A recently released inmate looks at the effects of quarantine—and stigma

At 6:30 a.m. the bell rings in my cellblock. I swing my legs to the floor and think, F**k, I’m still in a cage. Going on 29 years with no hope of ever reentering the real world in sight, I’m now facing an invisible enemy that has no regard for human life—COVID-19.

I endure another standing count. I realize I’m considered nothing more than a prisoner identification number occupying space. I wonder when the misery of confinement will end. Perhaps it will be cut short by this potentially deadly virus, resulting in my passing without ever having a chance at redemption.

Nearly three decades ago, I committed a horrific crime. A robbery gone wrong resulted in felony murder and devastating grief for both a family and a community. My penalty was 50 years to life, a death-by-incarceration sentence. But now a clear and present danger had reared its ugly head and my fear of never applying my skills in a real world setting is almost tangible, especially considering I was diagnosed with HIV 35 years ago.

Living with HIV in prison is a challenge. Physical activity is regulated and inconvenient, which means it’s limited. Nutrition is subpar and insufficient. But the most frightening aspect is the stigma associated with the disease. 

Support for immunologically compromised prisoners is often ignored, and many of us are ostracized in prison. I am U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable), and I still get mixed reactions from my peers all the time. So when the first group of prisoners to be vaccinated included the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions including HIV, many HIV-positive men made false excuses to disguise why they were among them.

In the beginning, COVID-19 was taken mostly as a joke in this prison. After all, we lived in a communal setting. The occasional cough or sneeze was followed by a lighthearted “COVID!” exclamation by inmates and staff alike.

Then reality struck.

The virus’s spread was sporadic. There was a case in one cellblock, then another. Mask requirements were imposed. Eventually, the virus infected the B-Block housing unit, where 12 cases were confirmed. Inmates of varying age groups were infected. Some had mild symptoms, others required hospitalization. Known cases were immediately sent to quarantine units, but some people hid their illness and continued their jobs, including in food services. Visions of Typhoid Mary weren’t inconceivable. It’s almost impossible to practice social distancing in prison.

Soon, medical staff shut down B-Block entirely. Suiting up with gear that looked like something out of a science fiction movie, nursing staff descended on the cellblock and began taking temperatures. Potentially-infected inmates with symptoms were monitored for blood oxygen levels. All other inmates were confined to their cells. 

Over time, the infection rate abated and some restrictions were lifted just as in the outside world. A sense of normalcy returned as religious gatherings, programs, and college classes resumed. But how long will it be until we rid ourselves of this mutating threat completely?

Eight inmates at a time were allotted one-hour time slots for phone and kiosk use, showers, and recreation at any given time. Family reunion programs were put on hold along with visitation privileges. Inmate programs, including college and religious gatherings, were shut down.

As people came down with the coronavirus, unfair and uncompassionate labeling emerged along with the spread of the disease. People were referred to as being “sick” or having “the monster.” This was particularly painful for those with HIV who already accepted a certain level of disgrace. This kind of stigmatization, regardless of sexual identity, should not be tolerated in any class of society today. 

Over time, the infection rate abated and some restrictions were lifted just as in the outside world. A sense of normalcy returned as religious gatherings, programs, and college classes resumed. But how long will it be until we rid ourselves of this mutating threat completely?

It is now September. Governor Andrew Cuomo granted me clemency before he left office, and I’m expected to be released soon. But as I sit in my cell waiting for that day to arrive, I face the third wave of the virus—the delta variant. Although fully vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m playing Russian roulette with an undeniable foe every time I leave my cell. The fear is back.  

Robert Ehrenberg, 62, is a recent college graduate and holds an associate degree in humanities and a bachelor’s degree in social science. He was serving his sentence at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York before Governor Cuomo granted him clemency on August 23, 2021. He left prison on September 16. 

Ehrenberg wrote this article for Positively Aware through the Prison Journalism Project.

The Prison Journalism Project is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan national initiative training incarcerated writers and people affected by incarceration in the tools of journalism to help them reach a wide audience through the project’s publication and collaborations with other publications. The initiative believes that “the deep reforms that are necessary to fix the criminal justice system can only happen by shifting the narrative. Intentional, responsible, and well-crafted journalism from within the incarcerated community can break stereotypes, increase transparency, and drive change.” The project welcomes essays, articles, and poetry from first-time and experienced writers who are incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, family members, corrections officers, prison educators, and people involved in the criminal justice system or who are affected by the experience of prison or jail. Go to prisonjournalismproject.org for more information or write to PJP, 2093 Philadelphia Pike #1054, Claymont, DE 19703 to request a submissions information packet free of charge (do not send a SASE, as they cannot be processed).

A reader reaches out through the bars

I wanted to tell you how grateful I am to receive the September+October issue (The Basics: Living Your Best Life with HIV), so informative with topics I think about daily. Every article was amazing and well-worded. We don’t have access to the web to get information or enjoy the links. And the only way to receive information on being positive or having hepatitis is through the mail. There is no information being shared in prison and no support groups. We’re just in the dark on changes in the community. I’ve been a subscriber for well over 20 years, and I enjoy every issue like it’s the last. “Aging with HIV,” I think I will see a cure sooner than I thought when I was first diagnosed. I am U=U. And, I enjoyed “A Day With HIV” Positively Aware! Thank you.

—Reader in Houtzdale State Correctional Institution, St. Petersburg, Florida