When the Pandemic Came to Sullivan Prison
As one blockmate after another fell ill, we tried to stay safe and care for one another. It wasn’t always enough.,
Credit…Illustration by Katherine Lam
By John J. Lennon
- April 6, 2021Updated 8:07 a.m. ET
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I was in my prison cell in upstate New York one afternoon in mid-January when someone called out, “Suits walking!” The Sullivan Correctional Facility superintendent, a gray-haired man in his 60s named William Keyser, had come into the cell block with a mask strapped to his face, accompanied by a pair of deputies. Now he stood in the belly of the block in his suit and tie, pulled down his mask and announced that he was putting us under quarantine.
I’m incarcerated with some 400 men in Sullivan, a 36-year-old prison about 100 miles north of Manhattan. During normal times, prisoners can spend several hours a day outside our cells, even in maximum-security facilities like this one — attending programs, exercising, swinging mops, swapping packs of cigarettes, hustling. But with the winter cold settling in, Covid-19 deaths in New York prisons had spiked over the previous two weeks to 29 as of Jan. 14, and authorities had suspended most prison programs and movement.
For the foreseeable future, Keyser said, we’d be locked in our cells for all but one hour each day. We’d already been feeling especially confined, with visiting rooms closed statewide since December of last year. Now it was going to get worse. “It’s a bit of a long haul,” Keyser acknowledged. He made rounds, answering questions from men in their cells. Then he and his deputies left, to repeat the announcement in Sullivan’s other cell blocks.
When Covid arrived in the United States last year, I was incarcerated in Westchester County, one of the pandemic’s first hot spots, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Even as people on the outside were required to wear face coverings indoors, Sing Sing’s roughly 1,300 prisoners, not provided with masks, had to walk around barefaced or make do with handkerchiefs. State records show that 66 people incarcerated at the facility have tested positive as of the end of March. But testing was extremely limited early on, and I surmise that many more have been infected, myself included. (Last April, I had a fever, lost my sense of taste and felt short of breath.) Four prisoners and one officer have died.
So I was relieved when, last summer, I was transferred to a two-tiered cellblock in Sullivan called D North. Sullivan had escaped the worst of the pandemic, and in my nearly 20 years of prison living, its cells were the best I’d seen. There was hot water in the sinks and a sliver of a window, and I could stretch out both arms without touching the cinder-block walls. The view from the second tier was like that of a mezzanine seat in a theater. I could see the common area with tables and seats and, beyond it, the cells across from me, on both floors. The 60 men of D North would be my new neighbors.
By then, safety practices were improving. Officers brought us cloth and surgical masks somewhat regularly. New York State Clean hand sanitizer, bottled by my peers at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility, filled dispensers all over New York, including in prisons. The smell of alcohol and bleach and water wafted through the facility. For a while, being in prison during a pandemic didn’t feel as apocalyptic as it once had.
But now, under lockdown, cell fever set in. Normally energetic men started oversleeping, then slogging through the day, elbows on their bars, babbling nonsense. My neighbor alternated between laughing out loud at nothing in particular and singing R.&B. for hours.
Cell fever set in. Normally energetic men started oversleeping, then slogging through the day, elbows on their bars, babbling nonsense.
For one hour a day, eight of us at a time would be allowed out to shower, make phone calls and connect our prison-issued tablets to a kiosk to send and receive messages through a private communications provider called JPay. Before my cell was unlocked, I’d make a mental to-do list. It usually included securing spots on the phone and kiosk, then taking a quick shower. I might stop by some blockmates’ cells, which we were free to do; it felt good to have conversations that weren’t shouted through bars.
Afterward, I’d wait for a blockmate working as a porter to wipe down a phone with bleach and water before letting me use it. I’d call my 75-year-old mom in Fort Lauderdale, who’d talk to me about her cat, her Parkinson’s and family gossip. Every time, I’d ask if she’d gotten the vaccine yet. She’d tell me she hadn’t. She didn’t bother to ask if I had.
At one point it seemed as if prisoners everywhere could be among the first in line for Covid-19 vaccines. In November, after the federal government announced their imminent arrival, the American Medical Association recommended that we be prioritized to receive them, along with others living in congregate settings where it’s difficult to keep people apart.
That made sense to me. Nationwide, at least one in five prisoners has tested positive as of December, according to the nonprofit Marshall Project, four times the rate of those on the outside. (I’m a contributing writer for the Marshall Project.) More than 2,500 have died, at twice the outside rate. The mortality rate for incarcerated New Yorkers is actually lower than for those outside prison, but incarcerated New Yorkers have tested positive at a higher rate. And it wasn’t only about protecting us. With staff members and visitors coming in and out all the time, those of us in here are part of the same ecosystem that you all out there belong to. Even if we can’t leave, the virus can.
Early in the pandemic, though, states started coming up with vastly different policies around vaccinating incarcerated people. California, Massachusetts and New Jersey made prisoners eligible early on. But by late January, New York officials still hadn’t announced any such plans, putting the state behind at least 27 others that had. The governors of Washington and Kentucky have each granted more than 1,000 commutations during the pandemic, lowering prison populations in the hopes of reducing transmission. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has commuted only 31 sentences, though he has also released nearly 4,000 people early by other means.
Sometimes I heard about these developments from Michael Antinuche, who lives in a downstairs cell across from me, listens to NPR ad nauseam and had become obsessed with all things Covid. (He pronounces it “Cober.”) A rough 49-year-old gangster from Queens, raspy-voiced and round-bodied, Antinuche is serving 25 years to life for a conviction on murder, assault and weapons-possession charges. We call him Mikey Meatballs.
Meatballs is a hardened guy, but Covid, the invisible enemy, tormented him; he hoped to get out and see the daughter he’d never known as a free man. She was born two months after his arrest. Now she is an adult. Meatballs’s family sent virus statistics from the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to his tablet. He would stop administrators and question them about testing, tracing and, according to Meatballs, their decision to confiscate his masks on a recent cell search. He would suggest ways for them to run a safer prison. A lot of them struck me as pretty sound.
Ten days into the lockdown, I stopped by my buddy Samuel Goodman’s cell. Sam, who’s serving 10 years for robbery and assault, spent several hours a day doing porter work in the Sullivan infirmary, which was packed with patients who’d tested positive in random tests the prison was conducting. For about $3.75 a week, Sam stepped into a one-piece zip-up suit with a hood, put on an N-95 mask and face guard, then cleaned and mopped and passed out food trays in the four-man rooms housing those who had tested positive. People with worse symptoms stayed in isolation rooms. When Sam threw out the garbage, it went in a hazardous-waste bag.
“I look out for guys as much as I can,” Sam told me, legs pretzeled on his bed, a “Star Wars” encyclopedia turned over next to him. Sam is 30 years old, with long auburn hair and a vicious red scar down the side of his face, from when gang members tried to double up on a drug bill and he refused to pay. “I give them extra tea and food and ice,” he said. Sam’s mom, a nurse, died in 2018 while Sam was locked up. She’d have liked that he was doing this work, he told me. He said his neighbor Chucky was now positive and in the infirmary. Sam hadn’t been tested. Though he felt fine, Chucky’s illness didn’t seem like a coincidence.
I peeked into the empty cell to the right, with its unmade bed. The blanket was crumpled, the sheets wrinkled, barely holding on to the thin plastic mattress.
“Loco’s down there, too,” Sam said. This was alarming, because Loco — Johnny Ayala — was 57 and because he liked to cook for Sam and me, using ingredients we bought at the prison commissary or received in the mail. In a plastic hot pot sold at the commissary, Loco did wonders with pepperoni sauce over rigatoni. Serving 32 1/2 years to life for murder and arson, he was admirably active for his age, working a job on the prison maintenance crew. Loco had earlier been placed in quarantine and tested because the correction officer he worked for on the maintenance crew had tested positive. Now he, too, had the coronavirus and was in the infirmary along with Chucky, his symptoms worsening.
I thought about the men who’d be most in danger if there were an outbreak in D North. One was two cells down from Sam: David Brooks, an 81-year-old serving 25 to 50 years for rape. I’d heard that he used to be a musician. He kept to himself, leaving his cell only to grab his food tray from the cart. I didn’t know Old Man Brooks well.
I especially worried about a neighbor named Paul Ford, who was 58 years old, blind and taking medication for diabetes and schizoaffective disorder. (Sullivan houses many prisoners with special needs: hearing impairment, blindness, serious mental illness.) Before lockdown, Paulie could often be found in the common area, swaying in his seat, head tilted upward like Stevie Wonder’s as he mumbled to himself. He wore a black plastic rosary around his neck, its thin string barely holding onto him.
Paulie came to Brooklyn from Jamaica as a teenager. In 1980, at age 18, he was trying to steal a car with two friends when an off-duty police officer in his pajamas interrupted. A gunfight erupted, in which a bullet pierced one of Paulie’s eyes, blinding him in both, and another hit the officer in the chest, killing him. Paulie and his co-defendants were all found guilty of murder and attempted robbery. Paulie was sentenced to 26 1/3 years to life.
I had watched others in the cellblock tend to Paulie with a level of care I had never before witnessed in prison. A clerk in the Sullivan law library kept files of Paulie’s paperwork: mental-health reports, parole-hearing minutes. Once, while I was sitting with Paulie, Meatballs brought him a cake.
Kasiem Chaves, who earned around $7.50 a week as Paulie’s mobility guide, helped Paulie with just about everything: cleaning his cell, communicating, walking. Kasiem had been incarcerated 38 years for a robbery and murder in the Bronx. Now a gangly, graying 65-year-old, he was known at Sullivan as the Old God. It was a reference to his affiliation with the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam whose members refer to men as “Gods” and women as “Earths.” But I also thought of the nickname as a nod to the thoughtful steadfastness we saw in him.
Several times, after Kasiem and Paulie returned from a medicine run, I heard Kasiem arguing with the pantry servers because they’d forgotten to put aside a tray. He’d hustle up a cake, heat some water for instant coffee and serve it to Paulie. Kasiem tried hard to follow physical distancing guidelines, because he saw himself as responsible not only for his own life but also for Paulie’s. In early February, Paulie was supposed to go before a parole panel for the ninth time, to determine whether, after more than 40 years of being locked up, he’d be allowed to leave. Given the pandemic, Kasiem thought Paulie might get his chance. Kasiem, scheduled to see a parole board for the first time in March, was hoping he’d get his chance, too.
In prison, everything that happens feels like part of our punishment. Over the last year, that has included living through a pandemic while behind bars. Critics of New York’s vaccination plan point out that prisoners are already being punished for our crimes with incarceration — none of us were sentenced to be at extra risk during a pandemic too.
As the lawyer and human rights advocate Bryan Stevenson has written, we are “more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s the ideal. Yet the worst thing we’ve done is part of us, too; we are the sum of all our deeds. I murdered a man, and I sometimes feel that the act did diminish the value of my own life. I sometimes feel that I am less deserving of the vaccine than an innocent person.
I called my mom in Fort Lauderdale and told her, over a phone handset that reeked of bleach and burned my nostrils, about the state government’s decision not to offer us the vaccine. “I can get it,” Mom told me. “I don’t want it. I wish I could give it to you. I’m not productive anymore. I’m shot.” Mom said she doesn’t trust the vaccine, anyway — she thinks they injected water into Joe Biden’s arm: “Ha, I sound like a nut, right?”
Mom’s Parkinson’s has robbed her of aging gracefully. She falls, urinates on herself. My older siblings had a different father, and they resented my mom for leaving them with him. She married my father, had me. Then he left her, and we wound up in a housing project. My father later took his own life. In 2001, when I was selling drugs, I shot and killed a man in Brooklyn and was sentenced to 25 years to life for murder, plus three years for drug sales and possessing a gun. One of my brothers died a decade later of an overdose. Now Mom is alone.
The hardest part of my punishment is that it’s also Mom’s punishment. I’ve felt it acutely these last several months, unable to be there for her when she needs me most. I’ve been having the same conversations with my mom that many other sons and daughters have had with their aging, sometimes stubborn parents: “Make sure your home health aides wear masks and wash their hands, and make sure they don’t touch you.” But how can I be certain my mother will do anything I ask her to do from in here?
I told Mom I wanted her to take the vaccine. She said she wouldn’t wait in line for it, but if they brought it to her on a platter, she’d think about it. She told me her younger sister, Mary Ann — my Trump-loving aunt — wasn’t taking it. I looked at the clock and realized that I had seven minutes left of my hour. I needed a shower. “I have to go,” I said. “Don’t listen to Mary Ann!”
On Jan. 29, I heard about six D North men whose tests had come back positive. (DOCCS did not comment on specific prisoners’ medical situations, including individual test results.) Old Man Brooks, two cells down from Sam, was one of them. “D North is on quarantine,” crackled over a walkie-talkie on an officer’s hip. “Lock it down!”
A mess-hall worker started leaving a cart with premade trays just inside the cell block’s gate, the way you might leave soup and groceries on the stoop of an infected loved one’s home. Each morning and afternoon, a weary nurse, wearing a purple mask and a panic button clipped to her scrubs, stopped by every cell, stuck a temperature gun through the bars and swiped our foreheads as we leaned forward. An officer with a clipboard recorded the temperatures.
My neighbor was not pleased. “Somebody’s a superspreader!” he shouted. He wondered aloud how Old Man Brooks, who seemed never to leave his cell without a mask on, had contracted the virus. “Goddamn superspreader, where’s he at? It’s that Napoleon Dynamite white boy working the clinic!”
My neighbor was not pleased. ‘Somebody’s a superspreader!’ he shouted.
It was true that a cluster of positives was turning up near Sam’s cell. Two of the steady D North officers had tested positive, too, and were out sick. Sam still hadn’t been tested, but people were becoming suspicious and bad-tempered: Meatballs warned Sam to stay on his side of the block.
“What am I supposed to do?” Sam murmured through his mask, stopping by to see me. “Tell them down at the clinic, ‘Everyone back in the block thinks I’m a superspreader because I work down here, so you guys should test me’?”
But it was too late for that. The quarantine included Sam, who could no longer go to work at the infirmary. The fact that he hadn’t been regularly tested, let alone offered the vaccine, seemed to me to reflect a broader lapse in officials’ judgment.
Sam might well have brought the virus from the infirmary to D North, infecting his neighbors and the C.O.s on the block, who in turn might have passed it to others when they went home. Still, as Meatballs pointed out, all visits had been canceled for weeks, and we were locked down. Even if Sam had carried the virus from the infirmary to our block, the people coming from the outside to work at Sullivan were most likely to have brought it into the facility in the first place.
Locked in all day, I felt depression coming on. My mattress is this plastic three-inch thing that sags in the middle. (DOCCS says prison mattresses are four inches thick when they’re issued.) I’d flip it, smack it, but there was no hope. I made the bed in the morning and tried not to sit on it. I missed the yard, working out in the weight pit with my pal Simon, then lapping the yard’s perimeter and chatting. Simon Dedaj is a charismatic 57-year-old Albanian-American mobster doing 50 years to life for a double murder. (He maintains he didn’t commit the murders.) He has gray hair and dark eyes that shine when he smiles, and he listens to me with genuine interest. I was trying to start a daily exercise regimen in the cell, and I’d hear Simon in my head telling me to just do it. I’d get through a few stretches and free squats, lie on the floor, feel my back crack, breathe. It wasn’t the same.
People in prison use the word “bugout” to refer to those with serious mental illness. Kasiem wondered if we could prevent our own crackup by staying vigilant with our studies, being creative, exercising. Most of all, I think Kasiem’s work with Paulie kept him sane, gave him meaning.
Each morning, I’d still be in bed, and I’d see Kasiem’s shell-toe Adidas glide past my cell. With a hand broom and a cardboard scoop, he’d sweep the cigarette ashes from Paulie’s floor. Then the Old God would kneel at Paulie’s feet and help him tie his laces. Lately, after Kasiem returned to his own cell, Paulie would be back under the covers, wearing state-issued greens — pants, a sweatshirt with cigarette-burned holes — and seeming lethargic. Juice cups and a few half-used rolls of toilet tissue littered his desk. Some of us suspected he had Covid, though a test had come back negative.
One of my neighbors called the porter. The porter, swinging a mop, was half-deaf. He couldn’t hear my neighbor, or was ignoring him, so my neighbor kept calling. “Abdullah. Abdullah. Abdullah! Abduuullah!” I ground my teeth and fantasized about punching his face. Perhaps many of you have had these thoughts, if maybe not as intense, about those with whom you’ve been cooped up. In prison, you can’t escape it. Voices tumble through your bars: chatter, laughter, disinformation.
“The Cober is like a game of foosball, with all the strains — every step you take, you’re getting hit,” Meatballs said.
Someone started singing the Police song: “Every step you take. … ”
“I heard the O blood types don’t get it,” a voice chimed in.
“I’m telling you — smoking protects the lungs.”
“Every move you make, I’ll be watching you,” the singer continued.
Loco returned on Feb. 1, his face sunken. “I felt like something was squeezing my insides,” he told me. He bent over and put his hands on his knees. “Look at me, I can’t catch my breath,” he said. He’d lost 20 pounds since I last saw him. I asked if he was up to returning to his job as our cook, and he told me he couldn’t taste anything.
I went by Sam’s cell. He was under the covers, but his neighbor, Chucky, had returned from the infirmary. Chucky wore a tank top, one arm curled around a net bag full of cans: Campbell’s soup, Vienna sausage, tuna, mixed vegetables. “I’m trying to get my strength back,” he told me.
A day later, a dozen D North men who had been close to people who tested positive were summoned to the infirmary and nose-swabbed, then sent back to the block. This time, Sam was among them. The next day, the phone at the officers’ desk kept ringing. Men on their bars watched the C.O. pick up, nod, hang up and walk to different cells. “You tested positive,” he’d explain. “Pack up. You have to go to the clinic.”
That evening the call came for Sam. “Johnny,” Meatballs shouted up to my cell, “they got your boy Sam, the superspreader.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, men leaned on their bars watching the TVs that hung from the banisters in the common area. Meatballs and Loco placed hand-held mirrors on their bars so they could sit in their cells and watch the reflection. Kasiem rooted for the Chiefs and hated on Tom Brady while ironing Paulie’s greens. Paulie’s parole hearing was in two days.
The morning of the hearing, I watched Kasiem escort Paulie out of the block, their elbows hooked. Together, they represented 78 years of incarceration. Paulie looked good, sporting pressed greens and a pair of newish white Nikes, his formerly disheveled hair neatly trimmed for the occasion by the resident barber. Voices tumbled through bars: “Free Paul Ford! A.S.A.P.!”
That was the week, in early February, that Superintendent Keyser called a meeting in the gymnasium and announced that the state had decided men who were 65 and older or were “medically frail” could be vaccinated. The governor declared this just after a coalition of advocacy groups sued him and the state’s top health official, arguing that not offering the vaccine flouted the 14th Amendment’s clause guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Keyser said he had recently taken the first shot himself, and they should expect a sore arm and maybe a slight fever.
Soon afterward, Sam appeared in D North along with several other recovered men, net bags filled with books and clothes that they’d taken to the infirmary two weeks before. Old Man Brooks was missing: I heard he was in the outside hospital on a ventilator. Sam looked decent, though. When he got close, he glanced up to my cell, and I offered him a raised fist through the bars. He nodded.
That afternoon, Paulie and Kasiem stopped by my cell. Paulie had gotten his parole decision. “I’m going home,” he murmured through his mask. “I made it.” A week later, we’d learn that Paulie’s news wasn’t entirely good. There would be an order to deport him to Jamaica when he got out, though a lawyer was helping him appeal. But at that moment, the parole decision felt like the good news we all needed. The block erupted. A voice called out, “Paul Ford, free at last!”
Lockdown ended on Feb. 20 — a cool, bright Saturday. That afternoon in the yard, the sky was blue, the air crisp. Hard snow was heaped high on the tables where we normally sat. I greeted Simon. We told each other that our necks had gotten fat. I relayed that by my count, half of D North had eventually contracted the virus; he said his block hadn’t had any positive tests. When the topic of vaccines came up, Simon cited the debunked rumor that Hank Aaron had died from taking the vaccine and said he wasn’t going to let that happen to him. He smiled, his eyes shining.
By then, the men who qualified were being injected, in the Sullivan gym, with the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Kasiem, at 65, was among them. So were Paulie and Loco, who were younger but had comorbidities that made them eligible. (Paulie was still awaiting his release.) Even Sam got his shot in the shoulder. He said he’d been told it was because of his infirmary job. Sam’s brother told him, only half-joking, that he had been leaning toward taking the vaccine because so many powerful people were clamoring to get it, but when he heard that his brother in prison had been injected with it, his skepticism returned.
I’d been hearing similar comments at Sullivan — not just from Simon, but from a lot of men. If they were offering us the vaccine in here, it surely was suspect. One of my neighbors showed me some copies of The Final Call, the newspaper for Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. The covers blared “We Don’t Want Your Vaccine” and “Big Pharma, Big Money, Big Fears.” While advocates and lawyers had been working hard to get us access to the vaccine, many prisoners were now dead set against taking it.
Mom, too, still hadn’t sought out a vaccine. She had recently told me that Aunt Mary Ann had visited with a friend and that no one had worn masks in the house. When I became anxious, she insisted, “We’re not going to wear masks inside all day, John — don’t worry about me!”
‘We’re not going to wear masks inside all day, John — don’t worry about me!’
I knew that longstanding inequities in America, not to mention our former president’s sowing of confusion, had made many marginalized people suspicious of public-health officials’ statements about the pandemic. Of the 28 men in Sullivan who were 65 and older, 23 took the vaccine — a decent rate. But one afternoon in late February, when the rain and cold kept most men in from the yard, I conducted an informal poll of 38 blockmates about whether they planned to receive the vaccine once it was available to them. While 13 said yes, 25 said no. My neighbor told me, “I’m not shooting that [expletive] in my arm.”
People in prison in New York have the right to decline vaccines, including the Covid ones. I had expected officials to at least encourage vaccination in this case, maybe by having nurses talk it up or seeking the endorsement of influential prisoners. But when I asked Superintendent Keyser in late February if he had any such plans, he shook his head. Soon, the issue wouldn’t be whether we were offered the vaccine — it’d be whether enough people would accept it at all.
News came down in March that the virus had killed Old Man Brooks. He had been scheduled to go before the parole board in April. Over all, 35 people died in New York state prisons by the end of March, when a New York State judge ruled that everyone incarcerated in New York jails and prisons must be offered vaccines, calling the state’s failure to do so “unfair and unjust” decision that had brought an “great risk to incarcerated people’s lives.” Two days later, I found an enlarged memo on a bulletin board in the belly of the block, saying incarcerated people were now eligible. “By getting vaccinated and following Covid-19 guidelines,” it read, “you will be a vital part of the solution to prevent the spread of this virus.”
Simon and I continued walking the yard. Sam went back to working at the infirmary, and Meatballs stopped picking on him, somewhat. Loco regained his strength and made it back to the wooden maintenance shed where he and his co-workers gathered before and after shoveling and salting. He told me that the C.O. who supervises him — from whom he might well have gotten sick — asked how he’d made out. Loco told him that it had all been pretty bad, and the C.O. talked to Loco about his own experience. They swapped accounts of their symptoms. The officer, Loco said, apologized to him.
Paulie, rather than being deported, was scheduled to be released to a facility in New York City that would help him with his many needs. One day, Kasiem appeared at my bars holding a New York Post article in which the family of the officer whom Paulie had been convicted of killing was described as “furious” about Paulie’s parole. Later, in the yard, Simon showed me letters to the editor that The Post had published about it: “How is anyone’s life improved by the release of another cop-killer?” one person wrote. “How is giving hope to murderers serving society?” asked another.
Kasiem had been feeling hopeful about his own parole prospects. But when I saw him one afternoon soon after his hearing, holding the envelope with the board’s decision, he didn’t offer a smile, only shook his head. He’d been denied. If my words mattered to the board, I would have written them a letter. I would have written that, in all my years in prison, I had never seen the kind of compassion Kasiem showed Paulie. As Covid-19 swept through Sullivan, it was this, not some distant prospect of mercy from the state, that gave this murderer hope.
John J. Lennon is a contributing writer for the Marshall Project, a contributing editor at Esquire and an adviser to the Prison Journalism Project. He is serving an aggregate sentence of 28 years to life at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York for murder, drug sales and gun possession. He was a finalist for the 2019 National Magazine Award in feature writing.