Incarcerated people complete a food service work shift at Washington Corrections Center in 2011.
Christopher Blackwell, a journalist incarcerated in Washington State, began writing for Jewish Currents over two years ago. Since then, his pieces have traced the state prison system’s faltering response to Covid-19, from its use of solitary confinement as a quarantine measure to its failure to provide sufficient masks and social distancing opportunities. This past January, Blackwell viscerally described experiencing yet another lockdown in prison and once again weathering the cancellation of programming and visits with loved ones. “What will be the outcome of extensive isolation?” he wondered. Ten months later, Washington State prison officials continue to use Covid-19 as an excuse to cancel family visits and enrichment programming while never letting the virus get in the way of sending prisoners to work. Blackwell’s dispatch for this week’s newsletter (subscribe here!) shows how prisoners’ personal relationships are buckling under the strain of these contradictory policies, which jeopardize their emotional wellbeing while failing to protect their physical health.
In early October, I was eagerly awaiting a visit from my wife. She’s only allowed to visit me three times a month at Washington Corrections Center (WCC), the prison where I live in Washington state, so each chance to see each other is precious. But before I could see her on October 9th, the prison was placed on yet another Covid-19 lockdown after several people tested positive. As a result, visitation with loved ones, alongside other programming, was either extremely limited or suspended indefinitely. We were told the lockdown would continue until the prison went ten days without a positive test. My wife’s visit was canceled, and I didn’t know how long it would be until I could see her again. I was devastated.
These Covid precautions would be easier to cope with if they were actually part of a comprehensive plan to keep us safe. But the day after lockdown was announced, prisoners who work for Correctional Industries (CI)—a program that hires incarcerated workers for hourly wages ranging from 65 cents to $1.70—were informed that pending a negative test, we were still expected to show up to work to make things like clothing and office furniture which would be sold to the state. Even amidst a lockdown, it was considered “essential” for us to continue working for CI so the state could profit off of our cheap labor making these products.
For better or worse, the world outside prison has mostly gone back to “normal” two-and-a-half years into the pandemic, with people returning to workplaces as well as sports stadiums, restaurants, and nightclubs. But prisons throughout the country are continuing to lean on Covid as an excuse to strip prisoners of rehabilitative opportunities—visits with loved ones, recreation time, religious services, and positive programming—while conveniently ignoring any Covid protections which would inconvenience prison officials or deprive them of incarcerated labor. This became clear when the prison implemented a lockdown for a year and a half—during which I was prevented from seeing my wife, supposedly to minimize the spread of the virus—but did not ensure staff masking or social distancing during that same period.
Even after visitation privileges resumed in September 2021, we still have far fewer opportunities to see our loved ones than we did before the pandemic. Before Covid, there were 96 hours a month of visitation; now, there are only nine hours a month. Even those nine hours are subject to cancellation at a moment’s notice because of Covid lockdowns, making it difficult for people who live far away to plan trips.
Such limited access has made maintaining relationships extremely difficult. “These restrictions have put such a stranglehold on my loved ones’ participation in my life,” said Bud Fraser, who is also incarcerated at WCC. “I’m becoming irrelevant in their lives and they in mine. You can only have a relationship over the phone and over video visits for so long.” Fraser and his wife divorced in April 2022 because maintaining a relationship only over the phone didn’t work for her. “Covid restrictions took my marriage and countless friendships, and left me with nothing,” he said.
When I confronted our living unit’s custody unit supervisor and asked him to explain the contradictory policies requiring me to go to work while not being able to see my wife, he quickly became frustrated and told me he had no answers. “No administrative staff do, not even the superintendent,” he said. “The ones running the show are in medical, and every time I’ve requested they come and talk to you guys, they refuse.” I understood his irritation. He had to face all our anger while the people calling the shots hid in their offices, far from those harmed by their decisions.
After the lockdown began, nine prisoners tested positive for Covid the first day we returned to work. Even though the test results were available immediately, prison staff left the people who tested positive with the rest of us for hours before taking them to medical isolation units, which are indistinguishable from solitary confinement. Then, an announcement crackled over the loudspeakers. All CI workers were told to report to work. Moreover, the prison had deemed certain maintenance jobs “essential,” even though not all of these were necessary for the prison to function. “How can my unit be on lockdown when I am expected to go and make food in the kitchen for the whole prison?” said Dejon Payne, a prisoner who works in the WCC kitchen.
The next day, with prisoner frustration mounting, top Department of Corrections (DOC) administrative officials came to the living unit to speak with a small handful of us. The officials made clear that if we didn’t continue working throughout the outbreak, we risked being charged with a serious infraction, which could result in losing access to phones, recreation, and jobs, and could even prolong a prison sentence.
DOC’s insistence that we work during a facility-wide outbreak undermined their claims that they were canceling our visitation and programming for our own safety. If we can test to go to work, we can test to do everything else. From our perspective, DOC isn’t actually worried about our health—they are simply using Covid precautions to justify increasingly restrictive and dehumanizing treatment without consequences. It’s unclear why they are invested in extending limits on our programming, but at least part of the problem seems to be extreme staffing shortages. Whenever a prison is understaffed, positive programming and recreational opportunities are always the first things to go, even when we are not under quarantine.
When the pandemic first started, I, along with many prisoners, was terrified. Prisons were some of the most dangerous places to be during an infectious outbreak of a potentially fatal disease, and we knew we couldn’t count on prison officials to keep us safe. Now that most of us are vaccinated, but continue to live year after year without necessary programming and visitation, many of us are as worried about the effects of constant lockdowns as the virus itself. “Every time we end up on these lockdowns, I become so stressed it spills over onto my relationship with my girlfriend, and before you know it we’re fighting,” said Raymond Williams, who is also incarcerated at WCC. “DOC says they care about our support networks, but honestly it’s clear they don’t, as they’re destroying our support networks with these unsustainable conditions.”
On the outside, most people get to choose how to manage the risk presented by Covid. In prison, we don’t get to make that choice. Instead, we are forced into contradictory and ever-changing rules that don’t protect our physical health and have catastrophic effects on our mental health and relationships with loved ones. Is it our health and safety that the DOC cares about, or is the slave labor we’re exploited for daily that keep prisons operational? It cannot be both.