Surviving Yet Another Prison Quarantine

Every Covid lockdown means losing the few privileges that make incarceration more bearable.

Christopher Blackwell
January 14, 2022
A room used for recreation by inmates in solitary confinement at the Washington Corrections Center, Shelton, Washington, August 31st, 2015.
Ted S. Warren / AP

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THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, I woke up to an ominous sight. Guards were walking around in full Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)—masks, gowns, face shields. I knew exactly what this meant: We were going into yet another quarantine lockdown. I spent my early morning hours in the bare, deserted dayroom, looking out the window at the snow-covered grounds surrounded by endless feet of razor wire and chain link fences, wondering “Is this madness ever going to end?” In the past two years, I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been stuck in Covid-related lockdowns.

I heard the overhead speaker crackle to life. “C and D tier, it’s time for breakfast. First and last call. Line up with your masks on.” My fellow prisoners began to emerge from their cells with sleep in their eyes, looking to obtain their prison meal: a cold peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a muffin, hardboiled eggs, milk, and a handful of stale, dry cereal. The silence of the early morning hours was over. I made my way back to my cell. I didn’t want company, nor did I care to eat. All I wanted was for this nightmare of endless lockdowns to end.

Every Covid lockdown in prison means losing the few privileges that make incarceration more bearable. Visitation, educational programming, and recreation time are all shut down or heavily restricted. We are forced to remain confined in close quarters with dozens of others while waiting for test results. If the tests bring bad news, we face quarantine conditions that are indistinguishable from punitive solitary confinement, leaving us locked in a small room for 23 hours a day. We are never told the exact reason for the lockdown in a timely manner—whether it means a prisoner or a staff member tested positive, or something else. We never know exactly how at risk we really are.

At this point, prisoners are accustomed to Covid-19 and its variants causing a lockdown every couple months. However, just because you’re expecting an unpleasant experience doesn’t mean its effects are any less traumatic. Instead, it means we’re left constantly on edge. Many prisoners are reaching their breaking points, relying on increasingly dysfunctional ways to release their stress. We are turning against each other: I recently saw a prisoner pacing up and down the hall screaming, “If anyone on this unit self-reports and our quarantine gets extended we’re gonna fight. So just know that. If you’re feeling sick, stay in your fucking cell.” With the return to normalcy constantly yanked from our grasp, some prisoners have started to sink into bad habits—drugs, violence, gambling—as their only means of relief. Goals prisoners had set for a successful reentry into society have fallen by the wayside and become impossible to reach. They’ve taken a backseat to simply trying to survive the mayhem we call everyday life, since we never know when we’ll be able to visit with loved ones, resume our regular work and class schedules, or even get some time outside.

“I never thought I would miss the endless routine and monotony that was prison life before Covid-19,” said Jose Broeke, a prisoner at the Washington Corrections Center. “Those days have been replaced with anxiety and fear of constant change. Life inside has become a cycle of faking nasal swabs to avoid time in isolation and quarantine lockdowns.”

In addition to straining relationships inside, lockdowns have pushed connections with loved ones outside to their limits, given that the lines of communication without visits are limited and extremely expensive. One can only connect over the phone so much. I’ve struggled to find ways to continue to maintain a bond with my wife and other loved ones. Eventually, calls become silent or an endless list of unsolvable complaints—mere rants.

With little, if any, data on the effects these lockdowns are having on prisoners, we are left to speculate. What will be the outcome of extensive isolation? How will the lack of programs impact our release dates and our ability to reenter society? Will our connections with our outside support networks survive? All I know is that now that two New Year’s Days have gone by under these conditions, these stressful circumstances are starting to feel like the new normal.

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington state. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents and contributing editor at The Appeal and works closely with Empowerment Avenue. He co-founded the organization Look2Justice.