“There’s no such thing as social distancing in here”: An inmate tells his story

“There’s no such thing as social distancing in here”: An inmate tells his story

Hands of the prisoner

I’ve been in Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay since January 2019, serving a two-years-less-a-day sentence for assault causing bodily harm. I’m on a mental health unit, because I have schizophrenia. This range is a mix of guys who just want to do their time quietly, guys who can’t last anywhere else in jail, and guys who have lower capacities. 

I first heard about the coronavirus on the news in January or February. At first, guys on my range would just make dark jokes about it, talking about crowd control. Now, people are saying it’s the end of the world. Everyone is afraid. Everyone just wants to get out. These days, because the atmosphere is so charged in here, the guards will ask us if we’ll take new inmates on our range. There are 25 of us here, and a few weeks ago, we made a pact. We’re not accepting new inmates. We try to keep a really good relationship with the guards—on other ranges, the inmates will spit at them, or throw piss. So here, when we say we don’t want new inmates on our range, they listen to us. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we don’t get exposed to the virus.

Watching the news right now is surreal. I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing on TV, that everything is shutting down and so many people are getting sick. The guards don’t seem to know any more than we do, and they’re giving us contradictory information. One guard told us that guys with eight months or less left on their sentence are getting out through the temporary absence program. Another one said it’s people with 30 days or less. We have access to CBC and CNN, and I’m lucky that on my range the guys want to watch the news. On other ranges, in general population, it’s everyone for themselves. In jail, all the control is taken away from you so people fight over the smallest things because they want to have some sense of control again. I can only imagine what’s happening on the other ranges. I’m sure people are getting threatened over not being clean enough. 

The guards say there’s no Covid-19 here, but I deliver food trays as part of my daily work and I know there are some ranges where they’re keeping only one or two inmates right now. I think that’s where they’re keeping people who are sick. After those inmates are finished eating, they wrap the trays in airtight packaging for me to take back to the kitchen for cleaning. I know when an inmate says they’re not feeling well, lately, they just disappear and we don’t see them again. When we ask the guards where they went, they don’t answer. 

A lot of people are going crazy in here. Last week, I heard that one of the other units rioted. They pulled the sprinklers all at once and flooded everything. On the ranges, it’s two men to a cell and 16 cells, so 32 inmates per range. They’re letting us all out of our cells every day now, to try to keep our panic levels low. But that means we’re exposed to each other even more. We sit beside each other on the couches to watch TV, and there are only two showers so we’re all using the same ones, one right after another. Only one sink has hot water, so we all line up tight to use it. We all eat together, four guys to a table. I don’t have a cellmate right now and I’m trying to keep it that way, to keep a little distance. There’s no such thing as social distancing in here. That’s not our reality. 

Jails can be dirty places. There are clumps of dirt in the cells, and the walls are streaked with mould. It’s hard to get it off; I tried. It’s just gunk from years and years of buildup. The hot water from the tap comes out yellow, and dust blows in from the vents. We’re constantly breathing in all kinds of crap. We asked the guards for cleaning supplies, and they gave us glass cleaner, like watered-down Windex. I scrubbed down my walls and cell area. A lot of people aren’t clean, whether it’s from depression or natural habits, and on other units they don’t get cleaning product like we did. Here, we’re wiping down the railings and bars but they don’t let us keep the latex gloves afterwards for extra protection. There are no face masks. The machines they have to wash the food trays don’t really work. You can always smell the previous meal on the plastic, like it’s baked in.

Our conversations these days on the range are mostly, how am I going to get out? My mother is the only person I’m talking to from outside. I try to call her every day. She’s 61 years old, and lives in Toronto. She’s showing signs of dementia, and she’s been coughing a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s the virus, but she’s staying home right now. I just want to get out so I can take care of her. I have about six months left on my sentence. My parole application was denied back in February but I’m trying again. Even if I get approved for a hearing, though, it wouldn’t happen until the end of April. And if it’s successful, that means I might be out in early May. If we have an outbreak here in the next two weeks, that’s not going to help.