By Timothy Pauley
“My bad.” This is a term currently in vogue. It is a way to indicate one has transgressed, but without expressing any remorse for said transgression. This is similar in many ways to the slogan it has come to replace, “I’m sorry.” Similar in that it acknowledges a wrong, but different in that it gives no expression of remorse, thereby paving the way for identical future transgressions.
“Good lookin’ out.” This is a term in the socially hip vernacular that acknowledges that someone did something helpful, but without expressing any gratitude. Almost like saying thank you. Almost.
While older people clinging to traditional phrases might seem amusing to some, perhaps there is something deeper going on here. Could this be evidence of social illiteracy? If you are inclined to dismiss this, perhaps more evidence is in order.
Prior to March of 2020, these observations mattered little. Who really cares if the enlightened among us wish to alter traditional expressions? Then we were all told about “social distancing.”
According to numerous experts, the single most effective way a person can avoid becoming infected with COVID-19 is by keeping at least six feet away from other people. They even coined the term social distancing to describe this method of self-protection. Unless someone is totally disconnected from mass media, they are familiar with this term and with its implications. Everyone in prison has been advised of this.
In prison, social distancing is a unique phenomenon. Prisons are designed to keep a huge number of people in the smallest geographic area possible. The system is literally designed to herd people around like cattle. There are lines for nearly every activity permitted. Even living quarters are the minimum amount of space the law allows. There are deliberate choke points throughout these facilities, designed to funnel a large number of people through a relatively small opening.
When nobody is infected with COVID-19, this is not a major problem. Prisoners are forced into tight spaces with such regularity, it becomes second nature. Many even internalize this as the norm, huddling close together even when space permits otherwise.
Apparently, this behavior is not confined to prison. Even after the governor of Washington declared a “shelter in place” order, television crews broadcast footage of crowded beaches and other recreational areas in Seattle. I received correspondence from a friend who attempted to go camping but was unable to find a spot due to the crowds.
The next day, I was mopping a hallway in the prison where I reside. Four guards were huddled together discussing a get-together after work. From the brief snippets of conversation I overheard, I gathered at least a half-dozen of them were planning to attend.
AS I write this, COVID-19 has yet to hit prisoners in my section of this facility. When it does, there is little doubt it will arrive as an indirect result of guards and other prison staff ignoring the governor’s directive about social distancing. When that happens, everyone confined here will be screwed.
A couple weeks ago the virus was found inside the work camp, directly on the other side of the east wall of this prison. The prisoners known to be infected were removed from the dorm. Everyone else was ordered to remain in this room for the following two weeks. Dozens of these men were so distraught they were willing to risk their release dates by running out of the dorm and refusing to return.
The prison administration has instituted several measures designed to permit a greater social distance between prisoners. To the best of my knowledge, social distance between prisoners and staff have not been considered. If this has been discussed, I certainly cannot see any manifestation of that in the interactions that take place at this facility, even though we know that the threat will ultimately be a prison employee.
Yet many of us are doing all we can to maintain a safe distance from everyone. During the limited recreation we are permitted, this is sometimes possible. Or at least until one encounters one of the aforementioned individuals who have internalized the huddling mentality.
This particular prison has a fairly large exercise yard. There is a running track that runs just inside the perimeter fence that is a third of a mile long. There is a walking track inside of this that is approximately a quarter mile around. In between those two tracks are pull-up bars, tables, and a basketball court. If everyone acted responsibly, keeping six feet away from other people would not be difficult.
The second day after the prison instituted a modified schedule to facilitate social distancing, I went to the yard to run. The doors to our cages rolled open and roughly a hundred people proceeded down the narrow hallway out of my living unit, towards the yard.
Knowing there would be a crowd in the hallway, I walked as fast as I could to get ahead of the congestion. I made it to the yard only coming into close proximity to a handful of people, maybe ten.
As I ran my laps I began to noticed a disturbing trend. The vast majority of people in the yard were in groups of two or three. None of them appeared to have any concern about their close proximity to one another. This included the two guards. I was glad I was the only one running.
Then a man, who, judging by the fact that he was a good eighty pounds overweight, has no regard for exercise, stationed himself approximately three feet from the running track. He just stood there. Each time I ran past, I tried to hold my breath and turn my face away from him, yet this clearly was not proper social distancing. But what were my options?
Years of experience have convinced me that exercise strengthens my immune system. Yet the walking track was filled with groups of people maintaining proper distance. Even if they were, these people were walking slower than a pace that would yield sufficient health benefits.
Just as I finally convinced myself the one person standing close to the running track was an acceptable compromise, I encountered another group. There was a station of various exercise equipment approximately six feet away from the running track. A group of men had staked out this territory and were huddled together talking. They kept drifting closer and closer to the running track until they eventually settled in approximately two feet away. Best I could tell, none of them were even exercising.
I held my breath and turned my face away. What else could I do? Then I looked up and there was a man walking on the running track, coming directly towards me. If I were running on the walking track, the guards would order me to stop. Yet this man continued to walk on the running track for the duration of my run. I gave him a wide berth, straying off the track whenever I had to pass by him.
By the time they ordered us to leave the yard, I felt like I had made a decent effort to protect myself. Then it was time to try to make it back to the cage they keep me in without any close encounters.
There are a set of stairs and four doorways between the yard and the cage they keep me in. I walked slow to keep my distance yet people kept walking up to me from behind, making this impossible. On the stairs and in each doorway, guys would stop and talk with their friends.
When I finally made it back to my unit, a dozen guys were huddled around the doorway, forming a gauntlet I had to navigate to even return to the relative safety of the cage they keep me in. All seemed oblivious to any problem with this huddling, even though there were two guards, people who spend two thirds of their day out in the community where the virus currently resides, amongst the huddle.
The next day I vowed to do better. I wore a makeshift mask to get myself to and from the yard. I was the only one running, so I felt relatively safe removing the mask for my run. Huffing all that carbon dioxide from my expelled breath would only defeat the purpose of cardio training.
As I approached the exercise bar station, the same group of social butterflies were congregated a mere eighteen inches off the running track. Among them was a man who the guards call when they want someone to paint an out of bounds sign for them. I have personally witnessed this main painting out of bounds lines all over the unit, thus sequestering our already limited space. He particularly likes to paint them in the choke points, making a narrow passage even worse.
I stopped about twenty feet away from these men and put my mask on. When I approached the group, I asked why they insisted on crowding the running track. I further explained that even if they did not believe in the importance of social distancing, they should at least have the respect to allow others to do so. Seemed like a reasonable request.
OutOfBounds guy was pissed. He pointed out that he was not standing on the running track and wanted to know what the problem was. When I reiterated he was less than two feet off the track, he sarcastically said, “Well there’s no line here,” presumable referring to the fact that his handlers had not yet tasked him with cordoning off that particular portion of the prison yet.
OutOfBounds guy made it clear that he could not be bothered with social distancing and would continue to act however he wanted. Essentially he identified himself as a person intent upon helping the prison staff spread this disease.
Had this been nearly any other prisoner, it would have been annoying and somewhat troubling. The fact that it was a prisoner who spends a disproportionate amount of time in close proximity to guards rendered this exchange downright alarming.
According to prison protocol, I was supposed to assault OutOfBounds guy at that point. I was literally supposed to throw away any hope of being paroled anytime soon. I refused to comply. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and made an extra effort to steer very clear of OutOfBounds guy and his cohorts. It was my only chance at a better future.
Upon reflected on the current state of things, I determined that once the virus hits, everyone here will be exposed to it. Since I am in the high-risk category, I decided to try and get ahead of this. I wrote to the governor’s office.
So did I beg for help? Did I request new rules? Did I ask him to have OutOfBounds guy paint a line protecting the running track? Of course not. Those measures would have been futile. Instead, I offered to allow them to use me for medical testing.
I told the governor that I would volunteer to allow them to test whatever they thought might work to combat this virus on me. In the event that it is unethical for them to administer something, I agreed to waive my human rights, civil rights, and even self-administer if necessary. I told him I would allow them to continue doing this until either I die or they find a remedy for Covid-19. The only concession I required was that, if I survived, I would be released on parole. Give me liberty or give me death.
Why would an otherwise rational person make such an offer? On the surface, it may even seem insane. Yet they have designed a near-perfect delivery system for Covid-19. If I am destined to get it anyway, at least I want it to count for something. As it is, OutOfBounds guy, or some other egocentric individual, is literally going to deliver Covid-19 to the cage they keep me in. At that point I will be at the mercy of a medical department that has been responsible for the deaths of several prisoners in the past few years.
To be clear, I am not accusing prison staff of deliberately trying to infect us. They appear to just be trying to make the best of a bad situation. There is really nothing they could do to mitigate this.
Were they to lock us in our cells, it would require far greater staff presence to administer a bare minimum of services. That would mean increasing the number of people from the community entering the facility, thus increasing the chances of importing the disease. No, this problem began long before anyone had even heard of Covid-19.
If social distancing is working anything like this out in the community, it is a wonder everyone hasn’t caught this disease. I am sure there are OutOfBounds guys out there too. Perhaps that is why so many people are dying.
In this age of social illiteracy, where people can’t be bothered to move four feet out of common courtesy, is it any wonder social distancing is not working? At least the tough on crime crowd will celebrate because before this is over, many prisoners will die before their time.