“It’s not in my best interest to be this vulnerable.”
A few years back, I started working with men in a Chicago jail. I was there to provide movement therapy for trauma rehabilitation. I was an artist who had recently survived a crime. In order to treat my own PTSD, a longtime collaborator and friend had invited me to her home in Europe to create a month-long physical rehabilitation with her through a process of personal trial and error. The tools we found useful were themselves not new, only repurposed. “Slow Tempo’”came out of Japan’s national trauma following the atomic bomb. “Authentic Movement” was used after World War II to heal concentration camp survivors. I returned from Europe more alive and embodied than I could remember having been before, and I wanted to offer the budding knowledge I had about reclaiming the body after trauma.
The body that has been wounded by a human is best repaired by another human. I had learned from my own movement therapy that the goal wasn’t to convince the harmed body that it could never be harmed again, it was simply to remind it that human touch also heals. Someone needs to provide a conflicting physical experience, disarm the body, and re-complicate the inner narrative again.
As I began working with another traumatized population—the incarcerated—the healing touch of another was impossible. The only contact permitted is a handshake upon arrival and departure. Some of the men have gone as far as to tattoo that event on their body. The event of human contact, the handshake.
Jails are a holding place for most, until they receive their sentence. Those who can’t pay bail believe that they are providing cheap labor, and are being detained as long as possible prior to sentencing. One of my students has been “awaiting trial” for ten years.
These men didn’t know where they would be tomorrow, and I was asking them to melt into slow-motion walking meditation. During my rehabilitation overseas, I was taken on silent daily walks at dawn through the forest. Here, they were permitted to either stand or sit on a chair. To ask them to close both eyes was terrifying and absurd when they would prefer to sleep with one open. They would sometimes arrive with fresh cuts or bruises, and explain that they had been relocated. The prisoners believed they were being regularly shuffled to disrupt their friendships. They made pacts, vowing never to talk about what happened in this room.
One of them felt he was being asked to risk too much. “It’s not in my best interest to be this vulnerable.” The words startled me in their clarity and precision. I stuttered about never wanting to endanger them, acknowledged and defended their armor as responsible for their survival, even offering desperate (and potentially irrelevant) ancient wisdom, “if I don’t know how to remove my armor at the end of the day, I’m not wearing it, it’s wearing me…”
Some found a way, stumbling into an irresistible shaft of sun in the room after seven years of solitary confinement, listening to the joints of their fingers creak and finding that time can fly, rediscovering a habit in their four-year-old body, a little dance that had always felt better than stillness. Some reclaimed the pleasure of embodiment; incarnation, even for a moment.
When COVID-19 arrived, all prisons went on lockdown when the world did.
I will confess that I tried not to think about what was happening to these men, or how these institutions could become less humane. We are not permitted any communication with our students, so I had no idea how life changed for the incarcerated as prisons adapted protocols. And then I received this leaked letter, part three of a three-part essay called “Slow and Inadequate.”
These are generous words to describe the gross neglect of human life that we are paying for through institutions we mislabel as correctional.
In this essay, Anthony Ehlers tells anyone who will listen that he was “forced to kill” his dearest friend when he contracted COVID and couldn’t get away from his cellmate, an older man who had survived Stage 4 lymphoma, and would clearly never make it through COVID.
“He and I were a big odd couple to be best friends,” Ehlers, forty-eight, wrote in a letter about Scott. “Guys used to make fun of us. We didn’t care. I’m sure it was kind of weird, he was a short, bald, dark-skinned Black guy, and I am tall, and very white. But, we were inseparable.” (Chicago Reporter)
Stateville’s “F-House” cellhouse, commonly known as a “roundhouse,” was, in the 1990s, the only remaining panopticon still in use in the United States. It was closed in late 2016 and declared inhumane and infested. This year, they reopened F-House, and not, as one might hope, in order to quarantine the men. This essay reports that without cleaning F-House, a building that was condemned five years prior, they casually mixed sick and healthy men together inside.
“There is such a big hole in my life right now,” wrote Ehlers, who has been at Stateville since 1996, serving a life sentence for a murder conviction. “I feel empty and alone…Did I kill my best friend?” (Chicago Reporter)
We are traumatized when we cannot stop something terrible that is happening to us or to someone we love. This situation is the definition of trauma for our people in prison and their families. What physical hope and trust will be left to mend on the other side of this pandemic? It is in no one’s best interest for them to be made this vulnerable. I have had no update from Ehlers since receiving this last letter on May 17, 2020.
I have been trying to get attention on this letter from the slow, inadequate media for six months.
I know that we are overwhelmed, but it seems clear that we are giving ourselves permission to forget these souls who are brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers. Can we question how much effort it took for this information to reach me, how important it is for me to remain anonymous to avoid tremendous consequences on those who leaked it? Why are the protocols of our prisons confidential? Why don’t Americans see their prisoners as fellow humans trying to survive a virus?
What’s happening in the rest of the world at this moment? In response to the coronavirus epidemic Ethiopia pardoned 4,000 prisoners on March 26, 2020. Iran, with notoriously horrific prison conditions and high incarceration rates, temporarily pardoned 85,000 prisoners on March 17—closer now to 100,000—which is forty-one percent of their total prison population. Turkey released 90,000 prisoners by April, thirty-one percent of their prison population and Afghanistan released 10,000 of their 30,000 prisoners (thirty-three percent).
California and New York (our most generous states) have pardoned a mere two percent of their prisoners. Where does Illinois fall in all this? Representative Terri Bryant, a former longtime administrator at the Illinois Department of Corrections, went on record to claim that 700 early releases have been made due to COVID-19, out of a total population of 39,878 people, about 1.7 percent.
Can we ask ourselves what kind of catastrophe it would take for us to reconsider our incarcerated citizens? Only in our great free country has the very mention of pardon become ridiculous.
Slow and Inadequate — By Anthony Ehlers
My name is Anthony Ehlers, and I bring you yet another installment of the Stateville saga “Slow and Inadequate.”
When I last left off, Stateville, inexplicably began letting non-essential workers out…such as the grass cutters. They had also begun letting guys go to the yard. They were trying very hard to open the prison up. I was critical of this, and thought it was a particularly dumb idea. There were still guys being taken out with COVID, and three men had died in that week alone. It turns out, my misgivings were well founded.
On Friday, May 1 they tested a lot of guys in D-house, many of whom were kitchen workers. All of them came back positive. D-house went on immediate quarantine.
On Saturday, May 2, they tested guys in B-house, once again, many came back positive. B-House then went on immediate quarantine.
On Sunday, May 3 they tested guys in E-House. Once again, many were positive for COVID. E-house went on immediate quarantine.
So on Monday, May 4 they made it to my cellhouse, C-house, to test guys, mainly kitchen and commissary workers. They again got a lot of positive results. My new cellie and I were both tested. He is a kitchen worker. They did the “rapid test”…he came back positive. I knew I would be negative having had it two months previously.
Michelle Miller, the director of the healthcare here at Stateville, administered the tests. She said that we had to be quarantined regardless of a negative test result, until UIC confirmed the negative test result with a second test.
They took all of us, both positive and negative and put us in F-house because tent city in the gym was full. F-house is the completely condemned Round house…the panopticon. It made no sense, we were all transported together, no social distancing. They even housed both positive and negative guys on the same gallery.
Before I get into the fiasco that was F-house, I want to talk about how many guys have tested positive. Approximately forty to fifty percent of the kitchen workers, who are handling our food and those hard plastic trays every day, have tested positive. I’ve seen them in quarantine with my own eyes. The same can be said for the guys who work in the commissary, forty to fifty percent of them have also tested positive. These are the guys who pack the items we order, and send them to us…potentially infected.
F-house itself is absolutely surreal. Surely an environment like this can’t exist given all that has gone on here!? First, you must understand that F-house is condemned, it was shut down as uninhabitable. They have no business housing inmates in it period! The water out of the sink was brown and undrinkable. The toilet occasionally decided to work, and the cell itself was Filthy! They did no cleaning. We had to go crazy just to get cleaning supplies. We had to do the same just to [get] bottled water. The situation was disgusting, and stressful. They were so ill prepared for this outbreak, despite all the sickness and the many deaths here these last two months.
They put all of us in a single man cell…but, they housed us both positive, and negative on the same gallery! Dumb, Dumb, and Dumb! They had workers for the cellhouse who were COVID positive. They worked on the side of the COVID positive guys…but, when the food trays came into the cellhouse we could see them touch and pick through the trays, racks and milks. Many of us refused trays because we had seen them touched by positive inmates. They passed the phones also, touching phones we non-positive guys had to use as well!
They have a shower schedule, all of the positive guys shower in the morning. Then at night, they shower all of us non-positive guys in the same showers. They only occasionally cleaned the showers after the positive guys…and it was always a COVID Positive guy who cleans the showers!! How is it possible for a COVID positive guy to effectively clean and disinfect the shower? Many of us elected not to take showers, though some did. We washed up in brown water, we didn’t take a shower the entire five days that I was there.
They moved All of the kitchen and Commissary workers to F-house. They have a positive side, from cell 2-25 on 1, 2, 3 and 4 gallery. On the other side are negative guys. But it’s a round house, there is a lot of mixing and passing. I saw a non-positive inmate being given a mattress from a positive guy’s cell! It’s absolute chaos, it’s so inept, and poorly implemented. EVERYBODY in F-house is going to get COVID at this point. How could you not?
Let me address those that may feel that IDOC is taking steps in a positive direction. Oddly, I actually agree, they have positive plans in place, however, the implementation of those plans are mistaken, chaotic and poorly done.
When I got sick two months ago, the director of the hospital Michelle Miller took my temperature. It was 100.6…She said it was not high enough to be tested for COVID-19. When I was tested Monday, May 4, this same woman administered the test. When asked, she stated that they have changed guidelines, and now do things according to CDC guidelines. That’s commendable, and I do think the way the tests are administered, with backup tests being sent to UIC for confirmation is a great idea…but it’s an awful long time coming.
I would like to know just what guidelines they followed back in March when I was so sick? When I saw med-techs on three separate occasions, and was told to “drink water,” and that I just had the flu. On March 9, Governor J. B. Pritzker issued a proclamation declaring a disaster in the state of Illinois. They knew the risks well in advance of the outbreak here at Stateville. It was known by everyone, through the relentless media that COVID-19 was especially harmful and deadly to those with pre-existing conditions like cancer or diabetes. IDOC was aware of this, and they did nothing to protect guys. On March 25, 2020, IDOC announced their first case of COVID at Stateville. Five days later, on March 30, Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced that twelve prisoners had been hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID. That same day, St. Joseph’s Hospital, where Stateville prisoners had been hospitalized, announced that it was “overwhelmed.” The hospital’s medical director called the situation a “disaster.” But the virus had been here long before March 25! By that time they had already taken several guys out of my cellhouse with COVID-19.
We went on full lockdown here March 18, my cellie, James Scott was not yet sick…but I was. I was very sick. So sick in fact, my boss took me to the healthcare himself. They knew the risks to those elderly guys. Had they immediately tested me, or even quarantined me, my best friend, James Scott would still be alive.
James was fifty-eight, he had underlying medical conditions. He was a cancer survivor. A year earlier he had beaten Stage 4 lymphoma, and had been in remission for over a year…but that fight left him immuno-compromised. He also had diabetes and asthma. He was a prime candidate to be hit very hard if he got COVID-19. He was well known to the healthcare staff, every morning he had to go get an insulin shot. They knew him, and his health issues very well, yet they did nothing to protect him. He did not get COVID-19 until they put us on lockdown, and they did not quarantine me. James contracted COVID-19. He began to suffer, having trouble breathing, and [illegible]. I got him medical attention the night of March 29. He was taken to an outside hospital, where he died three weeks later!
So yes, they are doing much better with their protocols now, but it doesn’t wash the blood from their hands. James died from their neglect. His death was preventable. They took no care or considerations about his age or risk factors. They kept emphatically telling me I had the flu, without considering the possibility that I had COVID-19. This, despite the fact that three guys on our own gallery had already been taken to outside hospitals with confirmed COVID cases.
IDOC is responsible for James contracting COVID-19 and dying from it. He died because of their “guidelines”…my temperature wasn’t high enough to test me. He died…and he did not have to!
F-house is another poorly instituted plan. This COVID outbreak is squarely on their shoulders. The implementation of this new F-house situation, housing both positive and negative guys together is undoubtedly going to lead to more infections, and possibly deaths.
I have become convinced that both IDOC and Stateville are incapable of preventing the spread of this virus. Their record to date disqualifies them from being allowed to do anything further. Out of the twenty-eight prisons in Illinois, this is the only prison with nearly twenty deaths, and a prolonged, continued outbreak. They do not care about our health or our lives here. What we need, what the public needs, is for the Federal Government to step up and take over to stop the spread of this virus and the deaths. They cannot be trusted to satisfactorily implement any plans to stop COVID-19, they are not capable or competent enough…and people have died as a result of it.
Dorothea Dix is a pseudonym.