Mass incarceration is a well-known problem in this country that COVID-19 has only exacerbated and exposed further. As of October, 7th 2020, the date of publication, there have been approximately 7.6 million confirmed cases and over 215,000 deaths in the United States. Incarcerated people have been hit particularly hard by this infectious disease, with nearly 160,000 incarcerated people and staff having been infected and at least 1,002 having died.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “The five largest outbreaks in the country are linked to correctional facilities, including Marion Correctional Institution, with 2,443 cases, Miami-Dade County Jail, with 2,099 cases, and Ohio’s Pickaway Correctional Institution, with 1,791 cases.” Although there have been numerous reports on COVID-19’s impact on prisons throughout America, some incarcerated persons are using social media to shed light on their own experiences and the experiences of others.
This is the case with the Twitter account @RailroadedUnderground. A reference to Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad — the avatar for the account features an image of the famed abolitionist — the account, which was created in April of this year, is described as the following by its anonymous creator: “Freedom fighter. Incarcerated human being reporting from inside of a prison with a contraband cell phone. Trapped in a petri dish.”
Since then, @RailroadedUnderground has offered firsthand accounts of how they and other incarcerated people are dealing with COVID-19. From images showing the food they’re being fed to the mental harm isolation is causing them, @RailroadedUnderground shows all that is wrong with this country’s prison system. Okayplayer spoke with the person behind @RailroadedUnderground in two separate interviews — the first conducted in July and the second in September — about being an incarcerated person while battling COVID-19, their thoughts on prison abolition, the call to defund the police, and what it’s like being in possession of one of the most smuggled items in prison — a cell phone.
For security and privacy reasons, the identity of @RailroadedUnderground and the location of where they’re serving out their sentence will remain anonymous.
How long have you been serving your sentence at the prison you’re currently housed, and what was your experience like before COVID-19?
I’ve been here for over three years now. Before COVID-19, this was known as the “Harvard of prisons.” I came from a different prison and fought tooth and nail to get transferred here, because of all the programming available and all the opportunities. This was a programming mecca — like, you came here to change your life. People were going home by the droves, people were getting into the media, people were creating careers and futures. They had thousands of volunteers coming every single day — like, people from the outside. That’s how it was described to me and that’s how I’m gonna describe it to you because I completely agree. They said that where I’m currently serving time is the closest that you’ll get to freedom in prison. That’s what it was like before COVID-19 hit.
Can you describe the prison conditions once the first positive COVID-19 case was confirmed there? How different has your perspective changed in such a short amount of time?
Before a single positive case even came — when we first went on lockdown around late March — there was already a sense of hopelessness. When we got put on lockdown, immediately we were on 23 to 24 hour lockdown, meaning that on certain days you got to go shower or jump on the payphone. And all programs were shut down. No more college, no more rehabilitation program, nothing. Just slammed into your cell. So, when that happened, we knew. We were like, “It’s not gonna be if, it’s gonna be when.”
There are over 20 people that died here already. One of my close friends died here, and I just got news that my friend died the other day, like probably two days ago. These aren’t anonymous faces that are passing away behind bars. These are people that I know and it’s soul crushing.
What type of healthcare treatment were inmates afforded prior to the pandemic?
People were filing medical forms or saying, “Hey, I’m sick. I don’t feel well” and, for whatever reason, getting a response only about half the time. This is before a single positive case was even here. So, people are already getting horrible medical care and everything was already prolonged. So, the medical here was already bad.
How serious is the prison staff taking the COVID-19 outbreak and are they taking any type of prevention methods?
Honestly, I feel they’re in a big hurry to find a way to keep people in prison. I feel like their main concern is, “How do we do the bare minimum, so we don’t have to release people?” They’ve created multiple alternative bedding sites. They turned a gym into a dorm; they put tents onto the yard and then tore down some tents, and then put up bigger tents to house more people. They turned our prison factory into a dorm; they turned our protestant chapel into a dorm. They turned our adjustment center — which is the hole for people on death row — into a medical quarantine dorm.
They’re doing everything they can to create alternative housing so they don’t have to release people. When the medical professionals came and checked out the prison they said, “The only way you’re gonna be able to contain this virus is if you reduce the population by 50 percent,” and the prison refuses to do that.
So, they’re doing everything they can to juggle sick bodies so they don’t have to release people. In regards to our health and our wellness and whether we survive or what our mental health is, I don’t feel that’s a priority at all because 22 people have died and there’s over 50 people at outside hospitals right now. I have another friend that’s in critical condition and I don’t know if they’re gonna make it or not, and that’s not a priority to these people.
Can you describe to me what it was like when you tested positive for the virus yourself?
So, actually, I didn’t even test positive. We still had to shower together. We still had to do everything together. Like, sick or not sick. Both of my neighbors have a COVID-19 positive cellie and they’re not positive. So, we weren’t being separated and I ended up getting sick after I tested negative. At first, I was showing mild symptoms. My stomach was hurting a little bit and I was having mild headaches. But after a week I started having blinding headaches. Like, I couldn’t even open my eyes. I started throwing up. I started sweating. I was having the chills — I’m super hot, then cold. I had these symptoms for over two weeks and I’m barely starting to feel a little bit better, but it was a depressing time. I knew I was trapped in a cage and that they didn’t care about my life. They didn’t care that no matter how much work I’ve done to rehabilitate myself, how long I’ve been in prison already and how ready I am to come home, they would rather continue to profit off my body than release me to my family. I think that was the part that hurt me the most. I feel like my soul was hurt more than I was physically hurt when I caught COVID because it made me realize how little value my life had.
What would you like to see be done by lawmakers that would promote a safer environment and better living conditions within the prison?
I would like to see them listen to the medical professionals who came into this place and said that you have to reduce the population by 50 percent. I would like to see them follow science and not politics, and value human lives over politics. I would like to see them make a law where they would at least safely release the thousands of people who have done the work, violent offender or not. Because right now, there’s this whole separation of non-violent and violent, and I would like to see legislation where they’re willing to review everybody’s case upon their merits and not upon the crime that they committed.
As someone that’s been incarcerated for some time, what would you say your position is on prison abolition?
I’m definitely in support of it. One thing I recognize is that when people commit crimes or cause harm, the looming question is “Where do they go?” I want to see things put into place that nurture our community and promote recovery and healing. In the book Until we Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair by Danielle Sered, the author speaks of effective solutions to this issue. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it. If the discussion could take a few more steps forward focusing on alternative solutions, then I feel like we would have a stronger argument toward complete prison abolition.
That makes sense. How do you feel about the call to defund the police?
Well, I’m absolutely for it. I don’t know what more I can say besides I’m absolutely for it. When it comes to defunding the police, we have to be solutions-oriented and highlight what type of service will be created. For example, first responder teams with mental health training and experience. We need to start implementing it in order to see a change. We should not stop at defunding the police but instead look at the other branches, which are correctional officers and ICE agents. Correctional officers have been told to now wear body cameras after situations of misconduct on behalf of the prison were reported. There is definitely a larger conversation to be had. It should be “Defund law enforcement.”
How important is it for an incarcerated person to have a cell phone, and is it difficult to get one?
In prison, the saying goes, “If you don’t have a cell phone, then you’re doing hard time.” That’s how much of a lifeline it is. It is absolutely essential. That’s how I stay connected to my family. The reason I decided to change is because I love my family so much. They were my motivation. They were the ones that loved and supported me during this entire experience. They would drive six hours to come see me and we’d talk about our childhood traumas — you know, just being there for each other. Family is the most comforting thing to me. When we talk about defunding prisons, one of the steps to get there should be allowing incarcerated people access to using cell phones, even if it’s limited. There are many inside that I know of, and the only way for them to be present with their child is through a cell phone. As far as if it’s difficult or not to get one all depends on the prison. Every prison is different.
Talk to me about how other incarcerated people come to you about using your cell phone, and the dangers involved if you were to be discovered?
OK, so only my close circle of friends — maybe about 5 to 10 people — know that I have a cell phone. Any requests they have, it’s no problem at all. But of course, it’s very risky to take it out. Mainly, the requests are to send a message, or they’ll ask if there’s any news they need to know about — laws on the horizon that may help some people’s cases for release, stuff like that. For me, it’s the look on their faces. There’s a sense of desperation. I mean, there’s no other way they can reach their families. All I can say is family is in fact a huge part of rehabilitation, especially in prison.
So, out of the years you’ve been incarcerated, how many years have you been in a possession of a cell phone and how do you charge it?
I would say out of the near-decade I’ve been in prison, I’ve had a phone on my possession for about two years. And, I mean, that’s not the entire time. I’ll have one for six months, lose it; another for eight, lose it; and another for three weeks, lose it. But just like on the outside, when you buy a phone it comes with a charger and our cells have electric plugs.
What advice would you give to other incarcerated people currently experiencing hardships due to the pandemic and COVID-19?
I would tell them to not allow this to be a waste of time. Regardless of how limited we are being locked into a cell, I encourage them to maximize their time. Do not allow the system to take away their lives — work on your craft, whatever it is you’re good at. I would just encourage them to make the most of their time regardless of how limited it is. This too shall pass.
Tahir Asad is an Associated Press award-winning & Emmy-nominated Journalist, International Documentarian & Educator. The Philadelphia (City of Brotherly Love) native is a 2012 graduate of Florida A&M University’s (FAMU) School of Journalism & Graphic Communication (SJGC). Tahir is also the Creative Director for his freelance production company: Virtuous Lion Productions, LLC.
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