During the two months of stay-at-home orders that have constricted the Pacific Northwest, the more than 16,000 inmates in Washington State Department of Corrections prisons have faced a stark reality: lockdown within a lockdown. A riot broke out at Monroe Correctional Complex—home to more than 2,500 incarcerated men in five units—in April when the novel coronavirus spread among prisoners; since then 18 inmates and nine staff have tested positive for the virus, and in mid-May a guard died of Covid-19. Felix Sitthivong, an inmate only recently assigned to MCC, reports that he’s uneasy about his life inside: “This place is not built or equipped to handle a crisis like we're going through right now."
Sitthivong spent most of the past decade at Clallam Bay Corrections Center as part of his 65-year sentence for a 2010 Belltown homicide. The Laotian-American father, born in Seattle, is now engaged to a woman in South Carolina; he's a leader within the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group and a GED tutor through Edmonds Community College. Via email and one phone call from MCC, he reported on pandemic life inside prison.
“Some days I'm extra cautious and won't even leave my cell,” writes Sitthivong. “Other days, the exhaustion and frustration from being locked in a cell all day gets the best of me and I just say, screw it! If I get it, I get it!” But when he hears alarms go off, the sign of an emergency code, he knows he’ll see someone being escorted out of the unit by medical staff, and it’s scary. “Every time somebody coughs or sneezes there's an awkward silence followed by accusatory stares.”
Reporting possible Covid symptoms means isolation, but Sitthivong can’t imagine who’d admit to feeling unwell: “It's worse than going to segregation for an infraction.” Those sent to the medical isolation unit get to bring only a few items—personal photos, pen and paper, a music player—and only get to shower weekly (reflected in the DOC's infection control guidelines). “Who in their right mind would ever admit to being sick and volunteer for that? My heart breaks just thinking about my brothers going through that right now.”
Since April’s riot, inmates at MCC have gotten some hygiene products—two free bars of soap to each man, DIY mask kits—but Sitthivong relies on what he can buy from the commissary with his own funds. But the most important commodity is still limited: space. "We're packed in here,” he writes. “Health right now has essentially been turned into a team sport with a whole bunch of strangers.”
New rules try to impose social distancing on the cramped quarters; Sitthivong shares a cell with another prisoner but the pair has to sit at separate tables at the chow hall for meals. Time outside the cell is limited to about a half hour to use the phone, microwave, or email kiosk, and sometimes the inmates can’t access their hour in the yard or gym. “You can probably imagine the anger and drama that causes,” writes Sitthivong. Visits from family and class sessions have been cancelled. “The small things that I normally do like tutoring a GED class, community organizing with my friends...things that give my days and life purpose have essentially been all stripped away.”
With both guards and inmates at risk of the coronavirus, tension remains high. The rules say they’re allowed to shower whenever they want if healthy, “but getting an officer to open a cell door to do anything is like trying to breakdance your way across the DMZ.” In an altercation with a guard, he says, prisoners always lose. “Some [guards] show up with empathy, but most show up trying to reinforce their authority and continuously overstep and abuse their authority and withhold resources.” Sitthivong feels he’s been treated unfairly by the administration for his role in the Asian Pacific Islander group and expects it's why he was transferred from Clallam Bay last October.
Fliers on the wall of the MCC specifically point out that the virus originated in China. Early in the pandemic, Sitthivong confronted a GED student who used a racial slur for Asians in reference to the coronavirus; he’s also overheard jokes about “the kung-flu.” Though none of the racism has been directed at him, Sitthivong finds himself defensive and embarrassed.
Days pass with a lot of CNN, the occasional game of pickleball, and lots of reading; Sitthivong loved Cry Like a Man by Jason Wilson. “By the end of all this I'm either gonna be a professional pickleball player, acclaimed book critic, or best friends with Anderson Cooper LOL,” he writes.
I ask Sitthivong what he fears, if anything, right now. “I'm scared of dying alone in a prison cell without ever making amends with the people I love most,” he writes. “I'm scared of never being able to make my father understand that my incarceration was not because he failed. I'm scared that I'll never be able to give my fiancee the wedding she deserves. Yeah, I'm scared.”