Back in early April as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged New York, John J. Lennon was sure he would contract the coronavirus.
As a prisoner at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y., social distancing was impossible, he says. Making calls on prison phones, Lennon says, meant being "chest to shoulders" with nearly two dozen inmates. "It was a death-trap situation to use the phone," he says.
Not long after he made his prediction, Lennon started to feel feverish. He lost his sense of taste. The true number of infected inmates will likely never be known; he says incarcerated people at Sing Sing who didn't need medical intervention weren't being tested.
"I would sort of have conversations with my neighbors, sort of swapping symptoms," he told NPR's Morning Edition in early September. "Some guys were being ambulanced out to the surrounding hospitals. And by May, we had five deaths, including one officer."
His symptoms were mild, Lennon says, but he remembers having trouble breathing in part because of anxiety. He remembers he had to talk himself "off the ledge" of a panic attack.
"You got CNN on in your cell TV in the background talking about hundreds of people dying. It's like a torture chamber," he said.
In July, Lennon was transferred to Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, N.Y. He's not sure why he was moved there from Sing Sing, but when he arrived, he found a community that hadn't been hit as hard by the virus as the one he came from. He believes that's due to a prison population at Sullivan that is older and with existing health problems, so prison leaders took different precautions. For example, the superintendent keeps a careful eye on incarcerated people at the facility for early signs of the virus.
Lennon has written about what it's like catching the virus and living during the pandemic in prison for New York Magazine.
The interview highlights contain some extra content that did not air in the broadcast version.
On the changing attitude incarcerated people have had to masks
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has issued masks statewide, but they started issuing them in early May. Sing Sing was hit hard in April. By early May, five people were already dead. So that time that we were hit hard, there were no masks. I remember the moment we got masks, it was the first week of May and they started giving the masks out and the whole cell block erupted and they just started cursing and saying 'It's too late now.'
On how the inmates who died of COVID-19 are remembered at Sing Sing
My sort of "money" as an incarcerated journalist is reporting on what's happening inside. I don't know what happened to the men that died.
Calvin Grohoske, he was having a hard time breathing. He was taken out in mid-April and I talked to his neighbor, Paul Davidson, and I asked him what happened. He said, 'I just saw his cell being packed up and guys going in Tyvek suits and putting it in bags. And I never saw him again, and I used to watch the SYFY channel with him. That was my boy.' They were tight. He doesn't know what happened to his body.
There's a lot of unknowns. That seems to be the theme of 2020, the unknown.
On Leonard Carter, a formerly incarcerated person at Sing Sing who served 25 years who died of COVID-19 shortly after he was released
He had made parole, I believe, in February. And he went down to a pre-release facility in Queensborough, and he died there.
It was hard for me when I heard it because, when you know somebody personally — I worked with him on the mental health unit when I first arrived at Sing Sing, and he was like a veteran, sort of giving me the ropes. He's like "These guys are having a hard time, they take a lot of antipsychotic medication." Like, he knew the ins and outs of this. So when I learned it was Leonard Carter, everyone called him Mr. Carter, I felt bad because I was like, wow, this guy was probably going to go home and do good work. He was a decent guy.
NOEL KING, HOST:
While COVID-19 was spreading through New York state, John J. Lennon was in prison at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. I talked to him back in April.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
KING: Do you feel like it is inevitable that you will get COVID-19?
JOHN J LENNON: Absolutely.
KING: Do you think everyone at Sing Sing will get COVID-19?
KING: Not long after that, he did get symptoms. How does he think he caught the virus?
LENNON: You know, interestingly, when we had a conversation in early April...
KING: You and me.
LENNON: ...I was talking to you, and I was describing the scene where I was talking to you. I was like, you know, sort of chest to shoulder with 23...
KING: Yeah, I could hear guys behind you.
LENNON: Right. You know, I wouldn't be surprised it was that moment that I was...
KING: Oh, God. Oh.
LENNON: No, I'm not suggesting like that. But I wouldn't be surprised it is when I was using the phone around that time - you know? - because it was a bad scene. It was like a death trap situation to use the phone.
KING: Since then, Lennon has been transferred to a different prison. And he wrote about living through the pandemic for New York Magazine.
LENNON: By late April, I mean, I would sort of have conversations with my neighbors swapping symptoms conversations. Some guys were being ambulanced out to the surrounding hospitals. And by May, we had five deaths, including one officer.
KING: A corrections officer.
KING: So this is a virus that some people get real bad and some people get not so bad. How bad did it hit you?
LENNON: I would say a mild. Sing Sing is a tough joint. It's an old prison, and it's tiers stacked on top of tiers - 60, 70 cells on a tier. We're all stacked on top of each other. So when you're locked in a cell - and I was all way up on the fifth tier - it's difficult breathing. And April is a month where institutional heat is still pumping, so the seasons are changing. You can't really breathe too well because the institutional heat is pumping. And then you're like, can I breathe? I think it's anxiety that mostly gets you. And then you got CNN in your cell TV in the background talking about hundreds of people dying. I mean, it's like a torture chamber. You're in there - it's a pretty grim situation. So I had to sort of, like, talk myself off the ledge. A lot of my peers did with the panic attack in a prison cell.
KING: There in Sing Sing, you were experiencing the same things that a lot of people on the outside were, which is, I don't know if this is the virus, or I don't know if I'm freaking out. But either way, I'm not breathing.
LENNON: Yeah, yeah. And I mean, I had other symptoms. I mean, I lost my taste at a certain point. Sort of all things considered, I think I had a mild case of it. You know, some guys didn't make out so well. A lot of my peers did roll up to the surrounding hospitals, off to gurneys. And they were treated, and they were treated well. And they were saved.
And you know, to be fair, I have to sort of credit the governor with clear messaging 'cause that kept civilians home, and it prevented the hospitals from overflowing. And it allowed my peers to be treated. But I would say, on the other hand, I mean, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has issued masks statewide, but they started issuing them in early May. Sing Sing was hit hard in April. By early May, five people were already dead. So that time that we were hit hard, there were no masks. I remember the moment we got masks, and the whole cellblock erupted. And they started cursing and, like, saying, like, you know, it's too late now.
KING: Oh, this is so interesting because when we talked in April, you said the cellblocks were erupting over the fact that people didn't have masks. And you're saying that by the time they came in in May, the eruption was, well, now we've all had it; now people have died.
KING: When these five men died in Sing Sing, what do you do? Do you have memorial services? How do you remember them?
LENNON: You know, that's why I named all of them in the piece that I wrote. My sort of money as an incarcerated journalist is reporting on what's happening inside. I don't know what happened to the men that died. Calvin Grohoske, he was having a hard time breathing. He was taken out in mid-April. And I talked to his neighbor, Paul Davidson. And I asked him what happened. He said, I just saw his cell being packed up and guys going in in Tyvek suits and putting it in bags. And you know, I never saw him again. And I used to watch the Syfy channel with so - and that was my boy. Like, they were tight. He doesn't know what happened to his body. There's a lot of unknowns. It seems to be the theme of 2020 - the unknown.
KING: John J. Lennon is an incarcerated journalist at Sullivan Correctional in Fallsburg, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.