What to the Inmate is the 1st of April? (Shout out to my man Frederick Douglass)

April 1, 2020 was our Independence Day. Will Smith did not come to make the announcement, but it was a fact, nonetheless. The free population of the United States of America would not celebrate until July 4th, but we quietly celebrated just the thought of our freedom. We celebrated a notion. We celebrated that our basic human right to be free would soon be restored. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have said, “We may not have known the day. We may not have known the hour, but according to Attorney General William Barr, we would be ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! We would be free at last”.
The warden came through after 4 o’clock count on March 30th to let us know that we were going on full lockdown, a change from the modified movement plan we had been under since mid-March. Her information to us was that we would do this for 14 days and then a team would re-evaluate the situation. Her words grazed our ears but carried the same value as a penny with a hole in it. The coronavirus had spread and spread rapidly. Thousands of Americans had lost their lives to it, and thousands more had been infected. A virus we had previously just heard whispers about was now, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a full-blown pandemic. While you all were becoming anxious and disheartened, we were feeling the hopefulness of a Barack Obama rally. “Can we go home early? SÍ, se puede! Yes, we can!”
The pandemic produced two types of inmates. Inmate 1 had so little time left on their sentence, a relatively short sentence, or had been down so long that they felt they deserved a chance to go home soon. Inmate 2 had pending charges somewhere, had just started a long sentence, or did not have a place to go no matter when they were being released.
Inmate 1 got up early every morning for their time to go in the TV room to watch CNN. How many more people were infected, and how many more people had died while #1 slept, were almost the only questions on their minds. They used mathematical precision to calculate at what point the mortality rate need to increase, while their sentences decreased to put them in the optimal position of getting back to people they loved, or at least, living situations they understood. 1 quietly rejoiced at the lack of urgency the United States government exhibited when it came to this now, global pandemic. Inmate 1, well, they were actually women, humans, treated as embarrassments to society. It was so easy to forget, but on that day, April 1st, women gathered by the hundreds to fill out “cop outs”, or a Communication to Staff Forms, to let the warden know that they needed to be on any list of people going home early. They formed a united front. There was strength in numbers, whether the people who made up of those numbers were dead or alive.
Number 2 was annoyed with the disruption of our schedules. Incarceration is all about schedules and any disruption was enough to make a person go crazy. A schedule was the last safe haven for a mind and spirit that had lost all other control of itself, and the world around it. Most of the women who fell into this category were the ones who ironed their clothes at the same time every week, were always up early for work, and took at least three showers a day. They needed be in control of how they were perceived, because no matter what society said, they were human citizens to be respected. That rite was earned and exhibited by their pride in appearance and rigidity. And so now, they were restless because they wanted to go back to their prison jobs.
I fell into neither one of these categories. I was still trying to figure out what was happening and how I got there. Every day welcomed me with a new revelation that I articulated with the, “Wait a minute, you mean that was…?” or “What the hell is that?!” set of questions I became well-known for after some time. There was so much I did not understand about prison culture and criminal culture that I lacked the mental space to decide if going home was a fantasy or not.
I was dazed, but not too dazed to notice the excitement and enthusiasm with which my group 1 sisters pranced to the TV room. The way they watched church every morning, and then CNN brought on their daily coverage of pandemic mishandling USA. They praised the Lord with their hands in the air and thunderous shouts about the glory of God and how no man could keep them imprisoned if God did not say so. Every message from every televangelist was for them and spoke their freedom and without it the destruction of America would surely come. Evidence came like clockwork with the beginning of the daily news cycle started. Governor Cuomo was almost in tears because his citizens were dying at such an alarming rate. Evidence came when George Floyd was murdered. Evidence came as the country broke out into protest. Sister 1, Sister 1, I saw you praising your god for his ability to show forgiveness to you and offer you early release while smiling out loud at the destruction of so many people, death in biblical numbers, because the options to keeping incarcerated citizens safe were getting more limited by the day. Sister 1, I understand, I know that all you wanted was the Malcolm X Get You Home Plan, “by Any Means Necessary”.
I was on my bunk, doing nothing at all. I was just trying not to think too much about “outside” and not too much about “inside”, when an administrative staff member came into my cube. “Shivers, 13 Lower”, was all she said initially. It was not a question, more of a miscategorized statement. I always thought the gatekeepers asked questions that way intentionally. It gave the impression that they already knew the answer, they were just checking to see where you were on the integrity spectrum.
Ms. Gatekeeper had papers in her hand. She looked at me and said nothing for a moment. I almost immediately started defending myself. I did not know what she wanted, or who had given her the evidence she had documented and was bringing me to review, but I was postured to tell her it was all a lie. Then my subconscious intellect kicked in, from where I had no idea. I simply sat up on that twin, metal bunk bed and waited for what was to come next. She signaled for me to walk over to her as she leaned in to show me a sticky note. There was a list of names on it, maybe nine. Mine was on it. The list was people who met the criteria to go home earlier than expected to complete your sentence there.
On July 8, 2020, four days after the Independence Day of the American descendants of Britain, I was released to my oldest daughter and my son. Less than a year since I had become a resident of Alderson, West Virginia, and ten and a half months into a twenty-one month sentence, I was on the way home. The aggressive spread of the coronavirus had made it abundantly clear that there was no efficient way to protect members of our society who were left without a way to take care of themselves. The prison population had to be reduced drastically and quickly so the government would not be left with thousands of dead bodies on their hands.
So, friends, I have heard your cries and sad stories about the loss of loved ones, the loss of being able to walk outside without protective gear, the loss of whatever you perceive you have lost. For so many, the pandemic about loss. I tell you now though, there always has been, and always will be two sides to every coin. That coin, worthless penny, on the other side of it was the freedom for so many American citizens who cried themselves to sleep at night and medicated themselves to sleep in the day. April 1st was our Independence Day.

Author: Claudia L. Shivers

I am a Mom. A grandmother. An entrepreneur. A Social Justice Advocate. A Community Leader. A Social Capital Builder. A Truth Teller.

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