COVID Prison Testimonies: Richard S. Gross

May 5, 2020
by Richard S. Gross
SCI Phoenix, Pennsylvania

We have been locked down here at SCI Phoenix since the end of March. Four cell cohorts come out for 40 minutes to shower, use the phone and kiosk, maybe go outside in the concrete courtyard. The time goes fast. For two weeks around Easter, my block was under 24-hour quarantine. We didn’t even get to shower during the first 8 days, then got out one cell at a time every other day for 10 to 15 minute showers. The showers were cleaned after each use.

We have had numerous positive cases and at least one death. The jail has issued newsletters, but real news comes from KYW news radio. From what I hear the PA DOC is doing better than Ohio at containment. The governor’s release of roughly 1,500 is good but only a drop in the bucket [Editor’s note: Only 159 people were actually released after Gov. Wolf made this promise]. I saw a celly paroled but got another one out of the hole within 8 hours.

It is now May. I’m looking out the window at a beautiful spring day wishing I could social distance out in the woods instead of a prison cell. Also thinking about some of the lessons that we as a nation can learn from this outbreak. The main thing to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is that it matters to us if others have health care. The bus driver, the busboy, the barber and the barista. It matters if they have health insurance and sick days. We need for them to be able to afford to stay home when sick and see a doctor. The people who handle our food, do our hair and drive us around are often low paid workers who have no benefits. Young and healthy people infected by the coronavirus often have mild symptoms. People don’t stay home for a mild cold because employers expect them to show up.

Our nation needs to provide everyone with health care. It is unconstitutional to deny health care to an incarcerated person—why deny it to anyone?

It matters to everyone if people in prison are packed in like sardines. If staff bring the virus in, it will spread and then more staff will take it back out. Dormitories are a bad idea in prison—single cells are a good idea. I cannot stay 6 feet away from a guy who shares a 7’ x 13’ cell with me. Prisons can only practice containment by denying incarcerated people some of their most basic rights: an hour of recreation, showers, visits, access to the law library, etc. Reduce prison populations!

It matters to all of us if there are disease epidemics in poor countries far away. It may seem like it is in another world, but the pandemic is never more than a plane ride away. Worldwide within hours. If we think we can save tax dollars by not caring about poor people, convicts and foreigners, we are wrong—maybe even dead wrong.

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