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The guard tower at the Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, New York.
Life Inside

Lax Masking, Short Quarantines, Ignored Symptoms: Inside a Prison Coronavirus Outbreak in ‘Disbeliever Country.’

The latest COVID-19 surge is happening behind bars, too. Here’s three accounts from an upstate New York prison hit by the pandemic.

The number of COVID-19 cases have spiked in recent weeks across New York’s state prisons, including at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie. According to the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s website, 137 Greene prisoners had tested positive and 92 had recovered as of Oct. 28.

Multiple accounts from inside the prison suggest that the cases are concentrated in one dorm—D-1. Residents we interviewed said that on Oct. 23, about 40 of the 50 men who lived there tested positive.

The prison agency claims to have complied with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the New York State Department of Health. But Greene residents described a response rife with inadequate quarantining, ignored symptoms, lack of treatment, men moving around the facility during the outbreak and inconsistent mask-wearing among staff and residents.

Three men from D-1, Jermaine Archer, Cecil Myers and Eric Manners, shared their stories. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would not comment on the record about their accounts.

Jermaine Archer

I knew I had the virus on Oct. 19 when I lost my sense of smell. That was about 60 days from my release date. I was scared because my man Leonard Carter had died from COVID-19 in April, 40 days before he was scheduled to be released from another facility. That came into my mind.

When I got sick, they put me in the box for five days. I was told I was being quarantined, but I was subject to SHU conditions, as if I broke the rules. They strip-searched me, did a cavity search, and they took my personal property. I had nothing to read, and I didn't get the mandatory one hour for recreation outside in the fresh air. I was in a large, empty cell filled with stale air and a hospital-style light on me all day. Anybody could mentally break from this because you’re being punished because of your medical condition.

I was likely put in the box as retaliation, because my lawyer had called on Oct. 20 and asked them to give me a COVID-19 test and because I’m speaking out about what’s going on in here.

I know that speaking out can have consequences: I was put in the box at Sing Sing earlier this year after I spoke to media about conditions there, and then I was transferred to Greene.

I saw the outbreak coming because they kept bringing guys into our house. Every day, two or three people started exhibiting symptoms—coughing and sweating. About three weeks ago, they tested the whole house and told us that all but two of us were negative. But just days later people started getting really sick. We asked for another test, and they refused. There was no treatment for the guys who had severe symptoms. They just stayed in bed.

Plus we’re in disbeliever country, where some of the [COs and medical people] don’t seem to think it’s that serious. Sometimes they don’t wear masks. I don't really think I can convey to you how scary that is.

We’re talking about lives. We're not talking about rec, or food, or general prison conditions. There’s a guy in here that’s got a heart problem, and lung and kidney problems. There’s another one who has cancer, and he’s on a breathing machine. There’s an older guy who, when he fell ill, he just stayed in bed. And I see the deterioration day-by-day creeping across his face.

I’m back in the house now, and there are 36 of us who have COVID-19 here in quarantine. That means we can’t leave the dorm. I can see people breaking down not just physically, but mentally, as they’re contemplating having this virus and possibly dying.

COVID attacks your lungs, and I have a cyst on my left lung. They haven’t given me a follow-up X-ray that was ordered back in March or April. I’m about five weeks away from going home. If there's something wrong with my lungs, they should let me go home now to quarantine myself. Don't have me in here with something wrong with my lungs while I'm in the midst of a COVID epidemic.

I don’t want to jeopardize my freedom by speaking out, but I have to say something in the hopes that we’ll get help.

I also know that they can make my stay here very uncomfortable. But I’ll take an uncomfortable stay over a premature death any day. I’ll even take an extension of stay, as long as it comes with an extension of life.

Cecil Myers

At the beginning of the pandemic when they shut down the prison, nobody was getting sick. But when they reopened, a vocational teacher brought the virus in. The superintendent said that our family members had brought it in, and they wanted to take the visits away. But one day I was watching the news and this guy said his wife was a teacher at the jail and that she had brought it in.

One guy that got sick early on was in that teacher’s class, so they moved him out the house. But then they moved guys into our house from somewhere else. We'd look up and they'd be bringing three or four people in. And we were like, “Yo, where they come from? How you know they ain’t sick, or for that matter, how you know we not sick?” Even a lot of the officers didn’t agree with what was going on.

I thank God I got out when I did. I was released on October 21. Two days later, they moved 10 people out of my house and the others were locked down because they had the virus.

They didn’t test me before they released me, so I don’t know if I’m positive or not. I have asthma, so I’m high-risk. I was in prison for 10 years and there are a lot of things that I don't know, like figuring out this cell phone or even getting around where I live now. Come next week I’m going to figure out how to get a test.

Right before I got out I was scared that if I got the virus they’d make me stay in prison past my release date. So I was extra cautious. I would wear my mask all the time, sometimes even sleeping with it on. I had a bottle of bleach because I worked as a laundry porter. If I heard somebody cough, I’d spray bleach around. I was a little extra with it.

I also tried to stay away from people, but it’s hard. In the dorm we share phones, the bathroom, and the day rooms with TVs. I stopped going into the smaller of the day rooms because if the coronavirus was in it, there’s no way you could escape from it. The other thing is some of the officers didn’t wear masks and some of the guys didn’t either.

My anxiety was really high in my last 30 days because I could see that light. I knew it was right there. Now that I’m out, I’m still a little nervous because there’s a possibility that I might have exposed my family to the coronavirus. But if, God forbid, I have it, I'd rather be out here and able to take care of myself as opposed to being in there and having to rely on people that don’t have my best interests at heart.

Eric Manners

I was out on bail at the beginning of the pandemic. When the courts opened back up in June, I was one of the first in my county to be sentenced and sent to prison.

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When I got sentenced, I told the judge, “I'm very leery about this situation because I have a three-and-a-half-year sentence. I don’t have a death sentence.” I mean, they couldn’t find an alternative until this thing gets better, like some type of probationary setup?

I'm not healthy. I am 57 years old. I have ailments and a weak immune system. I got really sick about two weeks ago. I tried to lay down and sweat it out, but one day the guys looked at me sweating profusely and said, “Something is wrong with you. You better go say something to the CO.”

The CO sent me to the infirmary, which is about a block’s walk from our dorm. I stood outside for a couple of minutes in the cold and then the nurse checked my temperature. She told me that I wasn’t running a fever and asked what kind of symptoms I was feeling. I said, “I’m sweating; my clothes are soaking wet. I got chills, aches and pains. I got massive headaches.” She said something like, “Just go back to your house. If you get any sicker, let us know.”

I went back to the house and bundled up for a few days, with body aches, chills, headaches, fever, and sweats to try to get this thing out of me.

They had tested us a few days before I got sick, because a teacher had tested positive and some of the guys in my house were in her class. They told us only two or three guys were positive, and they removed them from the house. The rest of us should have been in quarantine for a full 14 days, but they took everybody off and just were basically like, “OK, good luck.”

A couple days after I got sick, a lot of the other guys did too. They tested us all again. All but 10 of us were positive. They moved the 10 guys out, and the rest of us are quarantining here together. It makes me feel real bad, because I knew something was wrong, and they sent me right back into the same unit. And now all of these guys are positive.

I’m angry, because where's the concern for the inmates? Where's the concern for the people that they're just sticking in here? You got a lot of old people in here that are sick and there's no concern. One must literally be near death to get adequate medical treatment. We’re basically being told, “Well, we're hoping that it passes.” That’s it.

I’m still not feeling 100 percent. I still have chest issues, I'm still feeling feverish and I can't taste or smell. This virus can leave you but then come around again. I’m really praying that this doesn’t kill me. I’m praying I’ll make it back home.

Jermaine Archer has a master’s degree in theology. He has served 23 years in New York State prisons after being convicted of 2nd-degree murder and weapons charges.

Cecil Myers is an aspiring chef and was recently released from Greene Correctional Facility

Eric Manners is a welder by trade. He is incarcerated for drug possession.

Lisa Armstrong has reported on incarceration for the Intercept, HuffPost, the New Yorker online and Rolling Stone. She is a 2020-2021 Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow and an associate professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.