This post is in collaboration with Prison Writers

by Charles Patrick Norman, Florida:

We never see it coming, do we? It can’t happen to me. That’s what I thought until the prison nurse told me I’d tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Damn! What am I going to do now?

How do I tell my wife, Libby? She’s going to freak out with worry. We haven’t seen each other in weeks, since the ”authorities” indefinitely suspended family visits statewide, but we talk every day on the phone. She worries about me, in a crowded, dangerous state prison with no illusion of ”social distancing” possible, surrounded by hundreds of sick, elderly, vulnerable men, while I worry about her ”out there,” still going to work every day, buying groceries in crowded supermarkets, standing in line for cat litter at Walmart with other customers laughing, talking, not wearing face masks, spewing droplets, contaminating untold numbers of clueless victims.

I live in an ”open dorm,” a large room that is about the size of a convenience store, except instead of shelves of groceries, ”K” dorm is sardine-packed with 70 narrow steel bunk beds with thin mattresses in tight rows, surrounded by other men. The noise and chatter is unabating. It is hot and muggy from the surrounding swamp.

Twelve windows provide some relief from the Atlantic Ocean breezes crossing Daytona Beach a few miles away. ”Burglar bars” are welded across each window, not keeping anyone from breaking in, but keeping the burglars inside from getting out.

The only ones with air conditioning are the guards in their control room, a glass-enclosed booth that looks out over two adjacent housing areas.

I pretend to be stoic on the outside, while inside turmoil reigns. I am used to the dichotomy. I have survived 42 years of a life sentence for murder in 20 different prisons. I was 28 years old when eight detectives, pointing wavering shotguns, surrounded me and took me to jail. I will be 71 soon, beating the odds. You don’t show weakness in prison, or else.

The nurses select a dozen prisoners from K Dorm for COVID-19 virus tests. The next day, they tell us that five men, including me, have tested positive. We are ordered to pack our belongings and bedrolls, because we’re moving into the adjacent, previously-emptied dorm, which is now an isolation dorm for those testing positive for the virus.

Forty-something more prisoners from other dorms who’d tested positive join us. Great. We hear through the ”inmate dot com” prison grapevine that 138 prisoners and a dozen staff have now tested positive.

The nurses conduct temperature checks and take vitals. They tell us we’ll be in isolation for fourteen days, followed by another fourteen days in quarantine. The warden comes in our dorm — very briefly and well-protected — and tells us we were all in this together. Right.

They pass out crude prison-made face masks constructed of the same rough blue material they make use to make our uniforms. A rectangle of cloth has four long cloth tie straps sewn to the corners. You had to secure the crude masks by tying the four straps behind your head.

In prison, if you are to survive, you must constantly be aware of your surroundings. ”Threat assessment” is automatic.

When I saw those prison masks with the unbreakable straps, the first image that came to mind was ”garrote.” A man could walk up on another man from behind, jerk the straps down around his neck, twist the straps like a tourniquet, hang on until the victim died from asphyxiation, and walk away. I’d seen two men strangled by boot laces twisted around their necks. Never had a chance. Not a pretty sight.

I decided I’d take my chances with the coronavirus, before risking my life with a mask that could be used for a psycho’s assault.

I pulled on two straps with all my strength. No give. The Incredible Hulk couldn’t break those ”strings.” So before raising this issue with the authorities, I went to the JPay email kiosk, took a photo of myself with the face mask in place, and sent it to my correspondents, titled ”New Prison Fashion.” Life or death, you can’t lose your sense of humor.

Then I told the sergeant I couldn’t wear that murder weapon. She gave me one of those lightweight disposable face masks instead. Fine. I won’t die of strangulation.

No one in our isolation dorm has exhibited symptoms, but the stress levels steadily rise. We watch the nightly TV news like everyone else, seeing unconscious virus victims with ventilators crammed down their throats, seeing morgues overflowing with the dead, seeing nursing home occupants decimated with the disease.

Prisoners have feelings, too. If you cut me, will I not bleed? I worry about my 90-year old mother in the hospital with a broken hip, my cancer-survivor younger brother with a compromised immune system forced to risk his life to venture out to buy groceries, and other family members held hostage by the threat of COVID-19. My wife Libby assures me she is fine, but worry eats away at her assurances.

I am not the only one in our group who worries. Other, younger men, frantic with worry, telephone mothers and grandmothers just to hear their voices, silently praying it won’t be the last time.

A friend whose elderly wife befriended my wife during their interminable waits in the visitor lines, told me his wife tested positive. He said she exhibited multiple symptoms. Sick, elderly, obese, diabetic, and with a heart condition, the prognosis is not good. He’s worried to death that he will lose her, unable to see her, hold her hand, tell her he loves her. I tell Libby on the phone about our friend. She gasps. What can we do, besides pray? It seems like God went on vacation when COVID-19 struck.

Several men begin smoking drugs, seeking oblivion, to deal with the stress. Not your traditional drugs, but powerful chemicals called ”spice,” ”K-2,” or synthetic marijuana.

The actual chemical is — believe it or not — insecticide poison for wasps and roaches that is sprayed on otherwise harmless dried herbs, then allowed to soak in and dry, before getting rolled into narrow ”pin joints.” One joint is enough poison to render two or three users unconscious, then comatose, to suffer seizures, hallucinations, and sometimes die. Last year in this dorm two men smoked a joint while sitting on adjacent toilets.

One man died where he sat. They loaded him on a gurney and took him away. He had forty days left on his sentence before he was scheduled to go home to his family.

The other man stumbled to his bunk and fell out of it, splayed on the floor.

They call ”count time,” so everyone is supposed to get on their bunk for prison’s version of roll call. The overdosing smoker lays on the floor between two bunks, semi-conscious, rolling in his vomit, kicking his legs in the air like a dying cockroach, making animal noises reminiscent of Linda Blair in ”The Exorcist.”

The officer conducting the count steps over the man’s legs, ignoring his condition. Meanwhile, another officer brags about writing 20 disciplinary reports (D. R.’s) in one day against the prisoners not properly wearing their face masks.

A larger question remains unanswered. The guards have always blamed the drug influx on the family visitors coming into the prison on weekends, but there have been no visits for months. So why are the drugs flowing unabated? Now who do you think is responsible for smuggling drugs into prison?

Tensions continue to rise. Tempers are short. Shouting matches escalate. Minor fist fights resume in the bathroom/shower area, out of view of the surveillance cameras in the open dorm. A young gang member tries to bully an older man, who administers a boxing lesson. Fight in your own weight class. Then the violence increases from an unlikely source.

Two gay lovers have a falling out. The younger, smaller, muscular husband sucker-punches the much older, taller, heavier partner. Then the roles reverse, the older, taller one overpowers the smaller, muscular one, and beats him down.

It isn’t over. Embarrassed at getting battered by his chain gang wife in front of everyone, the smaller one puts a steel combination lock in a mesh bag, then hits his former lover in the head with the lock. The bigger one is unfazed. He takes the lock away from the other one and continues

pounding. They fight across the dorm, oblivious to the surveillance cameras recording every blow. Men jump out of the way as the fighters grapple on a succession of bunks.

The tall one finally pins his partner down on the bunk adjacent to mine, then begins slashing the other’s left cheek with a razor blade. Blood sprays everywhere. The slasher is in complete control and, if he’d chosen to, he could have cut the other’s throat. He settles for inflicting several wicked vertical cuts on the younger man’s face that would forever mark him. In prison, a facial slash indicates a snitch. He would have to deal with that in its own time.

The guards eventually come, summoned by the young rookie dorm officer who’s safely monitoring the situation from the locked officer’s station. The slashing victim goes to medical for stitches. The other one is sent straight to lockup.

We’re all eventually cleared from the quarantine, recovered from the virus, and returned to our dorms.

Today, it appears that the virus is under control, although that’s not the case in several other prisons in Florida. Over 300 women at the Homestead prison test positive. Over 1,000 men at Columbia C. I., near Lake City, Florida, test positive. The local TV news announces that 230 prisoners were killed by the coronavirus in Florida.

Most of us in this prison believe the coronavirus is here to stay, and we are going to have to learn to live, and die, with it. As for me, I’ll wear my mask and pray that I will be able to hold my wife again.


BOOKENDS Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on linkedin Share on whatsapp Share on reddit This post is in collaboration with Prison Writers by

Read More »

Corona and the New Normal

Corona and the New Normal Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on linkedin Share on whatsapp Share on reddit This post is in collaboration

Read More »

Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

Our Sponsors and Partners

Find Us!

Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA),
Stanford University

4th floor, Wallenberg Hall (bldg. 160)
450 Jane Stanford Way
Stanford, CA 94305
Stanford Mail Code: 2055