SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Stay home, stay safe has been a mantra of the pandemic. That's not an option for people in prisons and jails. Correctional facilities are hot spots for COVID-19. Tens of thousands of incarcerated people have been infected, and hundreds have died. Robbie Pollock spent eight years in New York state prisons. Recently, he got a call from his old friend Moe Monsuri, who is serving time at Sing Sing - a maximum security prison in upstate New York where four people have died of COVID-19.
AUTOMATED VOICE: This call is subject to recording and monitoring...
MCCAMMON: Radio Diaries brings us their conversation as part of their Hunker Down Diaries series.
AUTOMATED VOICE: You may start the conversation now.
ROBERT POLLOCK: Hello? Hey.
MOHAMED MONSURI: Yeah, what's up? How are you?
POLLOCK: Good. Watching the world blow up. Quite honestly I've been thinking about you and everything that's been going on. How the hell are you getting through it?
MONSURI: Well, I was woken up this morning to an officer deliberately ringing the bell to round people up knowing that people in here are trying their best to restrain themselves.
POLLOCK: So how far apart are the phones in where you are?
MONSURI: Right now I'm probably about four feet away from someone, and there's no divider. We're outdoors, though, so that maybe helps. Most of the phones are in the yard, but they're not six feet apart, right? So now the new rule is you have to have a mask on when you're on the phone. But it's hard because if you wear a mask when you're on the phone, it muffles what you say.
POLLOCK: Let me ask you - do you remember exactly when you heard about the coronavirus for the first time?
MONSURI: Yeah. We heard it on the news, and we heard that, you know, oh, something's going on in the city. And mind you, the city is, like, 20 minutes away from here. March 14 is when they officially shut us down. And I remember because we were walking back from the library. And, you know, we're joking about it, and the officer behind us says, listen, man, you don't know how serious it is. Don't be surprised if things go sideways really fast. And as soon as we came into our block, lockdown. A week and a half later, one of the guys I was walking with dies.
POLLOCK: How did it all start? How did it play out? Like, things were normal, and then they weren't.
MONSURI: The first person who I knew who got sick was an older gentleman in my block. He's probably 40 feet away from my cell. This person has to be sent to a hospital and put on a respirator, and they were 40 feet away from my cell. So whatever got them sick, it's probably still here. And so there was fear. You're on instant high alert. But then I found out that my friend Carter (ph) died. And so it's like it doesn't stop. It's like this constant, evolving flower of [expletive] that keeps on just, like, here's a new bloom. Here's a new blossom. Here you go. Smell this. Smell that, you know?
POLLOCK: I feel like I would want to barricade my cell, like, legit from germs. How do you even do that?
MONSURI: You know, we're behind bars. We're not behind doors. You have to say, OK, well, I know that this blanket has got, like, a seven micron filter. But if I take, like, a sheet blanket and wrap it together, maybe any sneezes or coughs can be, like, pushed out and blocked. You know what I'm saying?
POLLOCK: I hear you.
MONSURI: I call it my cell mask.
POLLOCK: (Laughter) I'm sorry. It's not funny, but it sounds extreme. It's so crazy. Oh, my God.
MONSURI: And I say it, like, you know, jokingly. But it really is. You have to do your own contact tracing. You have to be able to understand who's around you, who's going to be sick around, who's potentially going to be sick around you, right? It's like you have to constantly, like, play three-dimensional chess. Like, dude you might be sick. Get away from me. Don't walk up on me. Don't even breathe my air. You know, it sounds crazy when we say that, but all the decorum of trying to, like, be respectful, there's, like, new rules for that.
POLLOCK: I think that's a big deal. I don't think people understand how hard it is to get culture inside prison to, like, move from here to there.
POLLOCK: Yeah. And everybody has, like, a vested interest in this change.
MONSURI: Yeah because, you know, you want to stay alive. So this is the new reality. The new reality is now you can walk around with masks. No one ever thought that's going to be a thing, where you're going to be walking around with face masks.
POLLOCK: I hear you.
MONSURI: This is when being an introvert, not being a social person, might actually help. In this environment, at the very least, it might keep you alive.
POLLOCK: Oh, man.
AUTOMATED VOICE: You have one minute left.
POLLOCK: Oh, my God.
MONSURI: Listen; I'm going to ask you for a favor because all we have to do in here - all we can do right now is just stay in our cells, maybe watch a little bit of TV and read. I need you to send me a book.
POLLOCK: Send you a book. I know which one already to send.
MONSURI: All right.
POLLOCK: All right. I love you, bro.
MONSURI: All right, brother. Stay safe out there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LO MOON SONG, "LOVELESS")
MCCAMMON: Robbie Pollock lives in New York City and manages the Prison Writing Program at PEN America. Moe Monsuri is incarcerated at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where he's serving a 25-year sentence for attempted murder. He wrote an essay about his experience of the pandemic in prison, which you can read at npr.org. This story was produced by Daniel Gross for the series Hunker Down Diaries. You can hear more stories from the series on the Radio Diaries podcast.
(SOUNDBITE OF LO MOON SONG, "LOVELESS")
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