By Antwann Johnson
From PHN Issue 47, Fall 2021
My name is Antwann Johnson, and I felt compelled to share my experience with COVID-19 while incarcerated. On October 16, 2020, I was working as a DLA (Daily Living Assistant) and I was approached by the Housing Unit FUM (Functional Unit Manager). He asked me if I would be willing to live in the Medical TCU for the purpose of giving assistance to the medical personnel who cared for inmates that had contracted COVID-19 and were severely ill and dying.
At first, I felt reluctant because this virus was still a mystery to us all. Not long after that conversation with the FUM, I was informed that my cousin and two of my close friends had tested positive for COVID-19. After that, I made the decision to go to the TCU Unit. I’ve seen firsthand how many of the inmate patients don’t have any family or people who care about their well-being. The primary purpose of being selected to live in the medical unit was to help prevent any cross-contamination or spread of the virus as much as possible. It would be two inmate patients that I grew close to while they were battling COVID-19 who would ultimately give me the strength to continue fighting this worthy cause.
One of the patients who I helped to care for was named Stanley, who was 64 years old and had been diagnosed with both COVID-19 and pneumonia. He was in such bad shape that the outside hospital sent him back to the facility and said that he would not make it due to the fact that his lungs were so severely damaged. As time went on, we became close, and I did all that I could to assist the nurses with Stanley’s care. He thanked us all, because he knew that his condition was bad and that we were doing our best to keep him alive. He expressed to me how he didn’t have any family or friends, so I took it upon myself to care for him as if he were my own family.
George was another person I helped support on the TCU unit. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer. George was a fighter. Just as with Stanley, George and I became close, and there were even times when George would not allow the custody staff to touch him unless I was present. The times when we all worked together to give George the best care, we were lucky if we even got 5 hours of sleep. You would have to be here to truly experience the joy these patients bring to our medical team and vice-versa. Collectively, we’re a big family that relies on each other for strength and support, and we have the biggest prison medical facility in Missouri.
Each nurse personnel plays a pivotal role in making this unit function, but it’s the hospice workers who give compassion for human lives its true meaning. While we were experiencing the outbreak of COVID-19, there were a total of 25 patients who had contracted the virus assigned to the medical TCU Unit, and 8 deaths due to complications with the illness. There were countless more inmates in the general population of the prison who had COVID-19 as well. We literally gave up everything to assist the staff. For me, someone who is trying to prove my innocence, it was very difficult not being able to go to the law library. I also missed going to the gym, simply being outdoors, enjoying the company of friends. But again, I knew these inmates were relying on us for help.
There were times when things were so chaotic that nurses just wanted to walk off the job, and us hospice porters were losing hope in this fight. I know that just staring down at a lifeless body did something to us all emotionally. There would be times when the power from the generator would go out, and we would sit in the still darkness, quiet, listening to the halls, wondering when we were going to hear our names being called for assistance. If I told you I wasn’t affected by the death of another human, I’d be lying. I honestly have a newfound respect for any and all healthcare workers.
While I have been a hospice porter, working alongside medical personnel, I actually feel like a real human being and not just some worthless criminal. This is the first time in my 24 years of incarceration that I have felt like this. It’s hard to hold back tears as I think about all the work we have done, but how we’ve received little to no recognition for our help and support from the prison officials who are higher up. I’ve witnessed firsthand how this virus attacks the body with no regard for human life.
It has been a rough journey being a hospice porter, and it has definitely humbled me. There were many times when I felt lost, confused, and couldn’t process the loss of the patients we had. The fact that Ralph and Limbo were my two friends that initially caught the virus first, but they came back to work in order to help others, knowing that they could contract this deadly virus again and die, gave me the strength to say, “Against the odds for a worthy cause.”