What prisons are like during COVID lockdown: interview with a Pennsylvania incarcerated worker

Bryant-Arroyo, What prisons are like during COVID lockdown: interview with a Pennsylvania incarcerated worker, Behind Enemy Lines
Bryant Arroyo is currently imprisoned at SCI Frackville, Pa. In this interview with Workers World, he explains that COVID in Pennsylvania prisons turns any sentence into a death sentence.

by Joe Piette, Workers World

Philadelphia, Pa. – Since the start of November 2020, more than 3,000 incarcerated workers and at least 1,200 guards and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC). Since last March, at least 58 people behind DOC bars have died from the pandemic, the majority of those deaths in the last six weeks.

On Dec. 21, Workers World interviewed Bryant Arroyo, imprisoned at State Correctional Institute (SCI) Frackville, on what he’s experiencing during this massive COVID-19 outbreak.

Bryant Arroyo: So what I want to say is that this whole department is really in shambles, from the top down. As you know from our former interview, we had discussed this facility was most likely the last to have any cases of COVID. We didn’t have any for the past seven to eight months.

And what people need to understand, central office [PA DOC HQ] became aware that this facility was negative for any COVID cases, which you would think would be something that is commendable. And you would recognize the fact that that’s exactly how you wanted the rest of your other institutions to be. 

But there is a key factor in this: Since they didn’t have any cases, they opened up the floodgates to other institutions to fill up this facility with individuals that were positive and transferred from other hotspots in order to get federal funding. The only way that they would get federal funding is if they had positive cases of COVID.

Workers World: Have you been tested?

BA: On Nov. 17, we both got tested, myself and my cellmate, Christopher Smith. On the 19th, I was informed my test came back negative. On the 24th of November, they had an officer come and escort my cellie downstairs to the closet where COVID tests are done and they informed him his test came back positive, but they were giving him a retest and they told him to refrain from divulging that information to me. 

I feel it was an assassination attempt on my life. Everyone else testing positive was taken away, except for my cellmate – for 11 days, who also tested positive!

On Nov. 29, RN Krep came directly to our cell and summoned Chris and said, listen, make sure that you pack everything up. You know what this is about. I really can’t say, but you got to pack up because you’re going to quarantine. 

So my whole thing is that from the 19th, all the way to the 29th, he should have been immediately expedited to quarantine, not 11 days later. So what you did was put me in danger, in a vulnerable position to contract COVID. The point is that they left him there. And they didn’t quarantine him immediately, like they did everybody else. 

As a result of that, I put in a request to the superintendent, Kathy Britain, and informed her, and I also put in a request to Director of Health Care Services Karen Holly, RN, CHCA. I have not received either of the two tests, the antibody or another COVID test, which I should have been given as a result of Chris testing positive for COVID. 

So not only did you endanger my life and welfare, but you also did that to the staff members and their families, because you left him in population. So every day that we got a shower, we used the phone, we used the kiosk, he was out like everybody else for that one hour or half hour. 

Britain’s response was: “You have to sign up for sick call and let them determine if additional testing is needed. We don’t routinely do antibody testing.” Holly’s response was, “If you had COVID, you would have developed antibodies. No indication for an antibody test to be completed.”

I feel it was an assassination attempt on my life. Everyone else testing positive was taken away except for my cellmate, for 11 days! Now I’m still pending the outcome as to what they are going to do.

A mental health crisis

WW: Half an hour a day out of your cells – how is that affecting everyone?

BA: The other aspect of this is that there’s a lot of mental health issues. But the deterioration and the effects of this is definitely being pronounced. Just last night there was a fight next door to my cell, and they took both of them out. So now one is in the hole and one is in the hospital. That happened last night, early in the morning. That’s an issue of mental health. 

And as the pressure cooker continues, this is the result. Not being able to be out and really exercise and get sunlight, a combination of factors of the monotony of the same routine over and over again, and not enough space. This is the result.

They were mistreated, put in the restricted housing unit like if they had done a disciplinary infraction. They were actually from the general population but were punished for testing for COVID. 

My other neighbor to the right of me, Luke Edward Miller, Dr. Pantell took his meds without any explanation. Then he was also going off, acting erratic, interacting to the point where the officers had to cover him. And then they gave him a Skype visit with the psychiatrist because there was no psychiatric staff on hand. But the medication that he’s on, he’s supposed to be weaned off of it; he shouldn’t be cut right off, because his body was shaken. He was feeling different emotions. He was explaining that to me through the vents. 

And just yesterday, I asked him how did he feel? And he explained to me that, you know, he’s not feeling good, but he’s trying to maintain himself so that they don’t stick him in the hole for doing something that he’s not supposed to do. And he also asked me for information with respect to an attorney. So I gave him the name of an attorney who deals with medical negligence, and also any type of issues that are dealing with the medical department. A week later, the same doctor re-prescribed the same meds.

Another example is that of Marcelle McLendon and Dennis McClain, who both tested positive. These were individuals who were immediately expedited when they came back on the list of COVID positives. They were two out of five people that they immediately evacuated out of the wing on Nov. 29. I had informed you that they set up what they call the satellite hospital at the gym. As a result, you would think that they were going to put them there. 

And then they opened up the hospital here, which is the former behavioral modification unit (BMU). It was formerly the hospital 18 years ago, and they reopened it because of the COVID situation. 

But McLendon and McClain were immediately removed from the wing, and they were placed not in the BMU. They were placed in the RHU, which is the restricted housing unit and they put them in a cell that had no electricity, no hot water. They were deprived and denied access to phone calls. And they were mistreated, like if they had done a disciplinary infraction. They were actually from the general population but were punished for testing for COVID. 

So they punish you for having COVID. It’s a quagmire and a real conflict of conscience. Because if the person has the symptoms, and the nurses come by and tell them well, if you’re feeling that, the only thing that they got to give you as far as medication is to drink water. This and punishment. 

And then instead of the 14-day quarantine, they left them there for seven days, and then they didn’t retest them before coming out to general population. They just pushed them right out on Dec. 7. Yeah, so it is a total debacle.

Medical mistrust

WW: So I know with the flu shot, many people refused to take that. For the COVID vaccine, will everyone take it or will there be a lot of resistance?

BA: When they initially promoted the flu vaccine, they had stated that, if the population of prisoners would take it, they would put $5 onto your account. And immediately, word spread. And you know, some guys inquired with me, and I said, the last time I checked the history of the PA DOC, they’ve really never paid anybody to take anything. That’s number one. 

Number two is that anytime that they do pay you an incentive or a gift, if you will, from the Department of Corrections or the government, it’s for an experiment. So to me, it backfired on them. And it did a total disservice for a lot of people to refuse and say, no, I’m not taking it. And they had to sign a basic waiver and said, no liability, no responsibility, if in fact, you get sick and you die because of not taking it. So a lot of people didn’t take it, regardless of the fact that there was a $5 incentive. It sounded suspicious. It would have been better off for them to say, we’re just doing the vaccines, whoever wants them, it’s available. 

That’s it. But to do this, as a quid pro quo. Yeah. Right. And it ain’t like a lot of people don’t know about the Philadelphia Experiment. They were paying them and what have you. That’s exactly what came to mind when I heard about it. 

WW: So will it be different with the vaccine?

BA: I’m thinking yes. And I’ll tell you why. One is we’ve been locked down for over eight, nine months. People are starving to get back to the day that they can say there’s some normalcy, and there’s more time allotted for activities, more movement, school programs, law library. Everybody is waiting for the vaccine. And I’m one of them. As soon as it gets here, I’m just gonna say let’s go and put my arm out. Let’s get it in there. All right, and they should do that for the staff as well.

I had a note for a forensic pathologist, but because of COVID restrictions, I’m obligated to give the guards my attorney-client privilege information for them to make copies for me, which is a total breach of attorney-client privilege, so privacy of that letter goes out the window.

Right now, the law library is very limited. The only way that you get to the law library is if you show them a paper from a court that you have a deadline. If not, you only can request for certain things. And everything else, they come to your hut, like for photocopies. I just recently got legal mail. And I had a letter or multiple letters for my attorneys. 

Then I had a note for a forensic pathologist, but I’m obligated to give them my attorney-client privilege information for them to make copies for me, which is a total breach of attorney-client privilege, privacy of that letter goes out the window, even though they say well, we’re just going to photocopy it. I don’t know that. I put it in my file or send it to security? Yeah. 

So this is what’s going on here. There’s a lot of cutting corners. And they’re just going through as if it was a meat processing plant. Just full-blown production, every chicken is the same. Just keep it moving.

WW: Yes, there was a 38-year-old man named Cornelius Staine with a five-year sentence at SCI Pine Grove who died of COVID a couple weeks ago.

BA: So he didn’t get a real five-year sentence; he got a death sentence, which is a gross miscarriage and unconscionable aspect of what is going on within these facilities. Because there is no medication.

There’s a lot of issues with respect to what’s going on and how everything is developing. A buddy of mine named Shawn Saunders commented that it is our constitutional right to question and seek justice for oneself, and for all those who are similarly situated. He stated that at SCI Frackville on a daily basis, there is an imbalance and mismanagement on COVID quarantine operations; there is insufficient COVID aftercare for the many prisoners currently on the housing units that have become sick from COVID, such as untreated respiratory problems, chest pains, digestive problems and constant body aches. 

However, this ain’t limited to the continuing surge of mental health deterioration among its overall prison population. So he’s saying basically, this is the new norm of pervasive injustices that must be challenged with the ultimate goal of replacing them with accountability, safety, healing, instead of punishment. 

So you know, when you look at the big aspect of this, you have everybody looking at each other and saying, what do we do?

And the only thing that the medical department has stipulated is drink water and hopefully, you’ll get through the process. The quarantine is luck of the draw, because if you don’t get to the BMU, the hospital with only eight beds available, then they have the satellite hospital and I don’t know if they have used that at all.

Back in November, the prison shared a video warning us that our water was contaminated and could compromise our health, but now just weeks later they want us to drink more water as a treatment for COVID? It’s horrific.

Send our brother some love and light: Bryant Arroyo #CU1126, Smart Communications PADOC, SCI Frackville, P.O. Box 33028, St Petersburg, FL 33733. Joe Piette is a staff writer for Workers World, where this story first appeared.