Early in the pandemic, the Washington State Department of Corrections spent a ridiculous amount of money converting an education building into a COVID care unit. I was tasked with throwing away tens of thousands of dollars worth of educational materials, much of it brand new.

When I asked if I could keep one of the books (after all, it was purchased purportedly for my education) I was told that was not permitted. The books HAD TO populate some landfill.

By the time they were done, there was a shower in the bathroom, rows of bunks filled the classrooms, a high tech air filtration system had been installed, and the whole place was wired with multiple cable TV outlets. All that was left was for the fire Marshall to issue his approval.

It took the fire Marshall only a few minutes to notice that the only fire protection in the entire building was a small fire extinguisher hanging on the wall. At that point, his inspection terminated and approval was not granted.

Months passed. It was beginning to look like the vaccine might arrive before the virus. Then a series of events unfolded in December that had many of us believing they were infecting all of us deliberately.

Once the virus had begun to spread throughout the facility, they found they needed a new care facility. They had been using the long term isolation unit but when the numbers swelled into triple digits, they ran out of room.

That’s when some correctional mastermind came up with the idea of converting the fifty year old gym into a makeshift homeless shelter. By the time they were finally able to infect me, this is where I was sent.

The homeless shelter was purported to be for those who were asymptotic. That’s what I learned much later anyway. Yet, when the guard woke me up in the middle of the night to inform me I was being sent to live there, he never bothered to ask if I had any symptoms.

I didn’t believe I was infected. I still felt the same as always. But I was afraid. At least when I’m living in a cage, I can take precautions to protect myself. The moment I stepped into the homeless shelter, I knew that would no longer be possible.

There were rows of vintage World War II wooden/canvas army cots. Over a hundred. There were people everywhere, very few of them wearing masks. But why would they? They’d all been informed they were infected, except me. All I’d been told is that I had to go live in the gym.

I soon learned most of the people there were experiencing some kind of COVID symptoms. I was afraid to take my mask off, even to eat. I was afraid to touch anything. After three days, my fingers began to split open from washing my hands so frequently. And when I laid on my cot to try and sleep, I looked up at the ceiling and noticed there was no fire protection system. Apparently they learned their lesson and didn’t even ask the fire Marshall to approve this one.

The cots were approximately three feet apart. There was barely enough room to navigate from my assigned cot to the single toilet at the front of the room. I later learned they’d rented trailers containing showers and toilets and parked them behind the gym. But the first couple days those were inaccessible due to the back door being perpetually locked.

After three days, they finally started leaving the door unlocked. Prior to that, there had been a perpetual line as over a hundred people waited to use the single toilet. If you actually tried social distance, you lost your place in line.

It soon became apparent that no one had considered that requiring us to endure weeks in the homeless shelter with only the clothes we walked in wearing was a bad idea. It took nearly a week to resolve that problem. Even then we ended up with just enough extra clothing to allow us to wash our dirty clothing in a trash can with a bar of soap and a hose. A few bold prisoners tore strips off the edge of their sheets to make clotheslines to hang from the basketball hoop.

Far and away the worst of this experience came when they began allowing us to return to our regular living units. We were told we’d have to spend fifteen days in the homeless shelter. We were all living in the same room, so everyone knew exactly how long everyone else had been there. Yet some were allowed to leave after a few days while others were seemingly passed over for no discernible reason.

This resulted in many disgruntled people. Each day they were passed over, they’d become more angry and unruly. When it started happening to me, the problem was equal parts angst at being passed over and concern I would end up being caught in the middle of a violent disturbance before I could get out of there.

When trying to design an appropriate environment in which to recover from a potentially deadly disease, the DOC appears to have identified every possible way to promote healing. Then, of course, they made one that was the exact opposite. If that wasn’t bad enough, consider that they did all this with your money. That’s your tax dollars at work in the land of zero accountability.

– Tim Pauley

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