Waking up in prison every day is a miserable experience. Add to that an extra dose of helplessness and you have today’s reality in Maine State Prison.
Everywhere I turn is a man with deep concern for his family. As for me, I have in the world a mother, an aunt and a dear friend, each of whom is young at heart but advanced in age. Being a man of faith, I am not afraid for them, but my heart is moved to pray for their health and protection.
Even though we incarcerated men have been physically removed from society, our hearts remain with those we love who are affected by COVID-19, so we are also affected. The helplessness we feel comes from hearing about empty shelves in stores, and from wondering if the caseworker is going to call us into her office so we can call home to a dying loved one. It comes from knowing that if the worst happens, we will likely be unable to see our loved one before they breathe their last. This is an all-too-common occurrence — one I know quite well.
When I moved to my final foster home at the age of 14, I had to wait until my 15th birthday before my new foster mother would allow me to find employment. I answered a classified ad seeking a manual laborer. The elderly man on the phone said I’d have the opportunity to learn about ornamental gardening and alpine soil mixtures while honing my general landscaping skills. What I couldn’t know then was that I’d grow to love this man and the woman with whom he shared his life. They would become my surrogate grandparents and, with unwavering love and support, would see me through the longest, darkest days of my life.
I also couldn’t know I’d be in prison when they died.
This past November, I received a note from my grandmother telling me my grandfather had passed away, alone in his New Hampshire apartment with his cat. I had no opportunity to hear his voice or to reassure him of my love and appreciation before he died. Then, near the end of January, I received a letter from an unfamiliar address informing me that my grandmother had passed a week earlier, attended by her daughter and hospice personnel. As an experienced hospice volunteer, I was very grateful to have a picture of her peaceful passing. But as a grieving man, I felt robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye to one of the most loving, caring and kind women I have ever met.
Knowing this fear of loss intimately, I recognize it in the eyes of the men around me.
As for the pandemic’s effects on the daily operations of this prison, there are many — both positive and negative.
While governments are placing whole cities and countries under quarantine and curfew, the prison population is waiting with a collective cessation of breath for the inevitable: prison-wide cell restriction. The administration has already restricted some movement within the facility, as if to gradually get us more comfortable with less mobility. I appreciate the slow-walk back to my corner of the ring, but with each passing day the conversation continues to focus on the impending probability of a facility-wide quarantine. Heightening those concerns are routine occurrences like court trips — prisoners leave the property and then return to the general population, having potentially been exposed to the virus — as well as new developments, like the recent influx of prisoners from Maine Correctional Center, in Windham, to make room at that facility.
Regarding the catchphrase of the day, social distancing, prison is an environment wherein that becomes an absurdity. As soon as I walk out of my cell I am included in a gathering of 64 people — 54 more than is recommended by government order. Each time I walk into the chow hall I join a line of men separated by no more than two feet. I wonder how quickly the virus will spread when it eventually breaches the walls of this prison. Then I look at all those I know who are over 65 years of age or have a heart or lung condition — staff members and prisoners alike.
I must admit, however, that I am pleasantly surprised by the administration’s efforts to help us stay in contact with our families and loved ones, as well as with the staff’s commitment to keep showing up every day. Many staff members work copious amounts of overtime to keep us from having to be locked in before we have to be locked in indefinitely. Any staff member who comes to work with a high temperature is turned away at the door; others are self-quarantining. Staff are also given health survey questions to answer, and if an answer indicates risk, they are sent home for 14 days. The warden joins a conference call with the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) every weekday to receive guidance and recommendations.
All visitation has been suspended, and all outside volunteers denied entry, until at least April 27. However, other avenues of communication have been expanded for us. On our new Edovo texting program, we have been afforded an additional 20 texts per week for each of our contacts. We are normally provided two free letters each week; that has been doubled to four. And the administration worked it out with the phone company to give every prisoner a free 20-minute call each week that visitations are suspended. These may seem like small concessions meant to appease an isolated population, but I assure you they mean a great deal to those of us cut off from the physical presence of the people we love.
I was also glad to see the CDC fact sheets. Reading and understanding those sheets has become a type of course, the completion of which is required before we can access any texting or educational programs through the tablets the prison provides. Fear is often exacerbated by misinformation, so seeing truths about how the coronavirus is contracted, spread and prevented was very helpful. As of this writing, there are no coronavirus cases in any Maine Department of Corrections facility.
The warden recently spent an entire day going from pod to pod addressing protective measures and questions, which was pretty cool of him to do. Behavior incidents are at an all-time low, which shows the willingness of the population to help keep the prison running as smoothly as possible.
The adverse effects of COVID-19 expand beyond the walls of this prison. College classes are being disrupted, leading to questions of how men will be able to complete their assignments without online access. Those blessed with an upcoming release date are now faced with greater adversity than was already anticipated. Every business that has been indefinitely shuttered is a potential avenue of employment closed. Solid release plans are being derailed. Men who were confident two weeks ago of their post-release success are now dealing with renewed anxiety and fear of failure.
We cannot know the future of this pandemic or its effect on the lives of millions of Americans. What we can know, and acknowledge, is that it is high time we start caring again. For those of us with an understanding of biblical prophecy, this pandemic comes as no surprise in light of our national aversion to obeying God. One of the signs of the End Times described in scripture is “pestilences” (Luke 21:11, New International Version). So, unless we have a national turning back to God, we can expect the continued spread of this virus and many more that will likely be more aggressive and devastating. Sure, man may come up with some vaccine or treatment. But until we deal with underlying spiritual issues, we will see this again — and react just as poorly.
A good start to improving our future would be for each of us to reject the societal apathy that infected this culture long before anybody heard of COVID-19. Let us open our eyes to the suffering of our neighbors. Revisit the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and redefine who we see as our neighbor. Stop being the one who empties the shelf in the store, or who buys all the meat so there is none left for the next hungry family. Leave some toilet paper, baby wipes and disinfectant for the mother, father or caregiver behind you. Be the one who goes shopping so your elderly parent or neighbor can stay home. Be a part of the solution instead of worsening the problem.
Maybe that way we can begin to infuse our hearts once more with compassion and empathy for those who are hungry, homeless or hurting. I think it’s about time for us to remind ourselves how to put our love into action.
Leo Hylton’s new monthly column for Mainer, Shining Light on Humanity, will debut later this spring.