Silence.
Without going into the nitty-gritty details, after a few choice expletives and my strong “requests” for him to go do something to a “saltines” self, the situation and it with him sitting in silence, embarrassed but never apologizing, and me in the library disappointed that I let an ignorant comment get me out of my character and asking myself what the hell just happened.
Later that day as I was watching a White House briefing on TV, I heard President Trump refer to the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus” and somebody else jokingly called it the “kung flu”, and I clearly got my answers.
As various parts of the world continue and try to deal with this crisis in a variety of ways, Monroe Correctional Complex or MCC has had its fair share of random strategies.
One day we’re told that all is fine and that everything is running as normal. The next there’s a bunch of random flyers in the wall telling us to wash our hands if we want to live in and another memo stating that visits and programs are suspended until further notice. But wait, I thought we were all good?
Next thing you know half the prison is on quarantine because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. We have nothing to worry about because the Department of Corrections has it all under control right?
Eventually we’re told we have to practice social distancing. Let me describe what that concept means here at MCC.
An individual like myself can line up for chow with 50 other prisoners at a time standing two feet apart but not be allowed to sit at the table with anybody else because they’re only allowing one person per table, then have to come straight to my 6×10 cell and practice social distancing with my celly that I couldn’t sit at a dinner with yet share a cell with. Makes perfect sense right?
When I ask an officer whose bright idea it was to run chow like that I’m told it came from the lieutenant. It’s extremely comforting to know that public health policies are being drafted and implemented by medical experts and that my life is in safe hands of somebody who looks eerily like the GED student I had that encounter with.
A week later an individual gets rushed to the hospital after showing symptoms of COVID-19 but l test results come back negative, thank god. Oh no, wait it’s actually positive! What now? Lockdown!
Every time somebody coughs or sneezes in here there’s a deathly silence and accusatory glares. We really don’t know what’s going on. One minute we’re all good, next pandemonium and the facility is on lockdown and the officers rarely have any answers.
Memos are distributed telling us that everything is okay but the media is telling us that half the world is on stay-at-home orders and dying.
A nurse comes by twice a day to check our temperatures and those who are running a little hot or refuse are taken to isolation. Those who feel unsafe and at risk of infection keep their mouth shut out of fear of being taken to solitary confinement and having even more of our basic privileges stripped away.
Officers are just stressed and that stress is more often than not taken out on us. It’s hard to say but I kind of empathize with them. When you’re on the front lines trying to survive while somebody in a safe isolated office is doling out orders, it can be easy to misdirect anger and frustration.
As the federal government passes a two trillion-dollar stimulus package to rescue the nation’s economy, I’m left to wonder where my comrades and I fit into that record-breaking package.
Because although working for $0.42 an hour normally isn’t ideal and is a living wage somewhere in the world, many of us have come to depend on those pennies to survive and now we can’t even do that due to this indefinite lockdown.
And it’s not like Correctional Industries is racing to save anybody. They’re still overcharging us for food and hygiene products that we could barely afford in the first place. Yet the flyers say we’re supposed to wash your hands with soap and more often to stay alive.
I guess those of us fortunate enough to still have family could contact them for some money for commissary and phone time but who knows how long they’re going to have to make their $1,200 government check stretch and that’s if they ever get them. So why burden them even more?
To make matters worse, my celly was just notified by his counselor/caseworker that his release date is probably getting pushed back because ICE doesn’t have the capacity to come pick him up during this pandemic. Nice to see that although the world is crumbling all around us, at least the Good Ol Boys of ICE and DOC have their priorities straight and it’s still business as usual. Is that even legal? Maybe I should try to find somebody to translate that for both of us.
Look, all jokes aside I’m scared shitless in here. I find myself trying to make jokes about the situation to help cope with my own fear and anxiety. How’s it working? It’s tough being so isolated in here worried sick about my loved ones.
Thoughts of my aging parents and my kids missing school and my bougie sister probably out there protesting on my behalf somewhere.
I watch the news all day and selfishly wish I could be watching an NBA game to take my mind off all things Corona but even that has been canceled. Seeing on CNN that the U.S. is closing in on an alarming 2,500 deaths to date is something I can’t even comprehend.
Honestly, I hope I never do. And then I see a report coming out of Spain that they had nearly half that many deaths in just the last 24 hours in my fear and anxiety are heightened tenfold.
Are we next? Maybe I need to stop watching so much TV, I say to myself.
When there’s money on the phone I call home when I can sneak out my cell to talk to a few of my friends and family to check in with them as their on stay-at-home orders as well and try to make light of the situation in hopes of brightening the day if only for a moment.
Yet sadly, as soon as I hang up it’s another long walk back to my cell and like clockwork another round of temperature checks and CNN… and yes, even more translations from distance.
Fellix Sitthivong is an organizer for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group at Monroe Corrections Center in Monroe, Washington. This article was written on March 30th, a couple weeks after the WHO declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic and as corrections administration were implementing social distancing inside their facilities.