As the coronavirus spread into Pennsylvania’s state prisons — which house around 45,000 people — prisoners and staff knew a lockdown was looming. When it happened, on March 30, it meant prisoners who once circulated to work, school, church, and law library would be trapped in their cells indefinitely.
Many say they’re out of their cell for a total of 40 minutes a day, a precious reprieve that must be meticulously choreographed, rushed but relished. The other 23 hours and 20 minutes crawl by in boredom, anxiety, and fear. Here’s what the first month was like under the longest statewide lockdown in Pennsylvania history, according to those living it. Content has been edited for length and clarity.
Jorge Cintron: On March 29, I overheard some prisoners saying H-unit was quarantined, because there may have been a prisoner exposed to the coronavirus. We all understood what that meant: We would be quarantined, too. The very next morning, we awoke to breakfast in bed. I was flooded with thoughts: What next? How long will we be without any physical contact visits? When will we be able to get a fresh breath of air? Lastly, am I really safe? The staff have hand sanitizer, but we’re being told, because of the alcohol content, we can’t obtain some.
J.C.: A block psychologist went around with a brochure on how to maintain a sound mind during a quarantine. The chaplaincy department is conducting rounds. The Department of Corrections are attempting to do their best to pacify us: five free phone calls, five free emails, free cable. The activities department staff gave every single one of my peers a deck of poker cards, and TVs to those who did not have them.
But we can’t ignore the fact that 23½ hours of confinement is inhumane. I have not been allowed to make rounds as a certified peer specialist. It concerns me how quickly it’s forgotten that not long ago five men committed suicide in two months at SCI Graterford.
Sheena King: The quarantine began suddenly. There was a great deal of confusion until we learned, from the local news, that we were locked down.
We are still allowed 45 minutes each day to take a shower, make a phone call, and use the email kiosk. I move quickly and in that order: eager to bathe, and then connect. That phone call is imperative. You don’t know when it may be the last one. I literally hold my breath as I wait for the call to connect. If any of my loved ones cough or are out on the streets of Philly, I panic.
My TV provides a distraction, but watching the number of deaths increase is heartbreaking and horrifying. To keep myself from becoming overwhelmed, I read, write, exercise, or just dance. I am particularly careful because I have hypertension and bronchitis and I have seen the loss of life, predominantly of African Americans.
Thomas Schilk: Prison is bad all the time, but the smaller the box you’re forced into, the worse it gets. It’s like being locked in a bathroom for weeks. One guy on the same block as me did test positive. He was said to have fever and pneumonia, too. If he, I, or another person in prison needs a ventilator, it doesn’t look good. Sure, in theory I could be taken to a local hospital. But given any prisoner’s position in the hierarchy of worth, that tiger from the Bronx has a better shot at a ventilator than I do.
David Lee: I have a disease known as sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease, which attacks my lungs with unforgiving tenacity. I use inhalers to assist with my breathing. In June, I will turn 57, and already I have spent over half of my life in prison. It is very difficult to grow old in prison, but this situation has created more anxiety than I ever imagined. Prisons are not designed for social distancing.
J.C.: Sad day! It’s confirmed, a peer has died from COVID-19. All I know, he’s a lifer from Philly who was 67 years old. I know many of the seniors here at SCI Phoenix. These men do their best to better the community within these walls. I wonder who’s next? Could it be my own father? He’s 62 years old. He’s housed eight cells down from me.
Phillip Ocampo: It seems like I’m living the movie Groundhog Day, living the same day, over and over. As for breaking up the monotony, every now and again, the guards ask me to clean the block up, so I get to get out the cell and move my legs around, talk to other guys on the block when I go by their doors sweeping.
Numerous inmates have gone to P.O.C. (Psychiatric Observation Cell) at medical, having anxiety and not being able to deal with being locked in their cell for long periods of time. As for my mindset, I try to stay positive. All of us inmates were given Bingo cards. Every day a number is given to us on our institutional channel. The prize is a bag of goodies, like cakes and candies, worth $15.
Felix Rosado: An officer through the cell intercom told me I had a video visit at 9:30 a.m. Ecstatic to leave the block and get some air for the first time in two weeks, I started getting ready: I shaved, pulled a clean uniform out of my footlocker, finally got into a pair of sneakers, unwrapped my mask.
The CO who escorted me was friendly. We chatted about things here, things on the outside, things that transcend “us versus them.” The air was fresh. Four others and I were taken to a row of visiting booths. I’m left to await my visit via the Zoom app we’ve been given access to during this quarantining. I sit and stare at a white screen, the words “You are the only one at this meeting” across in black letters. Finally, after 20 minutes, I figured Mom was struggling to log on.
I asked if I could call, to give her the instructions. “Yeah, from the block phone.'”
During the 10-minute walk to the block, the escorting officer and I kicked it about how crazy and eerie this all is. He shared some Zoom tips. I called mom and tried to explain something I myself know nothing about. When I got back, same white screen. I sat for another few minutes, then let the officer know it wasn’t going to happen. “Hey,” he said, “We tried.”
Robert Pezzecca: A lot of us are antsy. Including me. I’m a very active 43-year-old man; now I’m forced to spend 23½ hours per day in my bed. I have a cellmate who cannot sit still either. I’m sleeping poorly because I’m so stressed out. It’d be easier if we knew when this would end.
I had to use the toilet today in front of my cellmate. Guard ordered me to take down the sheet I had hung up to separate our view of each other. It’s not right. My mental health is suffering. I’m on edge 24-7, I’m creating arguments with my family/friends whom I call. The psychologist asked me if I was OK. I told him no. What can he do to help me? Nothing.
J.C: Two more of my peers has lost their lives, one a confirmed COVID-19 case. It’s rumored one of them developed a blood clot and was told they had to amputate his legs. He refused because he couldn’t bear the thought of life in prison with no legs. Truth is, none of us should have to choose between our legs or our life!
How much can I stress how COVID-19 is exacerbating the punishment of incarceration! On Friday, I was assigned for work as a certified peer specialist. I’m able to conduct rounds from 7-8 a.m. and 8-9 p.m. I speak with whoever is willing to talk, however I’m focused more on people housed alone, especially seniors.
A friend of mine shared with me how it was his birthday: how he got to see his wife and kids on a Zoom visit, make about seven phones calls, how his cellmate cooked him food, and others gave him commissary. Despite what we’re going through, we can find a good day. We take care of each other.
F.R.: I learned that I’m up for merit review May 7. But, this week the Board of Pardons decided to delay public hearings until after the corona pandemic subsides. This is obviously disappointing. Commutation should be used to get people out during the COVID-19 emergency — not after.