When distancing isn’t an option

When distancing and quarantine are near-impossible, jails and prisons become "petri dishes" whose damage extends long after recovery of symptoms.

Photography by Yasmeen Khalifa

I laid shivering on my bunk under a wool blanket. The chattering of my teeth frightened me when I was coherent enough to think about it. The low roar of the dorm made my head swim and my white prison t-shirt stuck to my skin, saturated in sweat. I had the flu. Medical insisted it was just allergies, despite my high temperature and other symptoms. When I mentioned that it was a particularly bad flu season, and maybe they should consider testing me for it, I was dismissed back to the dorm. This alarmed me. I wasn’t just worried about my well-being but also that of the women in my housing area.

I lived with several older ladies who couldn’t afford a nasty bout of flu. So, I did what I could to minimize my risk to others while maintaining some level of personal comfort, but it wasn’t easy. I stayed cocooned under my blanket, wiped down sinks and toilets with (contraband) bleach after use and took showers when the rest of the dorm was asleep. I avoided the chow hall at all costs, and instead crawled as far as I could into the corner of my cubicle to eat a ramen and drink a V-8. I felt delirious at one point, as I waved in and out of consciousness, lying helplessly on my bunk. It was frightening and difficult but after two weeks of struggling, I finally broke through the fevers and slowly began to recover. 

Prisons are prime real estate for germs. Large groups of human beings stacked on top of each other in small spaces makes the outbreak of disease inevitable. I witnessed scabies, lice, boils, staph, strep throat, flus, colds and pneumonia spread through a unit like wildfire. My training as a peer health educator taught me the simple power of actively washing my hands and wiping down surfaces. Because of this, I usually only ended up with a minor cold once a year. But not that year. That year, the flu made a believer out of me concerning its potential complications and severity, especially in a population where universal precautions are almost impossible.

When someone asks me what a person in jail or prison might be feeling right now as  COVID-19 quietly approaches the gates, I tell them to watch a particular scene from season three of The Walking Dead. A character is locked in a room, shackled to a chair and she’s racing to break free before the guy in the room turns into a zombie. It seems like an overly dramatic comparison, but I assure you, it’s not. When someone gets sick with an infectious disease in your pod, dorm or cellblock, you know it’s just a matter of time before you’re next and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Now outside prison gates, Toon remains deeply connected to the plight of those inside.

As one recent article noted, jails and prisons are becoming petri dishes, endangering not only inmates but correctional staff and thus the community at large. East Texas counties have implemented policies and procedures to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in their jails, which has included releasing those charged with nonviolent offenses. Other counties across the state would like to increase releasing in ways they believe best for their communities but have been blocked by an executive order issued by Governor Abbott that many argue is unconstitutional. Advocates have put together a county criminal justice stakeholder toolkit to advise counties on how to utilize a myriad of other options — besides mass releases — that are within the guidelines of Governor Abbott’s executive order.

Not long ago, it would have been me sitting in an East Texas county jail. Just a little over a year ago, it would have been me on lockdown at one of the women’s prison units in Gatesville, where an outbreak escalates each day. The strange thing is, I feel like it is me. Despite the circumstances around why they are there, people experiencing incarceration are still a part of us. They need our best efforts to help them get through this crisis. 

When prison staff take measures to reduce symptoms like high fevers or contain the sick in separate quarters, or when county officials find ways to reduce exposure, it sends a message. Those inside prison and jail gates feel valued as human beings. Their anxieties are quelled, if only because someone has shown attention and concern. 

Ultimately, these gestures and efforts help folks connect to humanity, their own and others. That matters, especially in prisons and jails where connection with humanity has often been buried or lost. When they return to our communities, trust me, they will remember our response.

Jennifer Toon is a formerly incarcerated criminal justice advocate who was born and raised in East Texas. She attended Kilgore High School, and U.T. Tyler, and studied journalism at The University of Houston. She has 25 years of criminal justice involvement inside and outside the gates. Jennifer has written for the state prison newspaper, The Echo, for over ten years and as a freelance writer she has published work with The Guardian, The Texas Observer and  The Marshall Project.

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