They passed out masks at my prison last week. Triple-ply polyester squares made from uniform pants that are mandatory when we’re not eating, sleeping, or bathing. As if the barren, windswept Times Square footage on the evening news was not eerie enough, or the daily death toll on the GMA news ticker, or the images of shiny, late-model SUVs in five-mile-long food queues… Prison life just went from dark to dystopian in the elastic snap of a mask.
Although I’m convinced that a third of my dorm already had the virus back in February (myself included), the pandemic has not officially reached the prison where I am housed. Not since authorities began keeping track, at least. But it has ravaged two of my previous camps. Sumter Correctional had one of the biggest outbreaks in the state, and Blackwater Correctional has had four deaths with hundreds under medical quarantine. I have so many friends trapped in those places. We’ve grown up together in the prison system. Their families and my family brave the weather and the rudeness and the indignity on the weekends in order to spend a few hours with their sons and husbands and brothers. Or they did until visitation was canceled almost two months ago.
I’ve been hesitant to write about the corona virus. In this era of daily televised White House briefings, where Dr. Fauci is a household name and the president is faced with an enemy he can’t dismiss as fake news or a witch hunt, where the NBA playoffs have been canceled and the NFL draft is held online, where everyone is talking about hot spots and flattening curves and social distancing, what can I possibly add to the conversation? I’d rather talk about books and music and football.
But these essays are more than social commentary. They are chronicles. Mile markers. One day I will read over them as a free man and remember where I was when each was written. What was going on. And as much as I want 2020 to be known as the year Tua took his talents to South Beach, the year Brady became a Buc, the year I finally finished writing this novel… all these will be footnotes in the annals of history. 2020 will forever be known as the year of the pandemic. The year when everything changed. The year the handshake died, the mall breathed its last gasp, and the world was reminded of just how interconnected we all are. Rich and poor, black and white, American and Chinese, convict and guard, conservative and liberal. If we learn nothing else during these troubled times, hopefully it will be to put data and science before politics, to say “I love you” while we have the shot, and to take better care of our grandmothers and grandfathers. There is no them… only us.
Stay safe out there.