Trapped With COVID

Inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, we faced a new kind of enemy.

Illustration showing hand holding chain link fence.
Illustration by Adam Maida. Source: Getty.

The first prisoner to die was 69 years old, a wheelchair-using former printing-press operator who called himself Cap. He’d arrived at the penitentiary from Orleans Parish in the winter of 1978 with a life sentence for murder. He was overweight and suffered from a variety of health issues. As a young man, Cap had survived an accidental electrocution. As an old man, he was swiftly killed by COVID-19. He was hurriedly buried by a masked-and-gloved skeleton crew of apprehensive, incarcerated volunteers at Point Lookout, the prison cemetery.

Afterward, the world became very small. Who would be next?, we wondered. Every cough was suspect, every interaction a risk. Prisoners complained that employees were not wearing their masks; employees threatened to send prisoners to the cellblock for not wearing theirs.

The prison where I live—the Louisiana State Penitentiary, colloquially known as Angola—went quiet in those early days of death and fear. This was not a conventional opponent who could be combatted on equal footing; nor was it an abstract antagonist like “criminal justice.” This was an enemy unseen—ruthless, indifferent to station and status.

Tucked into a horseshoe along the Mississippi River, in West Feliciana Parish, Angola in the early months of the pandemic was home to roughly 5,500 criminally convicted men and visited daily by hundreds of staff. Some 75 percent of the incarcerated population was Black; almost all of the remainder was white. Most of us were middle-aged, though more than 300 were 70 and older. More than 3,700 were, like me, there for life. (I’ve been there for more than three decades; I was convicted of second-degree murder in 1990.)

At first, as the disease spread rapidly around the world and the country, we felt insulated by the expansive prison that enveloped us. We assumed that the same physical barriers that trapped our bodies would preserve our lives.

We were mistaken. Behind the 12-foot razor-topped fences and thick steel-and-concrete walls, we were vulnerable. There was no vaccine against the virus and nowhere we could go. It was a killer, and all we could do—the God-fearing and the godless—was pray.

On March 11, 2020, Governor John Bel Edwards declared a public-health emergency in Louisiana. The next day, the state’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections issued a series of responses intended to mitigate the virus’s impact. Prison visitation was suspended indefinitely. Outside guests and volunteers—educational, religious, social—were expelled, and off-site work crews were recalled. Within days, academic and vocational programs, club activities, and religious services were suspended, as were nonemergency medical trips, end-of-life visits and funerals, attorney meetings, and court appearances.

One of Angola’s unusual characteristics is the mobility its population enjoys. This is not a lockdown facility. Its incarcerated workforce powers the penitentiary machine, serving as dormitory and yard orderlies, laundry workers, teachers, tractor drivers, and so on. Jobs are the alternative to cell confinement, and they’re taken seriously. The prison offers school, self-help programs, and recreational activities—everyone can find something constructive to do to ward off stagnation.

Regional indigent defenders as well as advocacy groups such as the ACLU of Louisiana and the New Orleans–based Promise of Justice Initiative demanded the early release of vulnerable prisoners. State Attorney General Jeff Landry and the Department of Corrections—predicting a wave of crazed criminals menacing the citizenry—refused. The advocates moved on to softer suggestions aimed at low-level convictions.

Medical dormitories housing susceptible elderly and infirm inmates and a handful of health-care orderlies were locked down as a precaution, and residents were forbidden contact with other prisoners. Designated as “reverse isolation” units, the four dorms’ 86 inmates had little to do beyond watch TV, read, or sit in the sun when the yard was otherwise empty. They would remain under these extremely restrictive protocols for 14 months.

Two weeks into reverse isolation, a 67-year-old broad-bellied man called BoBo assessed medical segregation as, he put it to me, “better than I thought it would be.” After all, he believed, it was the safest way for a vulnerable subset to make it through the pandemic unscathed. BoBo was upbeat and appreciative. Less than a month later, a machine was keeping him alive in a Baton Rouge hospital. He somehow managed to survive.

Angola confirmed its first COVID case—a maintenance supervisor—as winter turned into spring. Before long, a prisoner became ill—an elderly man locked in reverse isolation whose bed was nearest the time clock used to verify employee rounds. From that point, and into the following year, the virus ran rampant among us. Positive cases were removed to isolated recovery quarters, and their entire housing unit was quarantined for 14 days. Hundreds of Angola prisoners tested positive in that first year.

Face masks became mandatory, although not everyone wore them. Personal hygiene was encouraged, although not everyone practiced it. Social distancing was required, but most people ignored it. In prison, routines don’t change very easily.

The population generally despised the masks, but it hated the quarantines. For some prisoners, the loss of mobility was almost maddening. Dormitory windows through which sunlight once poured had been painted over several years ago to help reduce summer’s tormenting heat. As a result, the dorms became a few degrees cooler, but they now resembled dim, rectangular tombs. Tensions inside were high, often escalating into physical confrontation. There were multiple instances of sick men refusing to seek medical attention for fear of starting a new 14-day-lockdown cycle for their dorm mates.

In the world outside the fences, the Pfizer vaccine became available to a limited population in December 2020. Prisoners age 70 and older received their first dose in February 2021. Most incarcerated people were eager for their turn, but some skeptics refused. As the drug was incrementally offered according to age, exposure, and health, men waited in winding lines as weary prison medical staff injected shoulder after shoulder. Finally, we had a shield stronger than a mask. By that summer, an overwhelming majority of us had been fully vaccinated.

By the end of that year, by our count at The Angolite, the prison-news magazine where I am an editor, 20 Angola prisoners had died of COVID-19. The oldest had been 84, and the youngest had been 50. The virus also killed four Angola staff members, according to UCLA’s Covid Behind Bars project. The coronavirus was not born in the caged environment; it piggybacked in on people’s indifference to the lives there.

Despite the fortress around us, we were not protected. Despite the early demands of advocates, we were not released. Despite the danger, the rest of the world continued to take risks, jeopardizing the lives of those of us with no say in our circumstances. Our perils were a footnote in the larger story of COVID. We had no voice. We were statistics waiting to be tallied. Most of us lived, but not all.