May 15, 2020
New Haven, Connecticut
This morning my man Rojai called me from a prison in VA, his voice was ragged and scratched and sounding like it was threaded through a piece of string hanging from a tin can. “Shy, they got me in medical isolation. Not because of COVID-19. I got the fucking chickenpox,” he tells me. The chickenpox. A cruel joke of the universe.
Let me tell you how fucked up this joke is. In 1995, the chickenpox vaccine was placed on the childhood immunization schedule. Rojai was fifteen in 1995, like me. And, like me, a year later, he’d be in prison. Before being convicted of murder, the prosecutor offered him a five-year sentence for a lesser offense. But, being innocent, he didn’t take the plea. The jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to more than fifty years. We met back then, when we were teenagers. He was the one amongst us who said he was innocent. The rest of us needed our guilt to pretend we deserved the shit we were going through, to pretend the violence we’d done meant we might survive it.
You’re wondering, must be wondering, how the chickenpox gets into prison. Or, you’re reminded, as I am, how many people who were past childhood during the late nineties ain’t never made it home. Rojai tells me that there was an older cat on the yard who came down with shingles. And it’s unclear to me how it happened, but they moved someone ill, who’d been in the old head’s cell, into Rojai’s cell. Fever, coughing, itching, and knots on his scalp, back, arms, followed. How? Because shingles is very contagious and you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles. Prison doesn’t just invent new ways to kill you, it goes into the archives and brings back old disasters.
Prison, a world where innocence doesn’t matter. Rojai’s story a familiar one: a crooked cop; a jury of black and white folks tired of people being shot in poor black neighborhoods; any black boy before them deprived of innocence because this was the super-predator nineties; and there was no one there to fight for the chubby kid whose mother struggled with mental illness and homelessness. In retrospect, maybe Rojai didn’t have a chance. A reporter, Brad Zinn, has told much of it. Three articles breaking down how today, even the prosecutor on his case thinks Rojai should be free. And with Diedre Enright and the folks at the Virginia Innocence Project representing him, Rojai’ll get out. But all of that’s a different story. A longer, related one. But still different. Because before COVID-19, the thing we were fighting was simply a prison sentence. Now, during these COVID days, an illness will kill you before time does. When Rojai called me this morning, he said, “Ain’t this some shit. Forty years old and I catch the fucking chickenpox.” Ain’t nothing else to be given back from his childhood years, but he can get chickenpox, in the middle of a global pandemic, and be sent to the hole to protect him.
A hundred miles away from Rojai, another friend is trapped in a grounded cruise ship. That’s a fucked-up joke, too. Fucked up reality. Prison as cruise ship. Last hundred years prisons have been compared to everything but never a cruise ship. Now they are the Titanic. I want to imagine that I understand what is happening in this country’s jails and prisons, in its juvenile detention centers, but I don’t know. The threat is the condition. The measures we put in place to remain safe are impossible to put in place in prison—how do you social distance in a six-by-nine cell? A cramped and crowded dormitory? And decades without transparency means it’s not likely we’ll get word of what is happening until we see body bags. And like everyone else, like some people, I struggle with feeling like empathy means reading newspaper articles about the world’s suffering and being grateful that it is not me. Then the illness steps to somebody you know and everything is different.
It took the coronavirus for me to search out the picture of Dillwyn Correctional Center, a prison in Virginia with a population of about a 1,000 and more than 200 people with COVID-19.
The picture is strange: the image does not look like a death trap. But I know that one of these buildings has been dedicated to holding the sick. I know the air barely circulates in the room. I am told that some have refused food in protest. Am told that some have barred doors and demanded that no more men are brought into their already crowded cell block. Family and friends are afraid. I am told that prison officials are running ragged, too, that the positive cases mean that some guard and his family and friends probably walking around sick, too. Told the National Guard came through with some rare and damn near mythical COVID-19 tests.
My friend is detained here. When things first things got bad, the word I got was: Anthony in medical solitary. For a few days, I thought he had COVID-19. I imagined that, as an attorney, I was competent to handle this shit. That as someone who remembers his state number by heart, I understood. Wouldn’t be nothing to find the right person to call and make noise. I went through my steps. First sent him word through the electronic message service that charges me about forty cents to e-mail the equivalent of a single typed page. No response. Then I called the institution. They could give me no news. I tried to set up a legal call, but I wasn’t listed as his attorney. Then I understood, again: prison disappears people. Disappears people in the most cruel and efficient of ways. That there ain’t a law degree that, in the immediate, when you want to know if someone you care about is still breathing, will help.
Three days later, Anthony calls me. He tells me, I been down twenty-four years, and this is the first time I wanted to be in seg. COVID. Ain’t no way to get around it. He tells me that he doesn’t have COVID. Knows because he’s been tested. Says the test was the most pain he’s ever felt. A long Q-tip pushed up through his nose until it scraped at the back of his brain or wherever it disappeared to that caused him two days of headaches and nosebleeds. He tested negative. Then tested negative again. Then was tested again and awaits more results. Still in a version of the hole. And I can’t front like I don’t understand that. Fucking Titanic might be sinking and they put him in a life raft to wait it out, though the life raft has all kinds of holes in it and might not keep him safe, at least he ain’t in general population, the prison version of below deck, with the virus circulating in the air they live in. But I should scrap the cruise ship metaphor. Because what I mean is that for some people solitary confinement is as deadly as the coronavirus. The solitude, the way the walls press against you. The way the time becomes exponential because of the silence. Anthony isn’t on a cruise ship is what I mean. He is in a prison. One that I’ve been to before, like others that I’ve done time in. Dormitories and cells. A miasma there always. The pandemic already there because the pandemic is prison. And all COVID-19 does is remind us that freedom must be more than a hope.
Prison is the death that I know. I can count the number of funerals I been to on one hand and the number of cells I’ve slept in exponentially laps it. Can’t even count the cells. The number of prisons and jails and juvenile detention centers outpaces my funerals, too, and I remember those. If you’re reading this, and imagine the reading tells you anything about what a cell feels like, you’d be no more correct than I was in imagining that I understand what prison during COVID feels like. The conversations around this country about the need to release people from prison because of the coronavirus makes it obvious all that’s possible that isn’t happening. And yet, I know those conversations largely push out Anthony and Rojai. One has four robbery charges; one has a murder case. Both should be free. Now. Yesterday. And sadly, that’s not the argument in this letter, because, that’s the argument I’ve failed at too often. Turning words into freedom. And so, I settle for a stopgap. This is a stopgap. Something partway there—to say today is fucked up in a way that you might recognize. And so, maybe, tomorrow, when the case for freedom is made, we all might hear it.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Betts’s contribution will be directed to Asylum Advocacy Project.