Fred Williams on Dying for Six Feet of Distance

April 26, 2020. People are dying in prison; good-natured incarcerated men and women are dying. People who could have successfully completed the terms of parole a long time ago. People who could have by now been in the nursing field, bus drivers, or even factory workers, producing masks. These men are sick and not being treated adequately; I’m not surprised because whoever gave prison health services credit for being “adequate”?

I know a man named Durr Bey, who has served over 30 years straight in Michigan’s prison system. Durr Bey happens to be one of the most humble, giving, thoughtful, honest, accountable men you’ll ever meet. Durr Bey and his brother, who is also imprisoned, are both sick with Covid-19. The point that won’t allow my mind to rest is, how useful Durr Bey could be to a lot of people in the free world. The impact he has had on people’s lives in here is the biggest indication that he’s ready for freedom; what more can society ask of a responsible man – who wants to contribute to the communities positively he’s harmed in the past. What sense does it make to allow him to die in prison from a ruthless virus and a malfunctioning prison health care system that is not prepared to treat his or his brother’s illnesses?

These guys could have been paroled ages ago. These guys should not have been sentenced to 40 years in the first place. 40 years! That’s cruel. But it also shows you the business importance of incarcerated men and women. The lengthy sentences would seem illogical to someone who’s not business-minded. One thing I wish society could rage about is that those lengthy sentences are inherently loaded with proof of the prison system’s inefficient attempts at prisoner rehabilitation. With the right services, programs, psychological help, emotional and mental support, employment readiness, how long does it take to rehabilitate one who has no priors, commits a robbery, and gets 40-60 in prison? The efforts towards prisoner rehabilitation could tip the scales of our society. The number of incarcerated men and women who are subject to suffer near-death sickness and death as a result of the Covid-19 sickness is astronomical! Meaning the number of incarcerated men and women is far too high for a first world powerful country like America. We all know it. The problem is the people with the power actually to change the prison experience are fine with the mode of operation. Otherwise, things would be different, right?

When has prison ever been known for its effectiveness with rehabilitation? I must say the ones who take rehabilitation into their own hands are the special ones. They deserve a second chance. The ones who, despite all odds, find ways to transform their thinking and behavior from that of criminality and instant gratification to that of purpose and patience, these men should not be suffering to death from Covid-19 in an overcrowded prison cell begging for medical attention. Unable to see and speak to family and friends.

Yes, the nurses and doctors are superhuman. The nurses and doctors that come into a prison during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic are, in fact, alien creatures. How else do you explain people who risk their own lives for others’ lives to go on and wearing a smile while doing it? They aren’t just risking their lives for wealthy, racial favorite, powerful people, they are helping men who’ve been convicted of rape, murder, child abuse, animal cruelty, etc. The condemned, the irredeemable, and the nurses treat us fairly. It’s not their fault they don’t have adequate equipment to treat prisoners sick from Covid-19. I came down with flu-like symptoms approximately a week after the Covid-19 made breaking news. The nurses treated me as fairly as I could ask for, and I’m grateful enough to write about them. Hopefully, one day they’ll read this.

Police officers have been struck hard as well, out there trying to protect and serve. (Some of them). Being in prison, being from the ghettos of Detroit, we have deep-rooted disdain for the boys in blue. To the extent that you’ll hear and see people openly express their hate for the cops. Some people were insensitive enough to make humor of the officers who died from Covid-19. I don’t mean to sound judgemental because I was once foolish enough to share such sentiments. I’ve matured a great deal, to say the least. The officers are enforcing the stay at home directive from the government as their duty, also to save lives. My friends are not adherents to authority, even when their own lives and families lives are at stake. But what needs to be spotted is the long-ago displacement of the value for human life. People in my downtrodden community of zip code 48204 Detroit and ones like it have been desensitized to the loss of life, to the fear of danger, and to community solidarity. We have been seeing boarded-up houses and abandoned school buildings. People around us, family, and friends have been dying early for generations. We have been experiencing violent deaths for a long time. We have been breaking the law for a long time. These issues play a role in the carelessness we see among people in the ghetto as it relates to the Covid-19 virus. People are conducting their everyday lives as if nothing is different, meanwhile obviously harming others and themselves. It’s not going to change overnight, so I bring to discussion not necessarily a critique of the urban ghetto inhabitants, but the starting point for restoring sensitivities for valuing human life. We need lessons in compassion and empathy. We need to be aware of victimhood. Before we can expect people to give a damn about Covid-19, we have to do some serious reprogramming. What sense does it make to stay in the house, so I don’t harm myself or harm someone else, when as soon as the stay at home order is lifted I go out and do a drive-by shooting, killing bystanders and “enemies” alike, in turn losing my own life to the state-imposed death penalty. We have to be reasonable here. Why would someone fear dying from Covid-19 if they don’t fear dying from a bullet? I know people by the masses who demonstrate with their actions that they do not fear death, and do not care about others dying. This is a reality that needs to be addressed.

As far as six feet of distance, I have been dying for six feet of distance from my cellmates for 19 years! I yearn for distance from my cellmates. Unfortunately, it is literally impossible for a prisoner in Michigan to separate himself by six feet when his cell is barely five by nine. If my cellmate were to fall sick with Covid-19, I would be doomed! If my next-door neighbor catches Covid-19, I would be doomed. If anyone on my block catches the Virus, I am doomed! I live with the distress every day.

Text and artwork by Fred Williams.

Fred Williams is a poet, scholar, and abolitionist. He is an emancipatory educator and organizer in every prison in which he is condemned to reside.