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South Florida summers in the Everglades are undoubtedly hot.
When I was sentenced to 15 years in prison, I must have overlooked a statute saying, “Not only must you live with some unsavory characters, but, as needed for security reasons, you will be forced to sleep on the floor of a sun-baked concrete box. The showers will be located in a trailer parked some 60 feet away, but that doesn’t matter because you’re locked inside of the hot box. In addition, there will be a pungent and undefinable smell that covers you like a warm blanket.”
Welcome to the Florida Department of Corrections.
My mask is made out of the same material as my pants. It has two layers stitched together for breathability, comfort and protection. The bar of soap they give me is 2.75 inches by 0.2 inches and is made mostly of lye, a hand deteriorating agent.
Thirty days before my arrival at the summer sweat house and odoriferous gag reflex factory, I was weathering the pandemic in a two-man cell. Armed with my mask, bar of soap, and a sign posted in the day room recommending that we stay six feet apart for social distancing, I felt confident that I would not catch the COVID-19 virus.
However, with two free phone calls a week and two free email stamps, who could resist the temptation to touch the microbial wonderland that is the phone and kiosk?
The first domino fell one evening when one guy could no longer handle his symptoms and declared a medical emergency.
The next afternoon, two nurses came by with a list of 60 names and a digital oral thermometer, so they could screen everyone in our wing of the prison dormitory. My temperature was taken four times. “Sorry,” the nurse said, “but we are going to have to move you to medical isolation.” Just one-tenth of a degree lower and I would have been allowed to stay.
I packed all my belongings into two bags only to have to wait two more days before I was actually moved to medical isolation.
The worst summer of my life was coming, not because I had tested positive for COVID-19, but because of the housing conditions created by COVID-19. Medical isolation is essentially the same thing as solitary confinement, the difference being that we got one shower a day instead of two a week. Our temperature was also screened twice a day.
I felt sorry for the guys going with COVID-19, especially my cellmate. One night, he was coughing so hard that I thought he might die from not being able to breathe.
It’s difficult to talk about silver linings when others are struggling to hold on to their lives, but during this time, our prison started receiving free mangoes.
Never in six years of prison had I ever seen a mango. Nobody wanted to eat theirs as they were struggling from symptoms such as the loss of appetite, so I was devouring mangoes faster than a doom-scroller can type “double mutant strain.” Now, I’m fine if I don’t see a mango for another six years.
I was allowed to come out of medical isolation a few days before August. Since many dormitories in our compound were still locked down, there was no space for those of us coming out of isolation. Instead, we were moved to an emptied open bay dorm that had previously been converted to a game room but was now a temporary housing unit. Inside, there were no bunks nor any place to secure our property. There was one industrial fan and six ceiling fans that seemed to rotate as slowly as the earth rotates around the sun.
While COVID-19 didn’t kill us, heat stroke could have. I woke up every couple of hours drenched in sweat. Throughout the night – or day for that matter – people would move from their bunks – a hard plastic cot with a flimsy green flame retardant mat – onto the floor in an attempt to cool down. It was of no use. Insanity was the new threat. This lasted nearly two months, and there was never any reprieve.
Another silver lining of this hellish experience was the shower trailer, hauled in because there were no showers inside the infernal human warehouse. The trailer was plugged into a maintenance closet, allowing the air conditioning to cool the shower stalls. There was a garden hose attached to the rear of the trailer that pumped in water. While the water pressure was pathetic and the water was not heated, no one cared because it provided five to eight minutes of bliss in a universe of chaos.
Once inside the trailer, there were eight shower stalls to choose from. Opening the salon door to the stall revealed a floor salad – a wet medley of dirt and grass. Thank God for the quarter-inch-thick shower flip flops; life would have been far less civilized without them.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact checked.