If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is an incomplete picture?
Apparently, a lot more than a thousand, because for the inmates at Oxford Federal Prison Camp, the ongoing developments with COVID-19 has been a nonstop conversation, well in excess of 1000 words. Each news reel, each sound bite is yet another stroke – to be analyzed, discussed, and determined – slowly filling in the painfully incomplete picture of the pandemic.
“We are getting out of here, man, this whole thing is just crazy”, says Mario, a crack addict who passes himself off as a big-time crack dealer serving his second of a four-year sentence.
“No way, they don’t care about us”, responds Roger while flailing his arms deliberately at Mario.
“I’ve seen something like this before”, Roger continues, “about twenty years ago. Bunch of inmates died, like in the thousands, and then everybody just moved on, like it was nothing.”
Something in the last few words Roger utters carries with it a weight of silence, and the two silently exchange glances before looking down at the stain filled ground, slowly nodding their heads in silent acceptance.
Roger, a former cocaine interstate cocaine trafficker in his third prison term, has the reputation and presence – and sentence – to hold the respect of his fellow inmates. So when Roger talks, people listen. He is a repeat offender who accumulated enough convictions over his life to be termed a career criminal, warranting an enhanced prison term sentence by the judge, and an enhance level of respect by his fellow inmates.
After a few lingering moments a silence, Roger and Eddie look reflexively up at the television anchored high to the cinderblock wall as they hear word on the rising death toll. The anchor recites a seemingly memorized set of data and statistics, each proclaiming the total and daily number of deaths and cases, each number larger than the previous.
“See this is why we need to leave. There are – what – one hundred people here? We need to go be with our families”, Mario cries. “I read in some newspaper that they were going to let us all go. Something about compassionate release. I know a bunch of guys who are writing letters to senators, the president, anybody, about how we need to get out of here.”
Roger widens his eyes and forces eye contact with Mario in an attempt to calm him down. Roger knows emotionally volatile inmates do not do well – either the guards or the other inmates make sure to calm the situation down – too much excitement is bad for everybody, one of the most basic unwritten rules of prison. But Mario does not seem to get the signal.
“They took our ice, we can’t even drink water from the fountains, we get boxed lunches now – its crazy – we are all in lockdown at a minimum security prison, at a camp!”
Roger steps towards Mario until he is about three feet away, places the palm of his hand just a foot away from Mario’s chest. Mario notices the gesture and immediately calms down looking at Roger who explains, “Listen – listen”, Roger repeats, in a noticeably emphatic tone. “If one of us gets it, they’re just gonna put us in more lockdown, maybe no movement at all. We’ll be stuck in our cells all day, all night.
“Why would they release us out into the world when we’re already quarantined here? You think the BOP wants to release us, be liable for us, or just stick us in the cells until this passes?
“The only ones getting out are the white collar, white male who can afford to have a doctor fax in some bogus prior medical conditions to justify getting out on compassionate release. There is no compassionate release for you and me, boy. There is only the lockdown.
“I’ve seen this with the crack laws, with the first step shit a few years ago – it is all the same. Every few years some law comes out, making it seem like it’s going to help us all, but it’s just targeting a specific group. The blacks got the crack law. The lifer’s got the first step act.
“And the wealthy, white collar get the compassionate release. Not you, not me.”
Mario listens intently and slowly inches back, increasing the space between him and Roger. When Roger finishes, Mario asks, “what about the infection risk, all the people who have lung conditions?”
“What about them?”
“I thought those who were the highest risk had to leave, by law.”
“And what is risk? You see that guy Eddie, we call him Meatball. He is from the Ohio River farmland, meth city. His whole family cooked it. Once the crops stop making money, they grew meth. He has old fungal infections in his lung, you know he smokes a pack a day – never has the money to pay for it though – so why is he here?
“Because –”, Mario stutters.
“Because he’s not white collar. Look at Randy, tax guy, he claims he has seizures, even though he’s not on any meds and nobody ever saw him actually seizing. He’s out.
“They are not selecting people based on medical risk, they are selecting people based on the type of crime, and whether they will be a return risk.”
“Recidivism”, Mario corrects, prompting a scowl from Roger.
“Shut up and listen”, Roger goes on, “they’re passing criminal risk as medical risk and making up a bogus list of people who were set to leave anyways to claim they are making things safer here. You know and I know they’re not. They do one thing in here, and say another thing out there. And that’s just how it goes.”
Another moment of silence follows as Mario absorbs what Roger tells him, bowing his head in silence.
Roger begins to look around pondering whether he should stay or leave when Mario looks up, genuinely concerned, and asks, “So why are all these people writing these letters?”
“Fear”, Roger retorts. “People are scared about this whole virus thing, and they’re trying to get an angle to get out.”
“Right, but the BOP has to at least listen to what they’re saying.”
“The reality is the BOP is like a dysfunctional version of the military. Central, or the folks in D.C. is telling the guards what to say and to do. And even that is very limited and only what bare minimum needs to be said. Otherwise the guards hear just as much as we do from the same source we do – the news – we just assume they know more because they are guards.
“But nobody has the full picture – we all just take it as the new pieces come, from wherever it comes.”
Mario runs his hands through his hair, clearly more distressed than before. “Well I want out, I want to be with my family.”
Roger glares at Mario like a schoolteacher silently warning the class clown. “You just don’t get it, do you? We all want to be home. We all know that.
“Instead of focusing on what you know, focus on the things you and others don’t know. There is more we do not know than know.
“And once what we do not know is less than what we do know, we’ll have a better picture of what is going on.”
Mario chides, “unless we’re all dead by then.”
Roger, sensing further conversation is fruitless, presses his lips and nods his head at angle, leaving the two standing in silence.