Heard It Through The Grape Vine
COVID-19 in Prison

by Michael Rhynes 
Attica Prison Worship Group


One instrument of control in prison is the tool of uncertainty. Correctional uncertainty brings out the paranoia in prisoners. Prisoners already live in a world where it’s hard to differentiate between shadows and substance.


Prisoners take their cue from the shadowy whispers of correctional staff. Prisoners can never be sure whether those organizational whispers are true or just disinformation.


Flu shots for older prisoners are usually conducted before flu season begins. This year, flu shots were cancelled at least four times. Up and down the grape vine, men began questioning the availability of flu shots. Prisoners began asking the rank and file officers, “Why are the flu shots being cancelled?” Their retort was, “Its above our pay grade, ask medical.” Medical’s reply was, “We don’t know.” Prisoners turned to their administrators, who answered, “We’ll check it out.” Meanwhile 2 out of 3 prisoners became sick with flu-like symptoms that just didn’t seem to go away. 


Prisoners harbor a deep pathological fear about the collective health care system in prison. One of the things it springs from is the de facto regulation: If you’re not bleeding , don’t go to emergency sick-call. If one is seen by the medical staff and they can’t find anything wrong, prisoners can receive a misbehavior report. One can be confined to a cell for 23 hours a day for 30 days. The rationale behind this is that prisoners are malcontent abusers of drugs and they’d do anything to get high.


Older prisoners finally received their flu shots. The collective thought of prisoners were, just like everything else we’re the last to receive anything.


Enter COVID-19. The upside down world of prison was turned around again. The blue whispering machine started humming, prisoners picked it up, and conspiracy theories started flying left and right. Staff believed the virus was a left wing plot to deny Trump the vote. Prisoners believed it was Tuskegee all over again.


Prisoners knew something was really wrong when visits were taken away. Visitation is the life blood of a prisoners existence. We were told it was for the protection of the inmate population. The collective logic of prisoners hummed up and down the grape vine. Inmates see their keepers come and go from the outside world every day. Science dictates that one would be more likely to contract COVID-19 from people whom one sees each and every day, than from loved ones prisoners see once a week, once a month, or once a year.


While the virus was ascending, prisoners were given the warning: Don’t be alarmed if you see officers wearing masks, it’s for your own protection. The grape vine was up and humming. Prisoners were concerned about their own protection in more ways than just one. It’s very frightening to have people who control one’s bowel movements and the air one breathes showing up for work wearing masks. For 40% percent of prisoners it brings back racial nightmares of night riders.


The collective logic of prisoners kicks in, “Why don’t we have masks to protect us from them and each other?” Prisoners throughout the ages have deployed defense mechanisms involving the ability to recognize the facial expressions of predators. One would be surprised how a smile and good morning could prevent a suicide or stop a homicide. Now prisoners are left without the use of these defense mechanisms, because of a mask.


Prisoner were informed about the value of social distancing. Social distancing goes against herd mentality. The herd protects one from a knife in the back, from rape, and gang assault. Social distancing represents isolation from the herd which can trigger abandonment, loneliness, and thoughts of suicide.


On Monday July, 6, 2020, a nurse accompanied by a guard stopped at prisoners’ cells, informing them their names were on a list of inmates 55 and older. Then she asked, “would you like to take a test?” Most prisoners responded with, “What kind of test?” The answer was, “COVID-19.” Questions were posed up and down the grape vine:

  1. If you’re positive, where would you go?
  2. What happens if there’s a false positive?
  3. How long would one stay in quarantine?
  4. What would medical treatment consist of?
  5. After the medically determined period, once you tested negative, would you be placed back in the same environment you contacted the virus from?


The vine agreed that as prisoners they were being denied the right to make an informed decision. On July 8, 2020, prisoners ages 55 and older were herded like chattel into the facility mess hall. They were directed by guards, wearing masks and carrying night sticks, to form a single file. As prisoners shuffled up to a filthy table with a nurse sitting behind it, the nurse would ask, “Do you want to take the test?”


Prisoners who wanted to take the test were directed to a doctor wearing a face guard. The prisoners who didn’t want to take the test were asked to sign a form.


One may ask, why wouldn’t an inmate want to take the test? The vine theorizes that most prisoners have already contracted the virus, and wanted to take an antibody test, instead, to prove it. 


Prisoners who weren’t taking the test asked the nurse practitioner:

  1. “If the test is voluntary, why do we need to sign a form?”
  2. “Will medical send the result?” She stated, “Probably not.” The only way prisoners will find out they’ve tested positive is if guards show up at their cells wearing masks and carrying night sticks.