Caught on Camera
By Ava Martoma, Age 13
Like much of America, I’m feeling quarantine fatigue. On the upside, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on … well, everything. Lately, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, and the Black Lives Matter protests have occupied my thoughts. Truth is, I’ll never really know George Floyd, but I do know how he suffered in the last minutes of his life because there’s video proof.
Watching the George Floyd footage makes me think about lockdowns at my dad’s prison. There aren’t any cameras to capture what happens behind prison walls, but my dad’s stories give me a glimpse of what it feels like to be an incarcerated person during a lockdown.
My dad’s prison camp started a lockdown last fall, long before coronavirus changed our world. Guards discovered contraband in a common area and punished all the incarcerated people at the facility, even those who weren’t involved. Everyone lost access to exercise equipment, outdoor recreation, microwaves, classes, visits, and many other “privileges.”
When authorities found that a corrections officer was responsible for smuggling in the contraband, people who were incarcerated hoped that the lockdown would end. Instead, sanctions got tougher, family visits were cut back, and I lost the ability to see my dad regularly.
In the prison, guards used intense “shakedowns” to instill fear. My dad described the first time this happened: It was two in the morning when fluorescent lights flooded his barracks. Guards armed with (what appeared to be) semi-automatic weapons stormed the room commando-style. They shouted “Get up! Up! Up!”, shocking people from their slumber. The guards herded men outside at gunpoint, lined them up along the fence, and detained them until dawn. Meanwhile, inside the compound, guards searched everybody’s belongings, leaving behind a disheveled mess. The men were told to get used to this new style of “inspection.”
My dad had suffered six months of lockdown even before coronavirus arrived, and behind bars morale was at an all-time low. When America declared a state of emergency, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reacted by instituting a new nationwide “coronavirus lockdown.” The protocol was designed to stop the spread of the virus in prisons but ended up contradicting many of the Centers for Disease Control’s coronavirus prevention guidelines. The protocol resulted in harsher restrictions being imposed on incarcerated individuals. Incarcerated people were:
Confined to their housing units
Suspended from all outside visits indefinitely
Limited to $25 a week in commissary (shopping)
Restricted to unpredictable phone and email access
That’s when I lost the ability to see my dad and when I started to panic about his safety. The only way I could reassure myself that he was still alive was by constantly refreshing my browser on the BOP’s death announcements webpage. Eventually, he was allowed to make brief calls every few days - only enough time to exchange “I love you’s!”
Just when it seemed like the BOP’s lockdown couldn’t get any worse, nationwide protests erupted on the streets in response to the death of George Floyd. The BOP reacted by further restricting incarcerated people, even though they weren’t the instigators of the protests. This time, the BOP implemented the most severe lockdown protocol, which has only been used once in their 90-year history.
At a nearby prison facility, civilian protesters demanded safer conditions for incarcerated people. The BOP responded by deploying soldiers with expertise in “crowd control.” These tactical teams dispersed protesters and enforced stricter prison rules: No social gatherings; No TVs; No outside news. Not even emergency phone calls or emails were allowed outside the Warden’s discretion.
As I said, quarantine fatigue has given me a lot of time to think. Incarceration - already an extreme form of social distancing - is a significant punishment for most incarcerated people, just as the coronavirus quarantine has been for us. Taking away incarcerated peoples' ability to connect with the outside world destroys their lifeline. If we are feeling pressured after just a few months of restrictions, imagine how bad it could be under “total lockdown” conditions that get more oppressive over time. It’s a set-up for disaster, one without the cameras rolling.