Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2020
Coronavirus and Prison Life
Right now the prison I’m in is on modified lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That means that we’re locked in our cells about 22 hours every day, and the two hours we’re not stuck in our cells, we can go out into the pod, our common area, for recreation and sometimes out on the prison yard for outdoor recreation like basketball, horseshoe tossing, or just walking around. But, due to the virus, only one pod can be on the yard at a time, while normally it’s the whole building. Each building here has three pods, there are four residential buildings, and we have two yards, so it is a logistical juggling act to give everyone some yard time. Pods have around eighty men each, for a total population here of just over a thousand men.
But, even though we’re isolated from other pods, and the pods are cleaned with disinfectant several times a day, there are no restrictions on comings and goings of the staff, who go freely from building to building, pod to pod, and go home at the ends of their shifts and interact with the outside world.
In an article in The New York Times, Amanda Klonsky says that prisons could be viral nightmares.
We have 2.3 million people in prison in this country, a ridiculous number by anyone’s measure. Klonsky says that prisons see a daily influx of staffers, vendors, and visitors who “carry viral conditions at the prisons back to their homes and communities and return the next day packing the germs from back home.” So far, other than putting us on modified lockdown, all Virginia has done is cancel in-person visits.
Klonsky goes on to state the obvious: Prison populations must be reduced. I would add the word drastically. Most of the men I know here in this prison could be released right now and pose no risk to their communities. Many, like me, were never any risk to our communities in the first place. Klonsky says aging inmates should be considered for compassionate release, because we have health issues that are not dealt with in prison and extremely low recidivism rates. We have many inmates here who have serious health issues, are too infirm to be dangerous, and are, in many cases, wheelchair-bound. In my case I get around with a wheeled walker due to long term effects from a stroke I suffered years before my conviction. I’m not a physical threat to anyone, but have been victimized by bullies, had my property stolen, even physically assaulted. Prison is no place for an old man (I’m 73).
Our governors need to act immediately to release prisoners who are at risk and harmless.
Here in Virginia we have no parole (it was abolished in 1996). But we do have “Conditional Early Release” for older prisoners, often called “geriatric parole.” So far since reaching age 65, I’ve been turned down seven times! Typically it is only granted to inmates who are literally at death’s door. Apparently, I’m just not sick enough! I worry about COVID-19 because I am diabetic and have other health issues. According to The New York Times, an authoritative 100 page government report says the pandemic “will last 18 months or longer,” and could result in “widespread shortages that would strain consumers” and the health care system. It also says that “State and local governments, as well as critical infrastructure and communications channels, will be stressed and potentially less reliable.” The time for aggressive action is past, but much could still be done.
I’m hopeful that the current viral crisis will finally get the attention of those in power who can do something to fix this terribly broken system that can steal people’s lives for nothing. Keeping people like me behind bars just makes no sense, no matter what perspective you view it from. I’ve been imprisoned since September 1, 2007, for events that never happened, that existed only in the fevered imaginations of police and prosecutors.
If you want to track the spread of the pandemic, look at: http://coronavirus.jhu.edu . The map is updated in real time.
About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models. He is serving the 11th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read more letters from prison by Bob Shell, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/marijuana/