By Shane Sims
Prisons are going to be killing grounds for the coronavirus, aka COVID-19.
Although I had previously thought that, the reality of that very real possibolity didn’t sink in until the phone call I received from Hadi. The usually cool and confident tone of his voice was eclipsed by something that was highly uncharacteristic of the man that I had known for about a decade. This man, who had survived some of the worst circumstances imaginable, including bloody prison riots, sounded afraid.
Some of the things that he said, and, more striking, how he said them caused my heart to sink. His first words to me were, “Bro, it’s in here now!” I already knew what he was referring to. Of the three confirmed cases of COVID-19 that the Department of Corrections had acknowledged, one had already died. He had served 18 years of a 20 years sentence before the virus granted him early release. I couldn’t help but wonder how much did he suffer. A combination of various budget cuts over the years and a rapidly declining morale among prison medical staff had reduced the level of care to a bare minimum before I was released. That was in 2016. Unless the virus was gracious enough to do what it does quickly, I’m pretty sure that his final days were torturous. What was even more disturbing to the both of us was that Hadi had no idea that at least three corrections officers had previously tested positive for COVID-19. But we weren’t surprised. Inmates are usually low priority when it comes to that type of information. In addition, prison officials probably feared a possible backlash from the inmate population if that news got out, and inmates begin to see every officer as a potential executioner, we surmised. If so, their fear was justified.
A couple of days after speaking with Hadi, I received a message from another guy whom I had also known for years. He was at a close security prison that’s known for inmate/officer violence. They had gotten word about the infected officers, and the inmates in his housing unit were refusing to allow any officers inside the dorm, including the warden, he said. The reasoning is that if they are going to die, then they will die fighting. I started to message him back to encourage him to really consider what they would stand to lose through a prolonged standoff. When I got to the part where I was going to list all of the terrible loses, I couldn’t think of a single one that compared to what they were trying to avoid. One infection could possibly wipe out the entire dorm. So, what loss could I have pointed out that was even worth mentioning? I deleted what I had written and fell back on my bed.
I know all to well the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability that they are experiencing. One of the first supposed legal theory that a prison inmate learns from fellow inmates is that if the country is ever invaded, the Constitution allows the killing of the inmate populations to prevent mass treason. During a time like this, whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. It is an accepted fact among inmates and it is shaping their reality. Their fears will only be exasperated as more and more news reports surface about hospitals prioritizing who is allowed to die in order to make the best use of limited medical resources in the event that hospitals begin to exceed their capacities. Considering the fact that from the top down, the fight against COVID-19 is rightfully being characterized as a “war” being waged on our country, how will this declaration affect those whom the Constitution supposedly allows to be executed when the country is being invaded? Even if the legal theory is unfounded, can we say the same about their fears. If and when COVID-19 begins to ravish the inmate populations, how much of “our” resources can we honestly expect to be redirected to prisons?
Given the already limited resources in addition to an already demoralized medical staff, Hadi’s fear may not be misplaced and the inmates’ stance against allowing potential “executioners” into their dorm is sadly understandable. Prisons could very likely become killing grounds with the invasion of COVID-19.
What Can You Do?
While we are able to shelter in place to reduce or eliminate any chances of contracting the virus through social interactions with the rest of the population, inmates are having to shelter in place with their population. This is a reality most people aren’t aware of or haven’t given much thought to. However, I truly believe in the inherent goodness of people. I believe that creating an awareness of the plight of this highly vulnerable population will create a desire within us to do something. Although our options are limited, the most powerful thing that we can do, in my opinion, is completely within our control; we can pray for them. Meanwhile, for those of us that are in contact with someone incarcerated, educate and encourage them follow best practices as much as they are able. Encourage them to do their part. Through my experience within the prison system, I learned that prayer and sincere efforts has the power to protect and change the trajectory of your life, even when it feels like others don’t value it.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is executive director of People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department