This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
Trying my best not to brush the cold steel rail that is covered in who knows what, I walk up the old prison stairs. The stairs are only five feet across, which is pretty cramped when you think about the full-grown men moving up and down them. Shoulder to shoulder, we make our way.
Social distancing is not possible. In fact, it’s a joke. More often than not you’ll brush against a half-dozen people before making it up the two flights. This is how traffic inside works, no matter where you plan to travel.
So being expected to comply with new social distancing rules like the ones people out in the free world are following is just one more chance for correctional officers to weaponize the impossible against us.
After close to 22 years inside, I thought I had seen everything when it comes to the Department of Corrections using impossible-to-follow rules to punish prisoners. The DOC only needs to say that the safety and security of their facility are at risk, and they can enforce any new rule in any way they want.
In the name of our safety, correctional officers have become single-minded in their enforcement of the impossible.
But that’s all been amped up a notch by COVID-19. Things like using the phones, which are closely spaced, or who we can sit with in the dining hall, soon became opportunities for infractions. In the name of our safety, correctional officers have become single-minded in their enforcement of the impossible.
One day in mid-April, nine prisoners were waiting to use the phone. Our living unit houses around 150 prisoners, and there are only 10 phones, so waiting to use one is pretty common. Suddenly, a staff member came by and started to yell at those in line:
“There are only two allowed to wait for the phones! What are all of you doing down there?”
One of the prisoners spoke up: “We are trying to communicate with our family, what else would we be doing standing in line?”
Annoyed, the staff member retorted, “Well I wouldn’t call all of you standing around like this ‘social distancing,’ so all but two need to head back to your cells immediately.”
The guys in line knew that if they left the line and went back to their cells as instructed, the chances of talking to their family would be close to none. And we had just come off of a two-week coronavirus-induced lockdown during which phone calls were more restricted.
Within a couple of minutes, another correctional officer appeared, stood on the second floor landing, and looked down on the prisoners as he addressed them: “All but two of you were asked to return to your cells, there are too many of you waiting for the phone.”
These rules of forced social distancing only seem to apply when prisoners are wanting to use resources that benefit us.
We all know to ignore a directive given by a correctional officer will do nothing but land us in solitary confinement, making any protest of this command counterproductive. The problem is, these rules of forced social distancing only seem to apply when prisoners are wanting to use resources that benefit us. When it comes to the Department of Corrections needing to accomplish a task, social distancing seems less important. Like when we are called for meals, dozens of us are let out at once to make our way to the dining hall.
As we flood the stairway, brushing against each other only inches apart, we get to a line that seems to stretch on forever. All I can think is, What is the difference in social distancing here and waiting to use the phones?
Once we get into the dining hall, the guards’ logic changes. I’ve witnessed this firsthand. One day at dinner a prisoner named Josh was walking with a friend of his to an open table.
However, under the new forced social distancing rules, the administration had decided that a four-person table could only sit two. Additionally, for some unknown reason, they weren’t allowing people to choose their own seats. None of this does anything to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as the tables are so compactly spaced that we remain just a short distance apart anyway.
A correctional officer locked on to Josh and pointed to a seat at a table that was occupied by only one prisoner. Josh paused, looked at the guy and then back at the officer. It was easy to read the shock on Josh’s face. The prisoner at the table had swastikas tattooed on both arms, a Third Reich flag on the left side of his neck, and two dark lightning bolts on the right side, all of which could be seen a hundred feet away on his pale white skin. Josh, meanwhile, is devoutly Jewish and wears a yarmulke. I don’t know many people who would want to share a meal with someone who wants to see you and your people wiped from the earth.
Calmly, Josh looked at the officer and said, “Is it alright if I sit with my friend in the next row?”
The officer didn’t budge from his demand.
Knowing any further discussion would almost certainly land him in solitary confinement, Josh turned around and walked toward the trash, dumped the uneaten food from the tray, and quietly walked up the stairs back to our living unit. He would go hungry that night, and be left wondering how something meant to protect him, social distancing, was used against him.
With coronavirus going on we are constantly wondering what its next effects will be: not the virus itself, but when we can use the phones, when and how we will eat, whether the showers are open to clean ourselves, whether they changed the rules around going to the yard or the gym, and when we will just be confined to our cells with no way to communicate with our loved ones.
If the DOC wants to implement measures that will keep those in their care safe, they need to start with things that are possible in such a cramped environment. This includes access to hand sanitizer and having all who enter the prison get tested. Social distancing isn't going to solve anything in the context of mass incarceration, and it helps no one to try to bully prisoners into doing the impossible.
Christopher Blackwell, 39, is a writer incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory northeast from Seattle, and is working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. He is serving a 45-year sentence for murder and robbery.
A spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Corrections said that Washington State Reformatory "has implemented social distancing protocols" that include "reducing the number of individuals coming to meals.” The facility has also "instituted intensive cleaning and sanitizing protocols focusing on high touch surfaces" and “mandates face coverings for staff and incarcerated individuals.”
In response to a question about the dining hall incident, the spokesperson said that "The Department of Corrections takes hate issues seriously and therefore will not be speculating on this question."