Razvan Sibii: Social etiquette in prison, in the time of COVID-19

  • Razvan Sibii —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • In this July 9 photo, a correctional officer closes the main gate at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif.   AP FILE Photo

Published: 10/19/2020 11:39:21 AM

It is by now common knowledge that the United States is the world champion at incarcerating its citizens, both in terms of per capita rate and in absolute numbers.

The good news, such as it is, is that the numbers have been trending downward for years now, and that trend has been accelerated by two recent events: the passing of the First Step legislation (which has allowed for the early release of thousands of people) and the COVID-19 crisis (which has increased the number of so-called “compassionate releases” across the country).

The bad news is that America’s correctional facilities are still overcrowded, they still hold many people whose infractions in no way merit extended imprisonment, and the living conditions in a great many of them are still miserable.

According to The New York Times, more than 242,000 incarcerated individuals have been infected with the coronavirus, and at least 1,400 imprisoned people and correctional staff have died. The rate of COVID-19 infections in prisons is more than four times higher than the overall rate for U.S. residents, and the mortality rate is more than twice as high.

In August, 19 out of the 20 top hot spots in America were correctional facilities. Among the country’s mega-prisons, perhaps none has been hit worse than the notorious San Quentin State Prison in California, which for a while this summer was the second-largest COVID-19 hot spot in the country, and where 2,539 incarcerated men have so far been confirmed as having contracted the disease.

People behind bars rarely get to tell the world what their life is like. While most Americans do not subscribe to a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy of criminal justice, we do have a hard time caring about the day-to-day misfortunes of those who have been found guilty of committing a crime.

For my part, I adhere to the dictum (often misattributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky) that “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” There is no visiting prisons these days, and, anyway, most people in America never see a prison on the inside (or, indeed, on the outside, as many prisons are built purposely in the middle of nowhere), so the only feasible way to show people what is going on in the country’s prisons is through journalism. In June, I wrote a column based on email interviews with three individuals serving life sentences in New Jersey, Washington and New York. For this one, I interviewed someone currently incarcerated in San Quentin.

Joe Garcia has been imprisoned for 17 years now. His first parole hearing is supposed to take place nine years from now, when he’ll turn 60. He got infected with the coronavirus in June and has written about the dread that the disease brought with it for The Washington Post and the Prison Journalism Project. (Disclosure: Although I’d never spoken to him before interviewing him for this piece, both Garcia and I serve as advisers to the PJP). I asked him what life is like now in San Quentin.

“It’s a lot like what you guys probably have to deal with, in terms of social etiquette,” he said. “If I’m locked in my cell, guys will come up to my cell on the outside and talk to me. Should I put a mask on while they’re talking to me? Do I want them to put a mask on while they’re talking to me? What they’ve done here is they’ve posted signs in front of all our cells saying you’re not allowed to cell-front visit. And there’s even a warning that they will give you a disciplinary write up if they catch you doing that. Now, fortunately, a lot of this is just posturing. Just like with everything else in here, they’re not really going to enforce that rule unless it suits them. But they need the signs posted so that if anybody walks through, legally they can at least say, ‘Hey, we warned these guys not to do that!’”

“But do we really want them to enforce the rules?.. I [recently] moved into a cell for a few weeks with a guy who’d already been in that cell. So I was the new guy. And because I’d been in quarantine, all the people that hadn’t seen me in a couple months kept coming by to talk to me. And my cellmate asked me, ‘Hey, can you make sure all your visitors wear their mask?’ It wasn’t really a big deal because I gotta respect his wishes. But me, I look at it like, we both already had it recently. Everybody that’s coming to visit has had it and gotten over it, so I don’t really look at it like it’s a safety issue anymore.”

During our 30-minute long phone discussion (interrupted every few minutes by an automated voice that said “This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded”), Garcia also spoke about the reasons he prefers a single-person cell, the newfound leniency of parole boards, the daily frustrations of being locked up, the surprising sense of community that he has found in prison and the problems with how the media tells the story of incarceration. With the help of his anecdotes, I will continue, in my next column, to inquire into our society’s “degree of civilization.”

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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