Writer Karim Diggs posing in a worn, black and white photograph.
Karim has been incarcerated for 45 years in Pennsylvania prisons. He is an acclaimed legal prison scholar who has helped many prisoners find freedom in case appeals. He wrote about #BLM in August.

Death Knocking on My Cell Door

Incarcerated writer, Karim Diggs, writes about the death he witnessed while surviving over a year of covid in prison

Covid-19 drastically changed the community I exist in called state prison. The prison closed for a full lockdown in March 2020. There were no visits, phone calls or eating in the dining hall. Guards brought our meals to the cell. I stood at the door to receive my food tray through the small hatch. Sometimes the food didn’t come. Other times we were given extra food and snacks. While the TV news played out horrifying information of fear and blame toward China, I worried how all the negative rhetoric would affect my health and sanity.

The first week of the pandemic, an elderly man who befriended me several months before March was the first person I knew to die with covid. My friend was 74 years old. He had a heart condition, pain in his legs that kept him wheelchair bound and medical breathing issues. I advised him to tell his attorney to file a court petition for medical release from prison based on his poor health and age. He was serving a two to four year sentence for a domestic argument and a gun in the house. My friend was wealthy due to a successful auto repair business. His petition for release was granted, and he was waiting for the paperwork to process. But when the prison shut down, every aspect of the system slowed down too. He was rushed to the hospital where he died.

He died from neglect, and a system blind to the common humanity of people in captivity. I realized something was amiss and would continue to happen. My understanding increased that old systems such as the prison industrial complex, die hard and at the expense of people’s lives. I know 11 men in prison who had lost their lives to covid since the pandemic.

Slavery ended, the denial of the right to vote for women ended, and it is time to end these massive institutions of death. The deaths started to happen within the prison.

Everyday, I heard of men going to the community hospital. Some recovered, but others didn’t. The men who died were those serving life sentences without parole. There is no parole for us in Pennsylvania with these sentences, and all of us lifers fear dying in prison alone in an isolation cell. Dead with no opportunity to show the world that men of all colors make bad decisions when they are young and reckless, and that we have innate powers that allow us to become people of character and trust.

That opportunity vanished for those eliminated by covid. Within my own heart, I questioned whether covid creates the medical agony and the stress that attacks the body and causes death or is it the system that prevents us from becoming changed people who receive second chances. While watching the news stations, mainly CNN, the dreadfulness of being helpless and unable to address my fears of catching the virus made solitary confinement more stressful than usual.

I noticed nothing was mentioned about how prisoners were being treated. Whenever someone attempted to suggest prisoners are in need of protection from covid, the conversation was cut off and turned toward another segment of society. I grew afraid that the pandemic would empower those with the ability to inflict distress on prisoners to make prison even worse.

Even though the news featured voices saying that our natural immune systems could beat the virus, I knew they were wrong. I was seeing death constantly. My worry grew not just for those of us in the prison system but for the regular citizens of the world.

Masks were given out. I had to ask for an extra mask and was granted one. Block workers wiped down the telephones and showers multiple times a day with disinfectant. The floors were mopped several times each day. I must admit SCI Phoenix was doing all they could. The prison TV station ran daily and weekly warnings with updates. The administration even released a weekly newsletter which included the names of those who died and suggestions to follow to protect ourselves.

People continued to die as the months wore on. I knew every single one of them: mostly life-term prisoners. The cloud of worry grew heavier because they were me. I am an elderly prisoner, 70-years-old. To date, I do not have any underlying illnesses that would land me on the increased covid risk list. I felt each and every death as a person who did not need to die. The roller coaster of lockdown just got rougher.

Whenever covid broke out in our prison that specific housing unit went on an airtight lockdown. I went on lockdown at least a total of five times. Each lockdown lasted 5-10 days without any yard time, no phone calls, emails or showers. All medicine and food is delivered to your 9.5 x 12 cell. After a week or two, the restrictions loosen. When lockdown lifts, I have 45 minutes out of my cell with seven other men. Every other day, I get 45 min of outside yard time.

Covid brought many elements of the system and my humanity into close examination. I was given a cell partner to share my cell for the first time in decades. The cell is a bathroom sized place where I read, sleep, exercise, pray and watch TV – and hope that one day my door opens to my freedom. One day I had dizzy spells and almost passed out. I was taken to the outside hospital. They diagnosed me with vertigo. I appreciate and respect the medical care I received under this pandemic.

The mental rub comes from the way I had to get it: handcuffed around my wrists, ankles and waist as if I was some wild beast ready to jump on any human being. While in the hospital cuffed to the bed, one wrist and ankle is left free from the bed frame. Two or three prison guards with weapons stand watch 24 hours a day. In all my life, it is one of the most dehumanizing positions I have ever experienced.

I laid in the wonderful hospital bed, thinking of the many women who I read were pregnant while in prison and had to endure the same treatment of shackling like they were the “number one enemy.” I asked myself, “All of this wasted human energy, wealth and time just to show a massive force?”

People sentenced to prison or pre-trial custody remain human beings. The prison systems remain enslaved to a primitive and punitive 15th and 16th century model of inflicting pain and injury to the psychological stability of women and men. Security and maintaining control has served no good purpose except to create more police authority and repression of the human right to breathe as a person. All the prisons are being used to suffocate human development. Covid enhanced the punitive aspect of sentencing.

In America, sentencing is supposed to represent punishment, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. These four elements are meant to remake the human being so that person can witness their own wicked ways and return to society as a productive person.

We’ve been made to believe that the system is not set up to meet the pandemic. This is false because systems are made up of men. The solution and intelligent way to combat covid is releasing incarcerated women and men in federal and state prisons and jails. This would keep the virus out of the prison systems.

Prisoners didn’t spread or create covid. Many of us have been locked out of society for decades, some as long as 30 years. We have not been sentenced to death. If so, we should have been executed decades ago. Yet we are now facing a death sentence amid the pandemic.

Covid is another dreadful reality where people in prison who are not considered full citizens of civil society remain in spiteful conditions. Even when death knocks at each of our steel doors, our lives are of no concern to the greatest nation ever on earth.

Writer Karim Diggs posing in a worn, black and white photograph.
Karim Diggs
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