The coronavirus behind bars : A letter from a Michigan jail (Part 2)


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Note: Ray Gray, an artist from Detroit, has been behind bars for nearly 50 years for a crime he says he didn't commit. On April 10, he sent us this dispatch from Muskegon Correctional Facility.

Today we share Gray’s latest dispatch from behind bars amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 8, we received our masks. They are very simply made, in what seems like a sort of khaki material; there are two strings on each side that tie above the ears. Each prisoner received three masks, and we are to wash them and reuse the dry ones. Everyone, guards and prisoners alike, must wear them at all times. What’s a bit ironic is that under more normal circumstances that would be taboo, and we would be seen as an inmate bandit.

Some of the custody personnel wore kind of fancy masks, while some of the non-custody personnel wore ones that matched their attire. Others looked rather sturdy and some projected from their faces, like gas masks. Some people seemed self-conscious and hesitant, some seemed to think it was “macho” to defy the suggestion to wear the masks. I might be wrong, but I don’t think the virus cares much about “macho.”

There were those who had store-bought masks before the prison made them. They were sort of flaunting theirs. At one time, masks were on the prison black market, 12 for $15. Then there were those who weren’t concerned about fashion, image, or cost, but were concerned for that which is priceless: life!

Prisoners are in a very vulnerable situation, due to certain movements that require large gatherings, such as fire drills (we had one Monday) and chow times. Right now, the spacing in the chow hall seems to be effective.

I must say that seeing staff and inmates all wearing masks further illustrates a common humanity and concern. The masks have had a heightened effect, even on those who appeared to take a nonchalant attitude. The masks brought some “gutbucket in-your-face realness” to the situation, partly, I think, because normally we feel so apart and sort of detached from what goes one beyond these walls. Now we see people on TV wearing masks, and almost the entire prison is doing the same.

Another positive in an otherwise negative situation is that donning the masks seemed to spur one of the TV rooms to have the news and CNN on more often. The virus experience seems like something from a science-fiction movie, and like the superheroes in those kinds of movies, our masks give us a sense of security and protection.

There are also latex gloves available, but those are usually only worn by the unit porters. There is disinfectant to spray surfaces. I’ve been thinking how this world will be once the virus goes on vacation. For most of my existence, I’ve been in prison — and in a way, I was born in prison, but that’s another conversation involving political and social issues. I’ve never held a cellphone, nor searched the World Wide Web, seen or used Facebook, MySpace, Google, etc. I try to stay abreast of what’s trending beyond these walls, not only by TV or print media, but by observation of the new recruits to prison. I’ve seen families come in here as if it’s their destiny. In a lot of ways, today’s new technology has advanced the “distancing” of people, even when we’re standing shoulder to shoulder.

The virus will make me fight even harder for my freedom, but overall things will eventually get back to abnormal in here. In the outside world, I think there will be more fear of shaking hands and embracing. That a simple cough won’t be so simple anymore; that simple will become complicated. There will be discussions of race and readiness in the aftermath of the virus. There will be contradictions, because even though we had to “shelter in place” and keep a distance of six feet, we had to come together in unity.

I pray that I’m wrong — that this one world we inhabit won’t become more distant than it was before the virus — because next time, instead of pestilence, the Four Horsemen might bring us fire.

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