[Reporter’s note: As of Sunday afternoon, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported 37 incarcerated people at six prisons who have tested positive for COVID-19. It also reported 164 pending tests and 127 negative tests. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported 59 positive COVID-19 cases and one death at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner.]
Many media outlets, including Policy Watch, have reported on the actions and statements of the Department of Public Safety as it grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s rare that audiences get to hear from the people serving time. This compilation is meant to provide a glimpse of life in prison during this historic moment. Policy Watch knows the names of the incarcerated people, but is not publishing them because they fear retribution in prison for talking to media. Some of their stories have been edited and condensed for publication.
Story 1 – Catawba Correctional Center:
I’m not so worried for myself. There are a lot of people over the age of 60 here.
The way they’re handling this thing is not the way the government is reporting. We don’t even sleep 4 feet apart; I am 36 inches from the person in the bed next to me. The day room is constantly packed.
One thing that has really bothered me that happened was when someone was taken to the hospital recently for a staph infection on their knee. There was a known case of the virus at that hospital. He was there for nearly a week, and when they brought him back, they didn’t quarantine him or anything. He isn’t wearing a mask.
Look, I’m hearing what they say on the news. I heard about the precautions; but they bring a guy back from where there was a case and don’t do anything. They’re not testing anyone who’s not showing symptoms. I told a C/O [correctional officer], and he acted like it didn’t even matter.
This thing is going to spread; it’s inevitable. I’m no kind of official, but what are they going to do? How are they going to treat us when we catch it? Two days into quarantine and concertina [razor] wire went up on the fences. They’re not worried at all about anything.
They’ve stopped allowing NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meetings and church gatherings at the chapel because it draws a lot of people. They’re feeding us one dorm at a time and two to a table at chow, but that’s 80 people at a time in there. It’s smoke and mirrors basically. The conditions as far as sanitation are just bottom of the barrel in here.
They’re filling up soap dispensers, but halfway through they day, they are empty, and we have to wait for them to fill it up again. Because of everyone washing more, it’s less plentiful. Everybody’s panicked. It’s constant chatter about it, and it’s just becoming more and more hysterical. We didn’t sign up to die in here. We’re supposed to have release dates. I’ve got a wife and kids out there. I see what’s happening with the economy, and I’m terrified. I can’t help or comfort my family. It’s an ugly situation.
They don’t let us have a lot of information. The callousness of the administration and how they treat us is crazy. Now we can’t even see our families, and we get measly 15-minute phone conversations. We’re the last on anybody’s list. There’s good people in here. We’re not all animals; we’re not all bloodthirsty criminals. We have families who love us and we love them. There’s just no help for us. At the end of the day, I am who put me here, I know that. I just don’t think we’re being treated fairly.
Story 2 – Central Prison, Death Row:
A lot of our resources here are secondhand, so we don’t hear everything that’s going on. The unit is pretty isolated. We have a wing of our own with eight pods and over 100 inmates. We get recreation once per day for an hour and we have one cafeteria. We are all congregating inside of this cafeteria. There are no more than two guys per table, though.
The virus is being talked about an awful lot. It has dominated the conversations. In January, there was an awful sickness that sent a lot of people here to the hospital. I’ve caught the flu annually; this year was something different. There was one point when I asked myself: Am I going to die? And I had a nagging cough for three weeks after. I don’t want to speculate about it, but you can read into it.
An officer here at Central tested positive. We do feel as if it is nearer to us.
They bring us cleaning supplies once per week: disinfectant, Clorox, some kind of all-purpose cleaner like Windex or similar cleaner and boxes of rubber gloves.
I’ve been here 20 years. When I first got here, we didn’t have telephones and we got one annual phone call. At some point, someone somewhere convinced them it would be a good idea to teach us things and have classes. It made for a different environment.
The staff members here are more concerned for their safety. Our safety has to be taken care of as well.
We are so detached and so remote from society, things like this make us feel even more hopeless. We just have to sit in this confined space and hope coronavirus doesn’t find us.
I understand the need for precautions. But I’m a religious man, and I know the power of God. On the outside, you can’t let this dominate lives. Stockpiling guns and toilet paper and other things; those types of things make the situation worse. And it shouldn’t take something like this to bring us closer together. Let’s not wait for a pandemic to put us all on the same page.
Story 3 – Maury Correctional Institution:
I’ve been at Maury since February and incarcerated since 1993. They’re doing the best they can.
It would be bad if one of us came down sick in the food service. They’re having one block at a time in the chow hall. It’s 84 people and they eat two per table. We’re not 6 feet apart. We’re congested in here.
We’re washing with bleach. We clean the block up every day or every other day. Everybody, they’re on pins and needles. No one’s fighting or anything. We’re just scared because we feel like they could take better precautions with us.
I’ve got a lot of siblings and kids. I’m more worried about them than I am myself. I just take it one day at a time. I just want them to take more precautions. I wrote a grievance a few days ago about masks. I don’t want to catch it; I want to be extra careful.
Story 4 – Dan River Prison Work Farm:
Right now, it’s really crazy. They’ve been transferring all the way up to [a couple days ago]. They allow one dorm at a time to the chow hall.
There’s really no social distancing. As far as medical, I don’t think they’re doing anything differently. I got a bar of soap today for the first time in a while — that’s the first time I’ve got a bar of soap in weeks.
There’s a lot of talk. Life’s a joke to [the other men in here]. Some are joking about getting it and coughing on other people. Personally, I’ve got congestive heart failure, so I’m worried about it. [Over the weekend] they had been transferring people from dorm to dorm. I’m kind of feeling like they want to spread the shit in here. There aren’t masks or gloves for us. The guards aren’t wearing masks or gloves. I haven’t even seen a mask.
People make mistakes. You’re an inmate, and you don’t matter – that’s how it feels in here. When I expressed my concern, they told me, ‘You can go to the day room or you can go up the hill to the hole.’ Really, we’re in a position, what can we do? You’re kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We kind of just feel like we’re sitting ducks.
If it wasn’t for my health, it wouldn’t bother me. I made a mistake; I’m the reason I’m here. If I get it, I don’t want to die in here. I think somebody should be aware.
Story 5 – Maury Correctional Institution:
I’ll just let you know, it’s rough in here. We’re on 24-7 lockdown. There are no masks on the inmates. The only time we go out is to chow hall and come back. We can’t go outside or to the gym.
I’m supposed to be in green clothes [like minimum security], but due to the virus, they’re holding me here [in medium security]. We’re just sitting. Nobody’s getting checked out. For sick calls, it takes two to three weeks to see them. I put one in on March 18. I still ain’t seen no one.
I’m in a pod with older guys. If it comes in here, it’s going to wipe out half of us, anyway. Half of us are already sick. That’s all they talk about. There are 84 people in here, and we have four bathrooms and four sinks. The AC vents are not clean; they blow out all this dust. In the morning when we wake up, we have to shake the blankets out.
It’s just sad in here. It ain’t fit for 84 people. We’re breathing in each other’s faces. I’m on the top bunk; when I way up, I’ve got someone standing in my face.
Story 6 – Maury Correctional Institution:
I just had spine surgery in November. I’ve had no follow-up since I’ve been here. I had two appointments; one in January and February they didn’t take me to either (after surgery, he was transferred to other facilities and ended up at Maury).
I’m 60 years old, and I’m scared to death. I’ve got chronic asthma and chronic bronchitis. I’ve got five years to go. I’ve never been to a place like this before. I’m worried about my kids and my grandkids. I’m concerned and worried.
I’m in a dorm with like 84 people; there’s no way you can be 6 feet apart. I know it’s prison and stuff like that, but I’ve never been to a place like this before. It seems like they don’t have regard for human life in here. I’m scared; I really am. They haven’t tested none of us. Get us help, or something. I would like to see medical; I’d like some masks. I just want my basic medial needs to be taken care of for once.
They keep stuff hush-hush in here. We only see stuff on the news. There are two units on quarantine, locked down. We’re supposed to be able to go outside.
They just don’t care about anything. My sister has been trying to call here about my medical, and they keep giving her the runaround. She’s calling everyone. We’re just in limbo right now. It’s stressful.