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At A New York Prison, Social Distancing 'Is Impossible,' Inmate Says

A guard tower and barbed wire fencing stand outside Sing Sing, in Ossining, N.Y.
A guard tower and barbed wire fencing stand outside Sing Sing, in Ossining, N.Y.

As a prisoner at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY, John J. Lennon has written about everything from mental health in the prison system, to fashion trends among inmates.

In his most recent story, published last month in Esquire, Lennon writes about the day the coronavirus arrived in Sing Sing. In it, Lennon described the "primitive" preventative health steps that inmates started taking — including sock-covered phones and nasal-spray bottles filled with bleach and water — after the prison registered its first confirmed coronavirus case.

State officials say measures like social distancing seem to be slowing the spread of COVID-19. But in prison, where social distancing is largely impossible, people are getting sick.

Earlier this month, state prison officials confirmed the first coronavirus-related death at Sing Sing. In an interview with Morning Edition, Lennon said it's only a matter of time before the rest of the inmates contract the virus.

"We're not at our so-called apex or crescendo here, because we're wrapped in a 30-foot wall," he said. "It took a while to get in. But now it's in."

Here are excerpts from the conversation, which you can listen to in full at the link above.

On whether social distancing is possible in Sing Sing

No, it's impossible. Social distancing, to the extent that you guys do it in society, is impossible to achieve in a place like Sing Sing and most prisons around the nation, I would say. The tier is like 2 feet wide. You literally have to like go chest-to-chest to slide by somebody.

On the health measures being taken in the prison

In terms of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment], so last week guards were approved to wear masks, but not prisoners. Last night, an announcement was made over the P.A. that said inmates are not allowed to cover their faces ... bars rattled and guys said, well, you can imagine what they said.

[ Editor's note: In a statement to NPR, New York's Department of Corrections said it will soon "issue an interim policy permitting incarcerated individuals to use their state-issued handkerchiefs to cover their mouths."]

Does the population have access to COVID-19 tests?

I don't know who's being tested. I think the short answer is not many people are being tested. Last report we got was seven incarcerated guys were tested positive and about 30 officers were tested positive. That was last week.

There are people who would say, as far as concern goes, we need to be concerned with people who aren't serving time for serious crimes.

You're talking about the pecking order that we all say we don't have. ... When those gurneys start pulling up to the hospitals from Sing Sing, I think we're all going to know where we are in the pecking order. It's a sobering realization. I think I've done pretty pretty OK for myself in the past 20 years I've been in prison. I was a lowlife when I came to prison. I got quite a future when I get out. I want to live.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 8, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
In the audio version of this story, we incorrectly say an inmate at Sing Sing Correctional Facility died this week. He died last week on March 30.