By Corey Devon Arthur for The Marshall Project
One summer about 20 years ago, the main pipe that supplied water to Attica Correctional Facility burst. Similar to the COVID-19 crisis, it was unprecedented and prison officials struggled to adapt. To their credit, they eventually brought in lake water to flush the toilets. Unfortunately, it was after human feces had filled over 2,000 commodes. It was too little, too late. Prisoners had resorted to flinging plastic and paper bags of crap onto the middle of the gallery.
I don’t know who started the first fire. By the time I smelled burning paper, plastic and shit, it didn’t matter. Attica’s C-block was lit. Everyone had something to burn. The smoke and fire were our voices to an administration that ignored our words.
My 23-year-old self could never have imagined what is happening today. Visits are suspended. There are severe restrictions on already limited commissary buys. No funeral trips. No family reunion program. And yet, for the most part, we prisoners are compliant. Like the rest of the world, we are engaged in a life and death struggle against a thugged-out flu called coronavirus. If this had happened 20 years ago, the population would have promptly rioted and burned everything in sight until they were standing in ashes and blood.
I have come a long way from being an Attica prison yard gladiator. Now the chairman of the Inmate Liaison Committee at Fishkill Correctional Facility, I was voted into my six-month term in February, right before the coronavirus began dominating American life. We had all heard about a super flu spreading like wildfire in free society. But at that point, very few, if any of us, were directly impacted by what Trump was calling “the Chinese flu.” Most of us thought it was another government ploy to fix the upcoming election.
Then in mid-March, the prison system took a potentially risky and historic step. In response to the rapid spread of the coronavirus, it was decided that except for non-contact legal visits, all visitations would be suspended for several weeks. Everything that everyone swore they knew about prison said that the population would rebel. To everyone’s surprise, we didn’t.
Most of the prisoners understood why the system suspended visits and agreed with the decision, even if reluctantly. The only people I heard complaining were the drug dealers and addicts; there was going to be a serious shortage of drugs in the prison system. From that day on, everyone on both sides of the line knew that the coronavirus was real. The prison population was still manageable, but the tension was evident.
Prison operates on rumors, prejudices and projections of fear. The prisoners deduced that if COVID-19 got into the facility, it would be brought in by one of the staff members. On the other hand, certain staff members claimed that they could catch it from one of the prisoners. Already existing animosities were exponentially heightened.
The administrators chose to use whatever tools they could to check the population’s emotional temperature. One of those tools was our Inmate Liaison Committee. In an unprecedented move, the prison administration started holding daily meetings with us. Their purpose was multifold: to get information about COVID-19 out to the population, to dispel any untruths and to monitor the mood. We were effectively their eyes and ears for any potential problems. We accepted the task without protest. After our meetings with administrators, we would visit each housing unit and tell our peers what we had been told. At first most prisoners appreciated us coming around. And often, the officers would be just as interested.
Eventually, the restrictions imposed upon prisoners mirrored those in free society. Only essential services to keep the prison running continued to operate. Nobody seemed to really mind until the other shoe dropped: With the possibility of a food shortage looming, the administration placed restrictions on what prisoners could purchase in commissary. That turned the entire prison economy upside down. Prisoners typically operate on the barter system. Tobacco is the strongest currency, followed by other popular items, such as junk food. Prison creditors went into a frenzy to recalculate their debtors’ shopping lists. Those who owed got a little breathing room, but not much. Despite the unfolding circumstances, prisoner on prisoner violence remained low.
We were also introduced to the practice of social distancing. Our habitat demanded us to be in close proximity, and COVID-19 wanted in. The administration called the committee and told us that three inmates had come into contact with a doctor at an outside hospital who tested positive for the coronavirus. These men made it back to the facility and interacted with four others. Subsequently, all seven prisoners were quarantined in the COVID-19 unit, a formerly closed area now housing inmates who had been directly or secondarily exposed to anyone who tested positive.
Once again, the committee was sent around to make announcements. No one with a heartbeat took kindly to this news. By now, the entire population had come to despise our visits. My response was, “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.” (I did manage to convince them not to shoot me, although getting stabbed wasn’t entirely out of the question.)
I promptly reported the population’s dissatisfaction to the administration and gave them a list of suggestions to ease growing tensions. We were given an extra late night, additional movies and access to a new yard. Relations between staff and prisoners started to level out a bit. It wasn’t an us-versus-them kind of thing. Instead, it was all of us against COVID-19. No one knew how to rebel against an oppressor we couldn’t see, taste, touch, hear, or smell. All we could do was watch the news and wash our hands.
The administration gave out bars of hand soap, bleach and cleaning rags. They gave us everything we needed, but not everything we wanted. No one has known the America we are living in right now, prison or otherwise.
This crisis has peeled back the facade of what people thought prison culture was, including the prisoners themselves. Twenty years ago, if I had been presented with the COVID-19 as a hypothetical, I would have sworn that every prisoner would shut this bitch down. In my New York state prison, I’m proven wrong.
Corey Devon Arthur was born in Brooklyn in 1977, and has been incarcerated since 1997 for robbery and murder. He has earned Legal Research Certification, and studied through Rising Hope and Nyack College. He currently serves as chairman of the Inmate Liaison Committee at Fishkill Correctional Facility. Corey is passionate about writing and drawing and is currently working on a trilogy of short stories.