Surviving the Pandemic in Prison

cots in an empty room

This piece on the COVID-19 pandemic in prison is the eleventh piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.

In the fall of 2020, Lawrence Jenkins, an abolitionist currently incarcerated at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, and Carrie Freshour began a correspondence. Both Lawrence and Carrie organize as members of Free Them All WA, a grassroots abolitionist organization of currently and formerly incarcerated people, family members, and community members. In the midst of the pandemic, they exchanged messages about industrial agriculture, land, and agroecology.

The following interview features some of the messages Carrie and Lawrence shared over JPay, a private information and financial service provider in the U.S. prison system, since March 12, 2020, in which they discuss the Washington State Department of Corrections’ (DOC’s) response to COVID-19. This includes acts of racial terror and targeted COVID-19-related retaliation and disorganizing by DOC staff. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself: who you are, where you’re from, what keeps you motivated in the work that you do? 

My name is Lawrence Jenkins. I am a Black political prisoner, scientist, farmer, educator, artist, and organizer. I was born and raised in Seattle, WA and I’m currently serving 26 years in the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC). I work inside the prison to help prisoners prepare for freedom, independence, and self-determination once they are free. I use the liberation-education model (peer-to-peer) backed by mutual aid, support, and solidarity from an outside community network to do this work independent from the prison. The work I do outside is essentially the same but centered around food and land sovereignty, economic development, political advancement, and sustainability. I help prisoners and the families and communities we are absent from, yet still belong to, overcome systems of oppression that perpetuate poverty, hunger, disease, houselessness, miseducation, displacement, and disposability. I’m connected to work throughout Washington State and across the U.S.

Lawrence Jenkins outside and farming with a squash plant.
Lawrence Jenkins tending plants on the prison property.

Where are you now?

I’m currently at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, which is a long-term minimum-security facility located in Aberdeen, WA.

When did COVID-19 enter the prison? What was the response by Correctional Officers (COs)/Correction Unit Supervisors (CUSs) and by incarcerated people?

In April, May, and June 2020, there were reports of staff testing positive and being put on mandatory leave to self-quarantine for 30 days. But there was no mass outbreak here during the first wave. However, there was an eerie silence and growing fear throughout prison that had everyone on edge. We felt there was nothing we could do to keep the virus from entering the prisons due to three shift changes a day and the built environment of the prison. We weren’t able to social distance, and the low-grade push-pull HVAC systems recycle the air of 300+ prisoners in each unit. How would DOC ensure our safety, health, and survival during the outbreak? The fear, anxiety, and uncertainty took a psychological toll here at the prison long before the superspreader event took place in November 2020, in the middle of the presidential elections.

Hand drawn faces of Black leaders
Sketches of Black leaders for the Liberation Arts Exhibit. Drawing by Lawrence Jenkins.

It all began when a CUS reported to work with symptoms and was later hospitalized for COVID-19. DOC initiated contact tracing, and prisoners who came in direct contact with this staff member were put in what was called Quarantine/Medical Isolation. Yet the facility only implemented semi-restricted movement and allowed prisoners who were housed in the same unit with the COVID-positive CUS to continue to work in the cafeteria and chow hall. This went on for approximately two weeks, sparking major concern and sending some prisoners into a state of panic.

This did not seem to matter to staff and COs. What mattered more was the DOC budget cuts and furloughs, anger at the reelection of Democratic Governor Jay Inslee, the Trump versus Biden presidential race, and the looming “civil war” on the horizon. These sources of frustration would soon trigger misconduct, unlawful use of excessive force, and indifference in the weeks to follow.

It is very important for readers to understand the contradictory elements that were at work leading to the crises of racial violence, mass COVID-19 outbreaks inside, and the corruption and injustices that were suddenly and abruptly unveiled. 

How would DOC ensure our safety, health, and survival during the outbreak?

Yet, the prison population realized our humanity and survival were ruled out from the very beginning of the pandemic. The series of superspreader events that followed (especially in jails and prisons across the U.S.) had a major role and influence on desensitizing, dissolving, and/or destroying the moral fiber that compelled DOC staff to treat prisoners with “some” human decency to none at all—or at least it appeared and felt this way. COs conscientiously detached themselves from the atrocities that were on the horizon beyond the walls that confined us but were destined to meet us.

The month of June 2020 was a major turning point. SB 6164 (a clemency and resentencing law) went into effect; George Floyd was murdered, sparking global uprisings; and Trump held his first post-COVID-19 presidential/controversial rally hosted in Tulsa, OK, calling “proud” Americans to stand up against the “radical Left mob” of the Movement for Black Lives, Antifa, and allies. What was revealed was the underlying racism, hatred, and disgust toward Black humanity and people that has been present in this prison from its inception. The town of Aberdeen, WA and its entire county of Grays Harbor has always been a predominantly white supremacist, conservative, mainly far-right Republican town. This prison, which was built only 20 years ago, has been this county’s only real experience with Black people.

At this point, it should be easy to conceptualize how this prison became a very unsafe environment for Black prisoners in the month of June into the present. Black prisoners had become soft targets and there were no consequences for the injustices that were inflicted upon them verbally, physically, or systemically. The potential of sentence reduction, early release, parole, and the Sentencing Reform Act and second chance bills that were on the table for upcoming legislative sessions prevented many prisoners who witnessed or even experienced this injustice from reacting. Fear of cruel and inhumane punishment was the root cause of their silence. This silence fueled perpetrators to carry out attacks publicly and willfully.

How has COVID-19 changed life inside, generally? What has protocol looked like?

In February 2020, DOC canceled all visitations after news hit of the first COVID-19 outbreak at a senior living home in Kirkland, WA. This outbreak was just east of Seattle, where many prisoners’ families live. That first outbreak made the threat very real to us. The uncertainty of never seeing our loved ones again, especially our elders and loved ones living with underlying health conditions, shifted the entire dynamics of how we did our time and where we focused our energy. 

Payphones on concrete floor surrounded by prison cell doors.
Phone stations with dividers in a unit in the correctional facility. Photo by Joanna Carns, December 2020.

When Governor Inslee first issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order, we realized we could only communicate with our loved ones through DOC’s very expensive and delayed communications systems: collect calls ($0.11/minute + taxes and fees), JPay ($3.50 for ten short emails), or snail mail. Because of these changes, phone lines grew long and became major sources of frustration and tension between us. When people complained to staff they were told, “You all are grown. Figure it out or we will just shut the phones off so nobody can use them.” Phones became an internal problem, meaning we dealt with them on our own, not wanting COs or admin to handle the situation. Respected leaders inside had to become community organizers. We had to use influence in a way that made our situation better by taking some power away from the oppressors by “policing” ourselves. However, this was just the calm before the storm.

As confirmed cases and death tolls surged across the state and the world, DOC began pulling privileges away from us while using COVID-19 relief funding for hygiene products to increase the pay for those who have jobs inside. This was another coordinated attempt to divide us inside. Connect Network (the private company that operates phone services) implemented two free five-minute phone calls a week to every prisoner. JPay distributed free stamps, e-books, discounts on music and video games, and implemented a movies option. Prison staff and opportunistic individuals better known as “bootlickers” were rapidly trying to launch charity projects to get themselves in a better position for status with administration and/or early release or clemency. They started commissary drives for local food banks and volunteer COVID-19 personal protective equipment (PPE) production. This happened alongside Washington State Correctional Industries (a private-public labor program) assembly lines for vulnerable communities across Grays Harbor, where none of us are from. The rest of us were captivated by the back-to-back fundraisers that allowed prisoners to buy food with 150% markups from local restaurants. This was how educational programming, religious services, and recreation (weights and group sports) were stripped away without any resistance. Prisoners were pacified, disillusioned, and, in some cases, manipulated. Their ideas were immediately co-opted by the administration to serve the local community outside the prison.

The prison population realized that our humanity and survival were ruled out from the very beginning of the pandemic.

The prison formed a COVID-19 Task Force of staff and hand-picked representatives from the incarcerated population to streamline updates, complaints, and ideas. By involving prisoners, mainly individuals who were not accountable leaders or involved with social/cultural groups, in the process of planning and implementing the “new normal,” we saw how these early months were administered and managed by the DOC. Tension between prisoners and COs also increased. We did not want them around us, and they did not want to be anywhere near us. They were forced to enforce social distancing when neither party wanted contact or interaction. This period seemed like administration gave us the green light to figure out our own means of safety, security, and survival as long as it didn’t threaten or disrupt the safety and security of others and/or the orderliness of the facility. They were okay as long as we did not become violent or unruly.

We’ve organized a lot around the DOC using Isolated Medical Units (IMUs), also known as solitary confinement, as a response to COVID-19 positive cases. Why has this been the response?

Solitary confinement/medical isolation was very much a means of retaliation and punishment when a group of us collectively organized against unjust treatment and lack of adequate COVID-19 testing and supplies. On December 12, 2020, the unit was placed on temporary lockdown, and I was extracted by a special response team. I was told that I was going to Administrative Segregation to be “placed under investigation due to involvement in unit disturbance.” I was housed in a pod that was being utilized for “Medical Isolation/Quarantine” created specifically for prisoners who tested positive or inconclusive for COVID-19. I tested negative twice in the same week, but I was still taken to solitary confinement and placed on “Administrative/Segregation/Quarantine Status.”

The Stafford 7 (the main leaders of the collective action and standoff with COs referenced above) were all placed in this pod along with many others with very similar pending investigations and allegations. “Medical isolation” was used to keep prisoners on “deadlock,” where they were confined to living quarters except for an authorized 10-minute shower once every three days and a 20-minute yard/phone time on scheduled days. We were served cold food (meals that are meant to be served hot) for the duration spent in isolation. This schedule follows the CDC recommendations for “medical isolation” per CDC and DOC COVID-19 protocols. We remained on this status and schedule for 28 days straight—some even longer. I spent over 80 days before they reallocated me to a different part of the solitary confinement, or what we call “the hole.”

Breakfast items in a styrafoam container
Breakfast items served cold in a styrofoam container in the correctional facility. Photo by Joanna Carns, December 2020.

I wrote an initial grievance and emergency grievances stating that my civil rights, constitutional rights, and human rights were being violated by means of cruel and inhumane punishment, deliberate indifference, and failure to due process. These grievances went unanswered for weeks—making me believe that this was a form of retaliation. My attempts to litigate for myself were ineffective.

The Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and inhumane punishment, governs the treatment of convicted prisoners. In order to win such a case, you must prove both the objective component of cruel and inhumane punishment and the subjective component of deliberate indifference. We are currently taking legal action with the help of a volunteer legal defense team and organizers outside. However, members of the Stafford 7 are still being silenced, many of whom were transferred to other prisons to disorganize further collective action. Help is still needed.

What has been the response to the vaccine inside?

The vaccine was finally administered on the first week of April 2021 to “essential workers” in general population. Many who took the shot were not able to report to work the next day due to serious side effects.

The fear, anxiety, and uncertainty took a psychological toll here at the prison.

There is definitely a heightened level of fear and suspicion in relation to the vaccine. To many of us, the vaccine is looking like another experiment. Many feel like they are going to be forced to take it or bear the consequences of being placed in solitary confinement on “quarantine status” and/or denied visitation with loved ones when prison allows for visitation to open back up. Governor Inslee is preparing to put major counties in western Washington, where the majority of prisoners’ loved ones are from, back in Phase Two due to a spike in new variants of COVID-19 cases across the state.

Rumors are circulating that COs are refusing to take vaccination saying that “it’s a sham,” echoing Trump’s rhetorical claims on COVID-19 vaccines. Many believe this is the real reason why it has taken months for the prison to begin administering vaccines to prisoners. Had they not been “highly vulnerable” and/or “essential workers” according to the DOC’s eyes, which only sees liabilities, assets, and threats, I’m convinced that this prison would have never accepted and administered a vaccine to anyone based on the very conservative and far-right statements and agendas being carried out by COs inside.

Anything else you want to share with Edge Effects readers?

We are facing major issues of delayed mail, price increase in collect calls, stimulus debit card rejections, and very limited access to medical care. These are major points of frustration and tension alongside the looming threat of racial violence by COs. We are being tortured at every point. Everything being done to us at this point is cruel, inhumane, and deliberate. The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, for the majority of the population, is inevitable. The trauma of having to witness and experience such bestial and genocidal acts is going to have lifelong physical and psychological effects.

Featured image: Cots set up in an empty gym that was converted to housing in the correctional facility. Photo by Joanna Carns, December 2020.

Lawrence Jenkins is a Black Political Prisoner, farmer, teacher, food justice and human rights activist, writer, artist, and abolitionist. Lawrence turns prison property into acres of fresh produce, donating over 100,000 pounds of vegetables to local food banks. He continues to develop his talents as a visual wildlife artist, directing the art show held at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. Lawrence leads several political education circles inside and organizes with abolitionists and food justice movements outside. You can follow Lawrence’s work through his art Instagram or the Liberation Media Northwest’s Instagram. Both accounts are maintained by friends, family, and community in coordination with Lawrence. You can also reach out directly to Lawrence through JPay or via snail mail (for a fee!):

Lawrence Jenkins 306665
191 Constantine Way
Aberdeen, WA 98520

Carrie Freshour is a Southerner, abolitionist, and assistant professor of geography at the University of Washington. Her work focuses on low-wage food and agricultural labor in the U.S. South, racial capitalism, carceral geographies, and Black Radicalism. Freshour is finalizing her book project, Making Life Work, which centers the experiences of Black women, their families, and broader communities in Northeast Georgia who remain the basis for the global production of cheap chicken. Website. Twitter. Contact.