This is Dennis Solo McKeithan, DB2253, at SCI Phoenix, and this is called “The Reality of Coronavirus in Prison.” I’ve spoken about the reality and the fear of COVID-19 in state prisons and here at SCI Phoenix, but it wasn’t until this past week that I really felt personal tragedy and pain of COVID-19, when I lost two friends here at SCI Phoenix whom I had known over 30 years: Anthony Murray, whom we call Tone, and Johnny Mattox, whom we call Baldy.
Ironically, the morning that the prison was out of lockdown, the next morning in March, I had breakfast with these two brothers and we spoke about Baldy going home next year and how he was sent some photos up from the 8th & Diamond reunion at Philadelphia, and the Valley reunion. We used to see each other every morning at medication time. Tone was a loner type, which is why I was surprised when I saw his name on the death list. I could not understand how he contracted the virus. We were not on the same block, so I don’t know if he had a cellmate. Today, COVID-19 is more real to me than ever because of these personal losses.
The next week they started to let us come out our cells to pick up our meals and take back to our cells. All of this happened on the pods. This lasted two days and it stopped because new cases of the virus were discovered. You see a person on the tier below us went out to get chemo, and every time he returned to the prison, he has to be tested. And this time he came up positive for COVID-19. He was taken to the isolation cells over medical and all the other 15 prisoners on his tier were tested. And four were found to be positive as well for the virus.
As a result, we can no longer come out our cells to pick up our meals on the pods. This is not prevention; it is just a reaction. We don’t leave the pods to get our meals; they hit your cell and you go through the bottom of the steps and they hand it to you. So stopping us from picking up the meals is not really anything positive or negative, but Vincent would be testing everyone on the pods because it is no doubt that there are prisoners who are positive but don’t know it.
Just taking temperatures twice a day is not adequate. All of the prisoners that came up positive last week had no symptoms and had good temperature results. Two weeks ago, they started sending kitchen workers and a few other workers to work. Several of them came up positive for the virus, and now that has been stopped also. How did they come up positive? Was it from contact with staff kitchen storage? Or was one of the inmate workers positive and didn’t know it? They were not tested before going back to work.
Only through testing all the prisoners can you really know how bad it is. And that’s one of the reasons the state is not testing everyone except those who have obvious symptoms. And at Montgomery County prisons, they were listed as having 13 positive cases when they were taking temperatures. Then it was ordered that all Montgomery County prisons be tested and they found that one-third of the 900 prisoners were positive.
Only through intelligent and meaningful efforts can prisons begin to open up slowly and safely, otherwise the second wave will be far worse. The block should be cleaned every day, but they aren’t. Sao was a filthy block. Cameras would show that the pods are seldom mopped, and the showers are all cleaned once a day at 8:30 PM. The rest of the day, they have hair, trash, germs and etc.
We don’t know all the ways this virus can be passed. What we do know is that all the air vents are connected. If it can be fast that way, then we really are in need of testing. Anyone interested in the health and lives of family, friends, or associates incarcerated should contact Governor Tom Wolf and ask why state prisoners cannot be tested like county prisoners.
Thanks for your time and your attention. Peace.