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Isolation "tent city" set up on the grounds of the Folsom Prison in California in response to a coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Getty Images)

Isolation "tent city" set up on the grounds of the Folsom Prison in California in response to a coronavirus outbreak. (Photo: Getty Images)

I Survived Covid-19 at Folsom State Prison

A story of unaccountable action, negligence, deliberate indifference, and deception

Ifoma Modibo Kambon

I am a survivor the terrible disease of Covid-19 at Folsom State Prison. I am a survivor of the terrible negligence and deliberate indifference of individuals responsible for my care. This experience reaffirmed for me that our lives simply don’t matter. I am one of the voices and numbers assigned to a cage, a cot, a shelf, in my human warehouse. My legal name is Daryel Burnett. My California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDCR) number is B60892. My physical body has been imprisoned for 46 years. But my spirit is strong, free, and resilient. I too laugh, smile, feel, care, and love. I hold a profound respect for humanity. I am a father, son, brother, uncle, nephew, and friend. I dare to challenge people outside these walls to see and judge me through a humanistic prism. 

How did this event occur? Previously at Folsom, different buildings were quarantined and isolated as a result of a staff person testing positive. But this time it was different. People said that a staff person who had worked at San Quentin was the host for the spread of the virus. That staff person was released into the general population. 

It is easy to give the excuse that custodial and medical staff did the best they could do under the circumstances. But I beg to differ. Days before the outbreak became huge, prisoners were complaining about symptoms they were experiencing: shortness of breath, muscle pain, coughing, loss of a sense of smell or taste. They were simply dismissed and thrown back into their cages. This led to the spread of the virus.

"My physical body has been imprisoned for 46 years. But my spirit is strong, free, and resilient."

What sense does it make for medical and custodial staff to send someone back to their cell who is suffering from all the symptoms of COVID-19? One of these individuals who complained of symptoms was placed in a cell right above me. He was later given a Covid-19 test and the result was positive. He was then placed into tent city, a set of tents for people who tested positive. 

I was awakened at 10:00 pm on August 6th to the banter of men saying that they were going to be moved to another part of the prison because they had been exposed to Covid-19. Until I fell asleep, I listened to their fears and concerns. They talked about what they believed was the source of the virus. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to reach a scientific conclusion that either custodial, or medical staff, were responsible for infecting us with the virus. By now their neglect and indifference has led to hundreds of men at Folsom State Prison being infected. 

On the morning of August 7th, mealtime was announced over the speaker as if nothing had happened. Why wasn’t the prison immediately put on lock down after a test came back positive? Why take the risk of more prisoners becoming infected?   

In my view these actions were negligence. Common sense should have been exercised, and medical staff should have informed custodial staff of the likelihood of an outbreak. After mealtime, where I probably became infected, I walked down the hallway to receive my morning medications. I asked a nurse whether they were going to test everyone in the building for Covid-19. The reply was, probably not, since it was Saturday and there weren’t enough medical staff in the prison. Returning to my cell, all of the prisoners who were certified to work were let out to clean up the prison. This contributed to a massive outbreak of Covid-19. Our lives didn’t matter.

Finally, on the evening of Saturday, August 8th the prison was put on lock down. Instead of the hand-crafted masks we had previously been given to wear—now that we had tested positive—we were given medical masks to wear. The building went on total lockdown. Staff were given medical masks and shields to cover their faces. 

Finally, on Monday August 10th all prisoners in two buildings were tested. Hours later the exodus began of all those who tested positive to the outside tents that warehoused people. I was one of the first of the men to be moved to tent city. I was there for 14 days of isolation. 

There is simply no logical or rational explanation for how in a few hours over two hundred men would be infected with Covid-19. It took seven days for a local news outlet to report on Covid-19 at Folsom State Prison. This made it seem that there was a concerted effort to suppress the information. Seven days later, helicopters were allowed to fly over the prison to see the new tent city. 

I am mistrustful of the men and women responsible for our immediate care. Many of them judge our worth as human beings to be no more valuable than that of a chicken or a mule. We are viewed by society through the prism of a cage, a number, a dollar sign, or a statistic. We have been ostracized, degraded, and dehumanized, while we dare to demand to be treated like human beings. 

I survived Covid-19 and I survived the incredible neglect of the CDCR. The struggles continue. My small voice is dedicated to all human life which is lost in this wasteland of fragmented minds, lost souls, and defeated spirits. We must remember the old abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’ warning that “power conceded nothing without a struggle, it never did an did never will.”

May the living be inspired by hopeful vision and the struggle for a new humanity. It is always out of doing that possibilities are created, and strong courageous minds are forged. The prison remains on lock down.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ifoma Modibo Kambon

Ifoma Modibo Kambon

Ifoma Modibo Kambon survived 46 years in prison, 38 of those in solitary confinement.

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