COVID Prison Testimonies: Rudy Vandenborre in Florida, September 2020

A Donkey’s Rock
By Rudy Vandenborre
Everglades Correctional Institution
September 12, 2020

When I went to Washington, D.C. from a small farmer’s town in Belgium, it felt like I entered a whole new unknown world. As a butterfly who morphed, fluttering its wings for the first time, I believed that I was invincible by living a very dangerous lifestyle. “Whatever happens to other people ain’t going to happen to me,” became my motto.

The first time I encountered an unseen enemy was when I took a guy home who insisted on us wearing condoms. AIDS was running rampant all around the world—every country, every city became a hot-zone. However, the mainstream media stayed mum on this HIV pandemic, as it was still branded a gay disease.

There is a saying that even a donkey will not stumble over the same rock twice! So, why did I?

In some houses within our gated community, a daily ritual got established, and with the exception of live sports, we would faithfully watch ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir. Because if you can’t depend on David to tell the truth, then who can you trust in the media?

When the virus that struck the Wuhan province became newsworthy, not many people paid attention. China is a long way from here. When Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, raised the alarm over a new SARS-like virus on social media, very contagious and deadly, ears started to perk up. Dr. Li got arrested for spreading false information and spreading panic. In early February 2020, the eye doctor, 34 years old, died of COVID-19.

My interest started when Italy, in South-Central Europe, became Europe’s epicenter for the coronavirus. The virus, in no time, brought back by vacationers, spread all over Europe. I became very concerned, as my family members and friends are living in Belgium.

Our gated community has a different, more official name: Everglades Correctional Institution. Built in the early 1990s, it has two open-bay style dormitories, bordering a large quadrangle where canteens, barbershops, and a captain’s office can be found, with six butterfly-style housing units, each divided into 4 quads. All together, these are the living quarters for +1,850 residents. As ECI is the first incentivized prison in the Florida Department of Corrections (FLDOC), we call ourselves residents, a positive spin on the otherwise “inmates” or “convicts” negative expression. Positive thoughts bring positive results!

Some of the educational, GED classes, and other programs are facilitated by paid staff; most, however, are taught by volunteers. In early March, the DOC cancelled all visitations and volunteer access. For a few weeks, residents facilitated classes and programs to the best of their abilities. The first sign of seriousness came when the administration closed Section 1, which houses all the essential buildings: education, chapel, barber school, and medical/classification buildings.

Following CDC guidelines for social distancing in a prison is an oxymoron. The DOC came up with their own guidelines and now feeding took hours, as each quad went separately, residents sat two to a table, and out together, back together was in effect. We also received face masks, made with the same fabric as our uniforms—heavy, hot material—and for people suffering from asthma, COPD, or other respiratory illnesses, they make it hard to breathe.

Protocols were drawn up to ensure the safety of residents and staff alike. But as the saying goes: “Rules are meant to be broken,” and so are protocols.

The first signs of trouble came when the protocols were disregarded. One stipulation dictated that a resident going to an outside hospital, regardless of the duration of the visit, will be quarantined upon his return to the institution. “Joe” returned from the hospital over the weekend, but neither security nor medical placed him in quarantine. They instead allowed him to return to his D-dorm housing unit. In the days following his return, pandemonium broke out, some residents developed high fevers, a few became violently ill. The entire D-dorm was placed under quarantine.

Meanwhile, in the dorm where I resided (E-dorm), the “quarantine” quad now became the “isolation” quad, and those with symptoms were housed there. On May 29, E-dorm was also placed under quarantine. In quarantine, we could come out of our cells, watch TV, play cards or board games, mingle, but had to remain in the quad.

The following Monday, everybody at this institution received their first COVID-19 test. If I could have recorded this event, America’s Funniest Videos would have plenty of hilarious moments. If you can’t go to the chow hall, then the chow will come to you in the form of bologna and cheese, or peanut butter sandwiches. An emergency quarantine menu and canteen order form was initiated. Residents’ temperatures were taken twice daily. In order for quarantine to be lifted, the entire quad had to remain fever-free for 14 days. A mission-impossible situation, as our quad resembled Grand Central Station, with residents moving in, and others moving out.

And it was during this period that the donkey stumbled over that same rock! I was too cavalier about wearing my mask, about washing my hands—I felt, for the second time, invincible. Until …

In the 4th week of my quarantine, I experienced something unusual: Our prison food tasted not so bad! When I remarked on this phenomenon, someone yelled: “Fool, you got the symptoms!” All jokes aside, because this disease is nothing to laugh at! On Thursday, June 24, I lost my sense of taste and smell; when walking up and down the stairs, I became winded; I had to gasp for breath; my legs felt as if they weighed a ton; and overall, I felt as if I just finished running a marathon. My fever was just around that threshold of 99.6, under that number safe to stay. Going over meant the dreaded isolation quad. That nightmare started the following Monday.

On June 29, I got moved to one of D-dorm’s 3 isolation quads. That afternoon, I received my second COVID-19 test, but unlike 33 days ago, this time I knew I was positive.

An isolation quad is run differently—I was locked up in a cell, but had a cellmate. July in Florida weatherwise is hellish, with it feeling like temperatures of 105°F. With almost no ventilation, those small cells tum quickly into hot, steamy saunas. While the cell doors remain locked, there is no access to cold water. The only water to drink came out the sink, as if I were a dog!

The chow hall food, which I (unfortunately?) started to taste again, was now delivered to our cells. Trough the bean flap in our cell doors, the nurses came to take our temperature, and the blood oxygen saturation percentage—enter this new twist, but this would turn out very relevant to me.

A person is allowed out his cell for about 20-30 minutes a day to shower, access the JPay kiosk or telephone. The results came back after a few days, those residents who stayed in the quad were positive, the others moved back to a quarantine quad. After five days, my temperature subsided from having a fever to normal. In order to be released from isolation, I had to be fever free for 14 days from the day the results came back.

Entering my 4th week in isolation, some residents got released and moved to open population. With each passing day that I remained locked up, I became more frustrated. Here I was fever free for 18 consecutive days, however, each time I would ask the nurses about when do I get released, I heard, “I don’t know!” A resident who had been to the outside hospital informed us that the blood oxygen saturation percentage also gets considered. That number must be 94% or higher; lower and the 14-day period gets re-set.

As I could hardly walk more than 20 steps without being short of breath and being exhausted, my percentage was more under the threshold than over. That became the point in time where I started to ask the why, the merits, or the common sense of this isolation behind closed, locked cell doors. When everyone is positive, if we mingle, would we exchange each other’s virus? Could I give another person my virus, so he has two of them? It is a fact that after 2, 3 weeks fever free, the virus is no longer in the body. However, my low saturation level kept me locked up in my cell, why? Medical did not examine me, nor did they offer any treatment to improve my saturation, no breathing treatment, no inhaler, nothing at all!

Finally, after 42 days in isolation, I got released. It was three months since my skin felt the sun.

In conclusion, I do hope that the FLDOC has learned some valuable insights during this first wave. Scientists have predicted a second wave, and these first experiences should help to improve some of the living conditions for those entering quarantine or isolation.

The DOC’s motto of “Lock them up!” when a problem arises can’t apply during this pandemic. Officers should not treat isolated inmates as if they are in confinement. Communication and providing information is essential, not only to those inside an institution, but with the families who call or mail seeking updates about their loved ones. Medical has to address how COVID-19 affects those other medical needs of the isolated inmates, such as HIV, high blood pressure, respiratory illnesses, diabetes, etc.

Believe me, this donkey has learned his lesson and will not stumble a third time over that same rock. Wear a mask, wash your hands.

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