The Threat of the Virus

The fight with COVID in prison is not only physical but mental as well

By Will

Dead three times. Blown up. Three plane crashes. Ninety-one firefights. Shot, stabbed, run over, 115 para jumps, hundreds of hand-to-hand encounters. Drowned. A 7.62 mm attack at 2,500 feet per second, a “tango” 20 feet in three seconds, and a virus at three feet per second.


You can’t see the damned thing. Direct engagement is impossible. Skill is nullified; luck amplified. Luck is neither offensive or defensive. It’s frustrating and familiar.

The Oregon State Penitentiary hides 2,100 men from the public, men who cannot hide from the virus. Isolation is not sustainable. The shared breaths of line standers, shower sharers and mess hall sitters become the unbrushed wind of 2,100 cell-blocked men.

I am not accustomed to helplessness. I hide it. Fifteen clients and PTSD survivors depend on me. I am a mental health worker. Minds are my mission. I observe anger, fear, violence, withdrawal and frustration. I listen to the unimaginable and ask (quietly), why? I offer calm, stability and presence. Interesting work, suffering clients, challenging environment. 

Introduce COVID-19.

John believes that he is protected against the virus because of his close relationship with President Donald Trump. He believes masks are disloyal.

Jamal is a member of the prison population which is rejected. His mental health issues are compounded by his past street experiences. I don’t know his life and never will, but I am interested. He talks; I listen. It helps.

Alex is a gang member, macho, arrogant, uneducated and usually unapproachable by an “outsider.” I am an outsider. His buddies cannot know that we talk. One day he attacked me. I hugged him until he calmed down. An introduction to empathy.

The threat of the virus exacerbates all underlying thought processes and belief systems. It triggers. It inflames. It is not merely about physical health. It is about mental health. I understand the present. It is the only reality. I don’t understand what the present will look like when it becomes the past.

Will, an 80-year-old Vietnam vet and mental health worker, is serving a life sentence at Oregon State Penitentiary. He is a member of Lauren Kessler’s writing group.

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