By Antwann J, Missouri

For A Worthy Cause

My name is Antwan, and this is my personal experience with the COVID-19 pandemic while incarcerated. To be perfectly honest with you, what I’ve witnessed through my eyes has changed my life forever. This is my story. On October 16, 2020, my day started as any other day. I was preparing to check in on my patient to begin my daily activities as a DLA (Daily Living Assistant), But all of that would change when I was approached by the Housing Unit FUM (Functional Unit Manager) who asked me if I would be willing to live in the Medical TCU Unit to assist the nurses and medical personnel who cared for inmates that had contracted COVID-19 and were severely ill and dying.

At first, I felt reluctant because this virus was still a mystery to us all. Shortly after that conversation with the FUM, I was confronted with terrible news. I was informed that my cousin and two of my close friends had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. It was at this point that a sense of fear came over me. One of the biggest reasons that I decided to go to the TCU Unit was so that I would be able to face and confront my greatest fear, which is dying alone. I’ve seen firsthand how many inmate patients don’t have any family or people who care about their wellbeing. It would be two inmate patients that I grew close to while they were battling COVID-19 who had a bittersweet ending that would ultimately give me the strength to continue fighting. For this worthy cause.

One of the patients I helped to care for was Stanley, who was 64 years old and had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and pneumonia. He was in such bad shape that the outside hospital sent him back to the facility and said he would not make it because his lungs were severely damaged. As he lay in his bed, I just stared at him and imagined that it was me lying in that bed fighting for my life. As time went on, we became close, and I did all I could to assist the nurses with getting Stanley’s health back to where it once was. He thanked us all because he knew his condition was bad and we were doing our best to keep him alive. He told me he didn’t have any family or friends, so I took it upon myself to care for him as if he were my own family.

Around this time, we also received George into the TCU unit. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This was a death sentence for him. Stanley knew that I had a passion for helping others, so he did not feel neglected or alone while I was aiding George. George was a fighter. Just as with Stanley, George and I became close, and there were times when George would not allow the custody staff to touch him unless I was present. You would have to be here to truly experience the joy these patients bring to our medical team and vice-versa. We’re a big family that relies on each other for strength and support, and we have the most extensive prison medical facility in Missouri.

Each nurse personnel plays a pivotal role in making this unit function, but the hospice workers give compassion for human lives its true meaning. There would be times when George would make us laugh, and there were times, as we all knew, where there would be tears. While we were experiencing the outbreak of COVID-19, there were a total of 25 patients who had contracted the virus assigned to the medical TCU Unit and 8 deaths due to complications with the illness. There were countless more inmates in the general population of the prison who had COVID-19 as well. The primary purpose for all 4 of us inmates selected to live in the medical unit was to help prevent any cross-contamination or spread of the virus as much as possible. We gave up everything to assist the staff. For me, someone who is trying to prove my innocence regarding a false conviction for a murder that I did not commit, it was tough not being able to go to the law library. I also missed going to the gym and simply being outdoors enjoying the company of friends. But again, I knew these inmates were relying on us for help, so I had to be selfless and look at the bigger picture.

There were times when things were so chaotic that nurses wanted to just walk off the job, and we, four hospice porters, were losing hope in this fight. I know that just staring down at a lifeless body did something to us all emotionally. There would be times when the power from the generator would go out, and we would sit in the still darkness, quiet, listening to the halls, wondering when we would hear our names being called for assistance. There was one pivotal moment where I found myself questioning life itself, and that’s when I spent time with one of the COVID-19 inmate patients. What he said to me still lives in my thoughts. He said, “Goldie (my nickname), it’s funny how cruel life can be, huh?” I responded, “What do you mean?” He replied, “I never smoked in my life, but I’m dying from lung cancer, and I have COVID-19.” Then he said, “It’s ok because I know I don’t have long. But I want to know, Goldie, why do you do this work?” My response was, “Because I hope that if I’m ever in your situation, someone would be there by my side in my time of need” Two weeks later, he would be dead. During the rougher times, I stepped into an empty cell for a few moments because I had to pull myself together mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If I told you I wasn’t affected by the death of another human, especially the one I’d grown close to under these circumstances, I’d be lying. I honestly have a newfound respect for all healthcare workers. While I have been a hospice porter working alongside medical personnel, I feel like a real human being, not just some worthless criminal. This is the first time I have felt like this in my 24 years of incarceration. But the question I ask is, who cares enough to feel and see my pain through these eyes?

It’s hard to hold back the tears as I think about all of the work we have done but how we’ve received little to no recognition for our help and support from the prison officials who are higher up. I’ve witnessed firsthand how this virus attacks the body without regard for human life. When we all worked together to give George the best care, we were lucky if we even got 5 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, nothing could prepare me for that day and hour when one of the hospice porters woke me as I was getting some rest and informed me that George was no longer with us. I rushed to my feet so that I could begin the process of notifying his family, but it was another inmate by the name of whose words reverberated through my mind. Donnie, and even C.0.1 Dieckman, asked me if I was alright because they both knew that George and I had grown close.

Being a hospice porter has been a rough journey, and it has humbled me. There were many times when I felt lost, confused, and couldn’t process the loss of the other patients we had. Only a few nurses witnessed how these deaths impacted us. For us four porters, it brought us closer together. The fact that we put others’ lives before our own convinces me of how compassionate we are; but the mere fact that Ralph and Limbo were my two friends that initially caught the virus first, but they came back to work to help others know that they could contract this deadly virus again and die, gave me the strength to say, “Against the odds, for a worthy cause”.