This article is part of the series

Pandemic Journal #18

Philip A. Dwyer/The Bellingham Herald via AP Images A maximum security cell block at Whatcom County Jail, Bellingham, Washington, 2015
Philip A. Dwyer/The Bellingham Herald via AP Images. A maximum security cell block at Whatcom County Jail, Bellingham, Washington, 2015

MONROE, WASHINGTON—The cellblock I live in looks like every movie you’ve ever seen about Alcatraz: a towering wall of a hundred and sixty barred cell-fronts, four tiers high and forty cells long. But the cells here are older than the ones at Alcatraz; Washington State built this prison one hundred and twelve years ago. And each of these six- by nine-foot cells are double-bunked—after all, this is the age of mass incarceration. The cellhouse comprises two of these cellblocks, three hundred and twenty cells in total.

The pulse of the prison passes through this cellhouse. I see it and hear it in a way that only someone halfway through their fourth decade of incarceration can.

“You guys are off lockdown.”

That was the announcement over the PA system on Monday March 23, at 9:32 AM, letting us know the quarantine was lifted. I knew—or at least hoped—the announcement was coming, because medical staff had ceased to make rounds and check our temperatures days earlier.

The cell doors racked open and we poured out of the cellhouse en masse— all of us who had spent the preceding two weeks confined in cells hardly big enough to turn around in, doing everything we could not to touch or brush against one another, not to breathe one another’s air.

We wandered out into a different prison to the one we knew two weeks prior, before a guard showed up to work infected with the coronavirus and got our cellhouse put on lockdown. Now, groups and organizations are no longer allowed to meet, and volunteers and sponsors (i.e., free people) aren’t allowed in the prison. All educational activities and courses are cancelled. Religious services are discontinued. And friends and family can’t visit, until further notice. Prison, even at its best, doesn’t feel tolerable—this unmitigated prison feels less so.

I can’t help but notice that a long line of prisoners still queues up in the morning at Gate 7. These are workers waiting to be processed through to their work stations in Correctional Industries. This doesn’t surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone. If the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement weren’t enough to abolish the kind of labor exploitation that still happens inside these walls, there isn’t any reason to believe a pandemic, or even an apocalypse, will.

On Tuesday March 24, in an attempt to implement the social distance protocol, prison administrators put a hundred-and-fifty-person limit on how many of us can go to the Yard. Which, of course, created a press of several hundred people in the courtyard shoving and fighting to get to the Yard gate. Those who made it had to place their hands—with whatever virus may be on them—on the bars of the turnstile in order to push through and get into the Yard. Everyone in the Yard shares eight phones that are situated eighteen inches apart.

On Wednesday March 25, in another attempt to social distance, guards directed us to sit one person to each four-person table in the chow hall. However, they still make us line up in close single-file order, forty to eighty prisoners at a time, to pick up a tray at the serving line window. And before we leave the chow hall, we close ranks again to drop off the trays and grimy plastic eating utensils at the dish pit where prisoners wash them by hand. The prison removed the dishwashing machine several years ago to save money.

On Thursday March 26, administrators reopened two antiquated cellblocks comprised of former disciplinary-segregation cells (also known as “the Hole”). They have sat vacant since our state built a $50 million long-term solitary confinement facility here nearly twenty years ago. An undercurrent of grumbling circulated through the population when guards moved parole violators into the cellblocks because local county jails—trying to bring down their populations in preparation for the onslaught of the virus—now refused to house them. All of us inside these walls know that if anyone is going to bring the virus in, it will likely be one of those prisoners plucked fresh off the streets.

Tonight, word spread through my cellblock—I heard the news pass from cell to cell, until finally it reached mine—that another guard and a prisoner had tested positive.

Arthur Longworth, a six-time PEN America Prison Writing Award winner and a 2019–2020 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow, is a contributing writer with the Marshall Project and the author of Zek: An American Prison Story (2016). (April 2020)

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