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People at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, in 2016.
Life Inside

“Covid Breached the Wall and Killed A Man Yesterday”

Trying to stay alive in Sing Sing.

It’s late March, and I am at my table on Sing Sing’s A-block yard. I want to call my wife, but I am wary of being in a caged area, shoulder to shoulder with 23 other guys on the phone. I have my bleach and water concoction in a little earwax remover bottle and stack of paper towels in my pocket, ready to wipe the receiver. A paper towel covers my mouth. A big rubber band wraps around my ears, keeping it in place. Rubber gloves are on my hands. My buddy, a porter back in the cell block, provided me with the PPE.

This piece was published in collaboration with The Atlantic.

Guards have just gotten the okay to wear masks. But we still haven’t. Yet guys cover their faces with cut off t-shirt sleeves, scarves, handkerchiefs, whatever they can. How I see it, guards should have started wearing masks back in mid-March when visitation and volunteer programs were canceled in all New York prisons. At that point, they were the only ones who could have brought in the virus.

It doesn’t matter now. Covid breached the wall and killed a man yesterday.

Bobby, who boils with rage, reminds me of a younger version of myself. He tells me the guy who died had lived a few cells down from him and went to the clinic with fever a week before. How old was the guy? Forties, maybe 50s. This worries me. But fuck the guy, Bobby says, he was a rapist. This irks me. I told him to cut it out. He did.

We have a pecking order in prison, much like you have one in society. We’re more open about ours, though. Sexual predators are at the bottom. But the more I thought about this guy, how he died—someone told me he was gasping for air—the more I felt for him. My cell TV plays Covid news ad nauseum about the packed hospitals and limited ventilators. The stakes are high. Doctors are having to make decisions about who lives and who dies. When we pull up to the surrounding hospitals, doctors will only see a criminal on a gurney. They won’t know what we did. So we’re all in this together, at the bottom of the pecking order.

I’m one of nearly 150,000 state prisoners in the U.S. over the age of 55. Before this pandemic, I had hope for the first time in a long time. I received a visit from members of the New York RAPP campaign which stands for Release Aging People in Prison. They told me legislators were seriously considering a bill that would allow elderly incarcerated people who had served at least 15 years to automatically appear before a parole board. I’d be eligible. It was a breath of life. Then came Covid. The bill is shelved for now, and my hope turned to fear.

I am in my 60s now, and I have been in prison nearly 30 years. I am in for attempted robbery with attempted aggravated assault. Translation: In 1992, I pulled a heist that spilled out onto a Brooklyn street. Nobody was physically harmed, unless you count the two bullets I took from the cops while trying to get away. No doubt, I was a hoodlum.

I was raised in South Brooklyn. When I was 7, I saw a man in a car who I thought was sleeping. When I got closer I could see he was shot in the head, dead. I had a bunch of energy as a kid and a tough time concentrating. But I loved watching Westerns and daydreaming about being an outlaw. I’d dress up as a bandit, had the belt, chaps, two silver .45 revolvers, handkerchief covering my face. I’d hang out in front of my father’s candy store, pull out the revolvers, twirl them and tell the people walking by, “Get out of town before sundown.”

I soon started cutting school and hung out with a crew of tough kids. I went to juvie, toughened up some more. Then I got out and got into more trouble. Grownups in the neighborhood would tell me I would wind up dead. My two younger brothers did wind up getting murdered. I figured I'd soon follow. Living fast, pulling heists—that was “the life,” my life. I did a couple prison stints before the big job in 1992 that landed me in here for the duration.

When you get sentenced to life in prison, it’s hard to find purpose. Anyone who challenged me, I took head on. Earlier in my bid, I had a fight with an officer. Punching. Kicking. Biting. All rage. I received 11 broken bones and 30 more years. In here, men respect what society rejects. They respected me taking on the squad, fighting and fearless. Over the years, I have calmed. Aged out, as they say.

Today I work as an aide on a mental health unit for soon to be released men. They suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. It’s hard for them to cope in this environment, especially with the added stress of Covid. Programs have been halted, which means they have been in their cells, isolated, which isn’t good for them. Their cells are on the adjoining tier from me, behind a gate. They seem more concerned with smoking cigarettes than Covid. One smokes half, then passes it off, which ain’t good these days. I give them cigarettes and tell them not to do this because they’ll spread Covid. (I don’t smoke, but cigarettes are currency, so I keep a stash.)

Back in the yard, I finish using the phone. I huddle around the receiver, arm wrapping my face to protect me from the others talking nearby. My wife says she is healthy and safe and alone in her nice home, and tells me she’s worried and misses me. I tell her I’ll be fine, she doesn’t need to worry. All these years, I believed that when I said it to her. But I don’t know if I believe it now.

I walk back to the table. Two guards stand by their shack, wearing masks and gloves. A TV by the bleachers plays a commercial on CBS. Famous people say, “We’re all in this together.” I approach a few of the fellows, strap another paper towel over my face. Bobby tells me he feels like he’s getting sick. He’s congested and feels crappy, but no fever. I tell him that he’s young and strong, and even if it’s Covid, he’ll be ok. I tell him this at a distance.

John J. Lennon’s interviews with Caroselli, who was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison in 1993 after an attempted robbery and shoot-out with police, were conducted the week of March 30, in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. As of April 13, three people incarcerated in New York state prisons had died from COVID-19, and 139 had tested positive for the virus, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Among staff, 581 people had tested positive, and one had died.

According to DOCCS, effective April 9, staff will be provided a face mask to wear while on duty, and incarcerated people subject to quarantine will be issued a “surgical-type mask.” Other prisoners can now use state-issued handkerchiefs as masks.

Lennon is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project, a contributing editor at Esquire and hosts the podcast, “This is a Collect Call from Sing Sing.

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John J. Lennon Email John J. Lennon is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and a contributing editor for Esquire. He is currently incarcerated in Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York.