This post is in collaboration with Prison Writers

by Chris Dankovich, Michigan:

I am dying. There is an invisible monster sitting on my chest, keeping me from breathing. The stars are tiny holes in the sky, and it feels as if I am trying to breath through them. Little gasps trying to add up to a breath.

I haven’t taken a full gulp of air in two days. My desire to complete a yawn brings tears to my eyes. Now I’m going to die because I sat up too quickly.

I’m 30 years old, and there were a few times in my youth when I didn’t think I’d make it to this age, but I didn’t think I would go this way. Now that I’m here, I’d really like to stay a little longer, instead of suffocating on the ground with a note I’d scribbled earlier (just in case) and put in front of me that read “GET HELP NOW!”

My eyes are watering from the choking and the first thought that runs through my mind, after 15 years in prison, is to use my last bit of strength to wipe the tears from my eyes before anyone sees me.

Everything starts to fade. The pressure in my head is overwhelming. Then everything disappears.

And then I have a vision.

And then that too disappears. And everything is still.

Then I take the largest gulp of air I have had in three days as I open my eyes. And the coughing starts back up and I start to fade again.

* * *

I never get sick. I had a really runny nose a year ago. Before that, it had been four years. Now the two worst illnesses I can remember occur in two months. First, I’d had the avian flu, which swept through the prison just as COVID-19 swept through the state. But this is different… far different.

It started with a cough. And then another. But not from me. Coughing started to echo through my hundred-man cellblock all day and all night.

Prison snitches – the rats who tell guards about the inmates who have contraband, usually for something in return — started leaving notes on the officer’s desk ratting on the inmates with symptoms: “[So-and-so] has been coughing… I overheard [so-and-so] complaining of not being able to taste anything.”

Medical staff would come with a couple officers and the suspect-inmate would be thrown in The Hole, aka solitary confinement, for the crime of possibly being sick. He had to stay there until he could be tested and, if he was Covid-free, he’d be brought back to his cell. If he was sick, he’d be transferred to one of Michigan’s worst prisons (the rumor was, permanently), his sparse but valued belongings kept from him, and not allowed to have contact with loved ones (despite promises of such, sent in messages from the prison administration).

So what happened next? No self-reporting of symptoms to prison-staff. Coughs became muffled. Talk of COVID-specific symptoms goes silent. Inmates started falling out. Mostly older inmates. Coughing until finally they called for help and got taken away, the most seriously-ill were taken to real hospitals.

My good friend Jerry G, was one of them. Here’s a man who had survived nearly a half-century in prison, 43 years to be exact. He’d survived an attempted-murder and, more recently, hepatitis C. And the good news was he’d reunited with his family after decades of estrangement, and life was more hopeful. Until Covid. I later found out Jerry G had died within days of when I almost did.

I was sure I wouldn’t get sick, though I washed my hands every time I left my cell and wore my mandatory cloth mask. We were under quarantine, so had no outside yard-time. But then, I felt this feeling in the back of my throat, a swelling, a tickle, the desire to go, “accchhheeemmmm.” The first night I went to bed thinking it was allergies. The next morning I felt aches, but thought nothing of it.

By the end of that day, I had no doubt I was sick. My skin started hurting, as though I had just been rubbed viciously with sandpaper, like my skin was going to fall off. Then instant chills so bad that I lost my breath. Shivering, teeth chattering at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, wrapped in blankets, I looked like a mummy taking nap. Then, a persistent nausea. Ugh…

The next morning I brewed my coffee and went to take a sip. When I smelled it, I nearly threw up. It smelled like… death. But I had just made it, fresh clear hot water from the tap, and a heaping spoonful of Keefe Columbian yellow-bag instant coffee granules. I witnessed it, so how could it smell so evil? I venture a taste, and nearly throw up again.

I sleep through breakfast, the effects of yesterday worse now. When lunch is served (at 10AM these days!), my bunkie picks up my tray for me, because I can’t get out of bed. I try to eat, but can’t. My body doesn’t want it. My mouth doesn’t want it. So I don’t want it. For two days, I can’t force myself to eat a single bite.

The sudden chills don’t stop. The painful feeling of tearing skin doesn’t stop. After two days, I can eventually swallow food, but not much. The worst, the absolute worst, is that I cannot sleep. If I am lucky, I fall asleep for an hour or two at night. Late into the night, especially by the fourth night, I’m fever-dreaming what it would be like to actually taste sleep again.

My bunkie has his own very personal reasons for wanting me to recover. He is supposed to see the parole board in a few days, a hearing that takes weeks, if not months, to schedule. He’s already months past his release-date, because of the pandemic and quarantine.

So if he were to get sick, he’d go to the Hole and lose his chances of seeing the parole board on the scheduled date. He’d probably be transferred to another prison, where he would have to wait many, many more months to get another hearing.

That’s why I can’t report my illness to anyone. The prison policy is, if one cellmate is sick, then both inmates need to be tested. to test both. So my ability to tough it out directly affects his future.

Then, day seven, and everything instantly gets better. I sleep through most of the night, feeling reborn when I awake. Standing up, no aches, my skin feels glowing! Today my Bunkie brings me my meal-tray, and it smells… DELICIOUS! I taste the food, and the rest is gone in about a minute. My appetite is back!

A little nausea later on, which I attribute to stretching back out my stomach. I feel amazing. A week of staying in my room, walking only to the bathroom, and I want to stretch and just move. I try a few dozen jumping jacks, a couple hundred pushups and I’m feeling better. Blood flowing again after so long has me gulping air like I shouldn’t be, so I stop. A premonition.

* * *


A big step backwards. It’s gotten worse for the past three days. First it was some shortness of breath. Hyperventilating uncontrollably after a coughing fit. That was the easy part. Now, I cannot breathe unless I lay perfectly flat on my back. I cannot roll to the side and still breath. I absolutely cannot take even the shallowest of breaths if I am on my stomach. If I sit up too

quickly (or, it seems, at all), I lose my breath and cough and cough and cough until I can’t keep myself up and fall back to the bed, where I cough some more until I can take shallow breaths. If I slow down, and ever so slowly try to sit back up, I will cough some more but it will subside, and I can move.

Except this time.

This time I am going to die. I know it as I collapse on the floor, my lungs refusing me any air at all. I throw the note I had written previously “GET HELP NOW!” in large letters on the floor in front of me. I am going to die, because everything is going dark. I am going to die, right here on the floor of a prison cell, at 30 years of age and otherwise in good health from a disease that is supposed to only seriously affect those much older. I cannot breathe, and tears are in my eyes that I try to wipe off.

I haven’t been out of prison in 15 years, but for a moment after that I was somewhere else. Not heaven, not hell. Clear as day, I found myself standing in front of the giant apple tree at my Grandparents house, my favorite place in the world. And then I breathed in a full breath of air. A full, complete breath like I had not taken in three whole days. And… the coughing started again. Coughing until I thought I was going to die again. I crawled onto my bottom bunk and lay perfectly flat on my back, and this time it subsided. I needed oxygen badly, and was given it.

And then I slept. And slept. And slept.

* * *

Then the National Guard arrives. Dressed in full camouflage uniforms, they test everyone in the prison, invading the television dayrooms and setting up a sterile testing environment. Antibody tests are given two weeks after that. Three-quarter of the inmates in my cellblock alone actively tested positive for COVID-19. Hundreds of inmates in the prison as a whole had it. People I knew died from it. I nearly did. My Bunkie also tests positive.

After the mass-testing, quarantine units are set up inside the prison and everyone is kept here unless they need urgent medical attention. Knowing that they will no longer be sent to solitary for being sick, the inmates start self-reporting possible and are immediately quarantined, which slows the spread. Within a month, there are no new confirmed cases, and as of this writing, there still aren’t any.


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Corona and the New Normal

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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.

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