Letter from Washington State Reformatory

The Washington State Reformatory was built in 1910 in the town of Monroe. WSR is now the biggest of three facilities that comprise the Monroe Corrections Complex (MCC), which can contain 2,400 people. And on March 13, 2020, the MCC became the first prison in the state to report a case of Covid-19 among a staff member. This letter was received on March 30, 2020.

Socially Distanced Translation
March 30th, 2020

As I’m sitting in my cell on a mandatory precautionary quarantine/restricted movement, I’m finding it difficult to make sense of everything that’s going on (or what’s NOT going on). It seems as though at the blink of an eye our whole world has been turned upside down and chaos has become the new norm. The days of Coronavirus as this improbable distant “foreign” invader, the “others” problem, has morphed into a worldwide pandemic, a word that I have to translate for my cellie who’s a Vietnamese refugee that still struggles with English. After we both come to an understanding of what we think pandemic really means, a look of concern takes place of his comprehension. He anxiously questions if this pandemic is going to affect his release from prison in a few weeks since ICE agents are scheduled to pick him up and transport him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma for the next leg of his incarceration. I express that I don’t know, and we both sit silently, helplessly staring at CNN for answers, but all we get are more useless words that I have to translate for my brother in struggle. A job I’m happy to do for as long as it takes.

It seems like just yesterday that I was in the GED class that I help tutor where I had my first encounter with this invisible adversary. Although this was over a month ago, in hindsight, this event should’ve served as a cautionary warning of what was to come. This experience occurred on a morning I reported to class and was at the back of the room at my desk preparing to pass out assignments while the teacher conducted a ‘current events’ excercise. Somehow, the conversation shifted from reports of the Coronavirus in Wuhan, China to a debate regarding whether or not Japan a part of China. WTF? While I personally thought this was the most ridiculous debate ever, I was just happy that the students were actually doing some work and utilizing their brains for once. However, when a white student exclaimed that it didn’t matter if they were different countries or not because they were all ‘gooks’ anyway, I panicked. I panicked not necessarily out of any fear for myself, I panicked because I was the only Asian American in the classroom…and as somebody whose been incarcerated for a decade and counting, I knew what was supposed to happen next, and it’s usually never anything good. As I sat there hoping that somebody would speak up on my behalf, contemplating as to what I was supposed to do as a committed practitioner of nonviolence, yet still abiding by convict code. Silence. Without going into the nitty gritty details, after a few choice expletives and my strong “requests” for him to go do something to his “saltines” self, the situation ended with him sitting in silence, embarrassed but never apologizing, and me in the library disappointed that I let an ignorant comment get me out of my character and asking myself what the hell just happened. Later that day, as I was watching a White House briefing on TV, I heard President Trump refer to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese” virus and somebody else jokingly calling it the “Kung Flu,” and I clearly got my answers.

As various parts of the world continue and try to deal with this crisis in a variety of ways, Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) has had its fair share of random strategies. What these are and their effectiveness is yet to be seen and made public. Maybe this lack of transparency and arbitrary modifying modes of operation are meant to ease our anxiety. Or could it be that they just care about us so much that they’re concerned that the truth might hurt us? Gee, thanks for your compassion!

One day we’re told that all is fine and that everything is running as normal. The next there’s a bunch of random fliers on the wall telling us to wash our hands if we want to live, and another memo stating that visits and programs are suspended until further notice. But wait, I thought we were all good? Next thing you know, half the prison is on quarantine because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. But we have nothing to worry about because the Department of Corrections (DOC) has it all under control, right? And what the hell is COVID-19? Eventually, we’re told we have to practice “social distancing.” Let me describe what that concept means here at MCC. An individual like myself can line up for chow with 50 other prisoners at a time standing 2 feet apart, but not be allowed to sit at the table with anybody else because they’re only allowing one person per table, and then have to come straight to my 6×10 cell and practice social distancing with my cellie who I couldn’t sit at the dinner table with yet share a cell with. Makes perfect sense, right? When I ask an officer whose bright idea it was to run chow like that, I’m told it came from the Lieutenant. It’s extremely comforting to know that public health policies are being drafted and implemented by medical experts and that my life is safe in the hands of somebody who looks eerily like the GED student I had that encounter with. A week later an individual gets rushed to the hospital after showing symptoms of COVID-19, but the initial test results come back negative. Thank God! Oh no, wait, it’s actually positive? What now? Lockdown!

Every time somebody coughs or sneezes in here there’s a deathly silence and accusatory glares. We really don’t know what’s going on. One minute we’re all good, the next there’s pandemonium and the facility is on lockdown, and the officers rarely have any answers. Memos are distributed telling us that everything is okay, but the media is telling us that half the world is on ‘stay-at-home’ orders and dying. A nurse comes by twice a day to check our temperatures and those who are running a little hot or refuse are taken to isolation. Those who feel unsafe and at risk of infection keep their mouths shut out of fear of being taken to solitary confinement and having even more of our basic privileges stripped away. Officers are just as stressed, and that stress is more than often taken out on us. It’s hard to say, but I kind of emapathized with them. When you’re on the front lines trying to survive while somebody in a safe isolated office is doling out orders, it’s can be easy to misdirect anger and frustration.

As the Federal Government just passed a 2T dollar stimulus package to rescue the nation’s economy, I’m left to wonder where my comrades and I fit into that record breaking package? Because although working for .42 cents an hour normally isn’t ideal, and is a living wage nowhere in the world, many of us have come to depend on those pennies to survive, and now we can’t even do that due to this indefinite lockdown. And it’s not like Correctional Industries is racing to save anybody. They’re still overcharging us for food and hygiene products that we could barely afford in the first place. Yet the fliers say we’re supposed to be washing our hands WITH SOAP more often to STAY ALIVE. Tricky dilemma if I say so myself. But at least somebody is benefitting from Coronavirus, right? The good guys seem to always win, don’t they? I mean I guess those of us fortunate enough to still have family could contact them for some money for commissary and phone time, but who knows how long they’re going to have to make their $1,200 government check stretch, and that’s if they ever get them. So why burden them even more? To make matters worse, my cellie was just notified by his counselor/caseworker that his release date is probably getting pushed back because ICE doesn’t have the capacity to come pick him up during this pandemic. Nice to see that as the world is crumbling all around us, at least the good ol’ boys of ICE and DOC have their priorities straight and it’s still business as usual! Is that even legal? Maybe I should try to find somebody to translate that for the both of us.

Look, all jokes aside. I’m scared shitless in here. I find myself trying to make jokes about the situation to help cope with my own fear and anxiety. How’s it working? It’s tough being so isolated in here worried sick about my loved ones. Thoughts of my aging parents, my kids missing school, and my boujee sister probably out there protesting on my behalf somewhere. I watch the news all day and selfishly wish I could be watching an NBA game to take my mind off all things Corona but even that has been canceled. Seeing on CNN that the US is closing in on an alarming 2,500 deaths to date is something I can’t even comprehend. Honestly, I hope I never do. And then I see a report coming out of Spain that they had nearly half that many deaths in just the last 24 hours and my fear and anxiety are heightened tenfold. Are we next? Maybe I need to stop watching so much TV, I say to myself. When there’s money on the phone I call home when I can sneak out of my cell to talk to a few of my friends and family to check in with them as they’re on stay-at-home orders as well and try to make light of the situation in hopes of brightening their day, if only for a moment. Yet sadly, as soon as I hang up, it’s another long walk back to my cell…and like clockwork, another round of temperature checks and CNN…and yes, even more translations from a distance.

Updates from the University of Washington Bothell's Project on Mass Incarceration in Washington State