Testing in the Middle of the Storm

We’re locked down here at the prison so time doesn’t matter much. Without a schedule I find myself rising with the sun. Something primal wakes me up. I watch out the window as a distant mountain slowly turns purple. Orange and yellow spread into a blue sky.

At 9am yesterday the main door opened with a clink. I walked to the window in my cell door to see. Habit these days with so little going on. I had been up for hours but wondered if I was still dreaming.

A group in full hazmat suits and sealed respirators walked in. A gruff-looking Sergeant type in full camo with a face mask was directing things. The National Guard had arrived.

Our Covid-19 outbreak started two weeks ago. Six, then eight, then twelve men isolated. Four ended up in the hospital.

A week ago mass testing for affected units was done. Prisoners herded onto the rec yard to wait for hours. Finally tested in a long line. A whole day affair.

But something went wrong. None of the tests came back. Or they were lost. The stories vary.

Without results, the infected were not quarantined. Thirty two men in the honor pod live in single cells. The other more than 1100 men live in double cells the size of your bathroom. Cells with shared ventilation. Blowing nearly 40 years of dust and mold. No way to social distance.

So someone called in the National Guard. I always thought that was just a line from the movies. Or something that happens with hurricanes and tornadoes. Now we were in the middle of our own storm.

One by one they called us out of our cells. I was disappointed when I could hear them clearly. Had expected a Darth Vader hiss and distorted voices. The young Guardsman told me to lean back. That he would insert a swab two inches into my nasal cavity. It might be uncomfortable.

I laughed. Told him my nose has been uncomfortable since I destroyed it with cocaine 18 years ago. He laughed and swabbed away.

That was it. Back to the cell as they tested down the line. A few of the Guard working. Most standing around. Talk about getting all dressed up for nothing.

The idle Guardsmen and Guardswomen looked sideways at us. Not judging. Just curious. Men locked in cages were as alien to them as young men and women in hazmat suits were to us.

They left and we went back to the new normal. Locked doors. Lots of reading and writing.

Sometimes it’s scary. More often boring. Today it was at least exciting.

Facing the Pandemic in Prison

Guards in Tyvex suits lead a diaspora of prisoners carrying trash bags with their meager belongings. They file onto the rec yard and spread out to claim a corner. They flee an enemy that cannot be seen.

These men live in units where the outbreak began. They walk, knowing their fate but clinging to hope they will not soon fill the gym. If the rec yard is a refugee camp, the gym is a field hospital.

They await test results. Marched through cramped hallways. Locked in cells breathing the same air. Cleaning the units after an outbreak is too little too late. The prison holds double the men it was designed for. Already inadequate ventilation has collected dust and mold over almost 40 years.

Virginia is projected to face more than $1,000,000,000 shortfall in its budget.

The Department of Corrections costs taxpayers $1,300,000,000 each year.

Staff and guards are underpaid, the turnover rate is as high as 90%.

Virginia abolished parole in 1995. There are no second chances for prisoners who turn their lives around.

Judges have complete discretion. One defendant can receive six years and another forty. Sentencing guidelines are regularly ignored.

Victims have few rights and regularly fail to receive compensation for their losses.

The system is broken.

The only hope is that, when we restart the country we take a hard look at things that weren’t working. We don’t have to go back to a broken way of life. Stopping means the freedom to start off in another direction.

Groundhog Day

People keep saying quarantine is like Groundhog Day. What can the movie teach us?

Bill Murray’s predicament and antics are funny. Stuck in the same routine he tries various approaches. Hedonism is fun but empty. Chaos is cool but gets boring. He fails spectacularly over and over. He loses hope. He can’t take it anymore so he tries to end it all.

After beating his head against the wall, Bill Murray realizes there is no escaping the way things are. What does he do next? He decides to live well.

He learns to ice sculpt. He plays piano. He opens his heart to beauty and art. He falls in love.

It’s a movie about finding hope in hopelessness. It’s about making the best of situations we can’t control. When he stops fighting and lives in the moment he’s freed from his prison.

All of us on quarantine and all of us in our various prisons could learn a lot from the movie.


Prisoners have a lot of experience being quarantined or sheltered in place. At least four weeks per year we are locked in our cells. We get showers every three days.

Despite this, I come to look forward to lockdowns. They are a chance to recharge. Having no access to the phone or kiosk, I have quiet days to meditate, read and write. I have time to look out the window and really pay attention. It’s a time to come back to what’s important.

I don’t remember what life is like out there. My daily stresses and obligations are much smaller than most who will read this. These are scary times for us all. There is a lot we have no choice and no control over. We’re all worried about those we love, about our economic security and about the great unknown.

My goal is to focus on the things I can do and take this opportunity to find that center that will hold, even when the world is falling apart.