Prison Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve been incredibly stressed the last few weeks. Pit of stomach anxious. In tears at times. I have a loved one incarcerated in Texas. Decades ago, we were young lovers. Then he was sentenced to 60 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, taking the fall for his buddy who pulled the trigger. He refused to testify against him, even if it meant it would free himself. Honor, bravado, bro code – things he says matter no more.

He’s housed at the Beto Unit. It has the highest concentration of positive COVID-19 cases, growing exponentially every few days. He was coughing on the phone when we talked in March. In early April, they began testing. It went from 6 inmate cases to currently 221. In addition, 2547 are medically restricted, meaning they’ve been exposed to those who tested positive. Positive inmates are isolated in the I wing, dubbed the “death wing” by the inmates. A guy who tested positive was sent back to his cell on the first floor to get his stuff for moving to the death wing. No one knows what he understood about this disease, but it’s clear the way he understood it scared him to death. Literally. Instead of going to his cell, he ran to the third floor and jumped. He died of his injuries.

The prison has been on lockdown since April 6. No movement, locked in your cell for 24 hours. No chow hall, no day room, no showers, no commissary, no phone calls. A couple of peanut butter sandwiches are delivered once a day at random times. No soap, no hand sanitizer. The guys take bird baths – using a towel dipped in the water from the toilet in their cell. These things are not unusual. It’s daily life during normal lockdowns that happen twice a year for contraband inspection. But during a COVID-19 outbreak, things have to change. Prior to April 6, there was no lockdown. Men were in close quarters, no distancing, no cleaning supplies. Walking, eating, working, praying, learning, sleeping in close proximity to one another.

A request was made for masks, soap, and hand sanitizers for the inmates. The state said no. A group of elderly inmates sued and won with a District judge ordering TDCJ to provide the items. The state appealed and a Federal court reversed the decision, denying these men the items. Governor Abbott said good, those supplies should be “saved for healthcare professionals during this crisis” – while at the same time going on the news saying there’s no crisis and not issuing a “stay at home” order for the state.

The local news where the prison is located began to cover the crisis through complaints by family members who have been neglected by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Monitoring the TDCJ website is the only way we can find any information about what’s going on. As we watched the numbers grow, as we got letters telling us how bad it is in there, how scared they are, how the guards didn’t give a shit, how men are sick left and right, how they’re afraid to tell medical about symptoms because they don’t want to be sent to the death wing – our anxieties and fears grew.

We kept making calls, we kept informing reporters, and with the increased pressure, the warden allowed each inmate one phone call for 15 minutes to update whoever they chose from their loved ones on their registered phone list. He called me on Thursday. What an immense relief that he is not positive. Though, he admitted he was very sick in March, but they were not testing then. We’ll never know if he had it or not. We’ll never know if he spread it or not. He could still get it if what he had in March was the flu. For now, I’m feeling much better. Said they cleaned the unit, even painted his wing – it was painted in my favorite color, aqua blue. He said it was awesome but also hated it because it made him think of me. Said it’s easier sometimes not to think of his loved ones.

He said he loved me and thanked me for still being in his life. Said if he died in prison, he was fine with it because his voice and impact were already out there in the free world. He said the greatest gift I gave him was his voice. You see, in the fall of 2018, I encouraged him to write an essay for an online magazine looking for writings by Asian Americans who were incarcerated. He wasn’t interested. Said he dropped out of school in the 9th grade and wasn’t good at writing. I said I disagreed. His letters to me demonstrate very good writing. Said he’d think about it but made no promises.

A month later, for my birthday, he sent a card and the essay. Said it was a gift so do whatever I want with it. I submitted it. Months later, I got word it was selected for publication. The magazine connected him with an editor and through pen pal method, they helped him revise and polish his essay. In August of 2019, the essay was showcased for a display at the annual Asian American Literature Festival in Washington, DC. He started receiving post cards from festival goers who read his essay. The post cards were provided by the festival organizers and sent to him from the magazine editor. One reader said it made her miss her family in Houston with whom she had lost touch due to an argument. Said she was going to reach out to them because the essay moved her. Reminded her how important family can be.

The guys in there with him were impressed. He told them it changed his life. They wanted his inspiration. I had an idea. If other guys could write essays and send them to me, I’d showcase their essays in my class and have students write to them, responding to their essays. Mimic the spirit of the literature festival. The guys were excited but scared, and like him, thought they didn’t know how to write for shit. He shared his journey and started mentoring them to write their own essays with their truths and their vulnerabilities. It was a hit with the students. Their feedback on the assignment was how much they learned about incarceration and how it humanized the way they think about “prisoners”, especially ones who went in for violent offenses. All the authors were doing lengthy sentences for violent crimes. I sent the post cards and letters from the students to the authors along with a thank you card for sharing their lives with us. They wrote me back with messages to the students of gratitude and hope. One guy told my loved one he quit abusing drugs because he felt like something opened up for him that set him free from his demons of the past. That’s the power of writing. That’s the power of voice.

My loved one’s essay was officially published at the end of February 2020. When the editor let me know, the virus crisis was hitting at all angles on campus. I have been too busy, too stressed, too worried, too anxious. I forgot to share the essay with you all as a celebration of the power of writing and voice. I hope you enjoy it. If you’d like to read the other inmates’ essays, leave a note and I’ll share a link.

The weight of my worries has been lifted for now. I am happy he is safe. I am happy to hear his voice on the phone. But mostly, I am happy he understands the power of his own voice.

“My Name is Chino” by Hoang Vu Tran

My Name is Chino

2 thoughts on “Prison Life in the Time of Coronavirus”

  1. Hi Thao,

    I am from Houston. I don’t know you but my cousin posted your writing or plea to help Vu after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I was very moved, so I posted the same writing on my Facebook page. Then I found out from a good friend that there are people that know you and vu and yalls family. I used to go to VBC church. I came years later so our paths never crossed. I am 33 years old.

    Anyway, just know that they are praying for you and him.

    I am also a medical doctor, and I am sadden to hear such horror in the prison setting…. I wish we would do better. Be better. Just to help people in general.

    I also read Vu’s essay- and to empathize with him in living day in and day out amongst the worst of humanity at times. I hope God’s peace and comfort and love surrounds him. Please let him know that his life was purposeful. And that he has touched many.

    May happiness be with you, two. And though this life is temporary, may you both find everlasting life later on. I believe in heaven and that God saves all who believe.

    Thank you for writing.


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