Michael “Zah” Dorrough (Illustration by Christine Shields)
Michael “Zah” Dorrough (Illustration by Christine Shields)

This narrative in the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness is published with permission, as part of a partnership with Prism. Interview and editing by Mateo Hoke. 

Under usual circumstances, U.S. prisons and jails are unhealthy and dangerous places to be, but they have been especially perilous during the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the country, prison systems have proven ill-equipped to protect incarcerated people from the virus. By the end of 2020, one in five people incarcerated in the U.S. had contracted the coronavirus. California houses the country’s largest prison population and officials there have faced harsh criticism for outbreaks throughout state prisons.

Michael “Zaharibu” Dorrough has been incarcerated in California since 1985 for a murder he says he did not commit. Currently at Corcoran Prison, Zah spent nearly 30 years in solitary confinement throughout prisons in California. We communicated with Zah beginning in summer 2020 through winter 2020–21 through a prison email system to hear about his experience contracting the coronavirus behind bars.

Many of us are still experiencing symptoms of the virus. I’m still having serious problems with my breathing. Whenever I bend down to just tie my shoes, my breathing becomes very labored. When I try to exercise, my chest sounds very congested. I can hear my breathing. I have serious fatigue, some headaches, and two of my teeth just fell out.

There are a lot of guys here who are experiencing these symptoms. Many of us are concerned that if we say anything, they will simply quarantine us. We are tested every week, and the results are negative, so this is no longer about having the virus. We aren’t being provided with support in our recovery. 

I’m located now in the level-two yard at Corcoran Prison in California. I’ve been here since February 2020. I’ve been incarcerated in California state prisons since 1985. So that would be 35 years and eight months.

The starting point in discussing the pandemic is that the healthcare department simply does not care about our well-being. And you can actually see what not caring about us looks like.

At the beginning, all we knew about COVID was based on the very limited information that we were receiving from local news coverage. We saw and heard of things like masks, social distancing, and people dying on the news, but none of this was part of our reality inside. I think that because we weren’t given even basic tools like hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and so on, I developed this kind of false sense of security. This was enhanced by what we were telling each other every day, which was that the virus can only be brought inside by staff!

On some level, I did think that it was highly unlikely that those of us in prison would be impacted by this in a major way, because the only way that could happen was if people coming into the prison were not concerned with their own health. People would have to be extremely reckless for that to happen. There were only a handful of positive tests at the prison for a while. Most of the positive results were at Corcoran. As we learned more, we tried to make sure we had the materials that we needed to take care of ourselves. As time went on and we started to be impacted by it, I became a bit more concerned. We were starting to get a lot more materials sent in from the street, and that helped, but I had this feeling that we were going to go through a major outbreak at some point. I was basing this on what had happened at San Quentin and Chino, two California prisons that had seen huge numbers of COVID cases early on.

At Corcoran, it started in early summer with a free staff person in the kitchen being infected and the evening kitchen workers being quarantined. But the building itself was not placed on quarantine status. After that was over we were tested, but there were no reported positive results. We were quarantined a few weeks later, but only for seven days, not the required 14 days. We were again tested, I think in July, and this time there was an explosion of positive results. Over a period of days, the people who had tested positive were called out and told that they would be moving to the “C” yard to be quarantined. My name was called that week.

There were at least 30 to 40 people who went to the C yard at the time that I went to quarantine, but not everyone had tested positive. There were several people who were quarantined with us who had not tested positive. They should not have been there. Or at least not in quarantine with us.

When we got to the quarantine building, it was obvious that there was no plan in place. Except on one occasion, we were not given any cleaning materials, no clean bedding or clothing. And we were told that we would have to be double celled. It seemed that our being moved was just to give the impression that something was being done. We were given the same food as the rest of the prison gets.

There was no communication even among staff. I experienced many symptoms, like severe fatigue and muscle pain, headaches, a total loss of appetite, constant coughing, and congestion in my chest. My legs felt as though they each weighed 100 pounds, and they burned constantly, especially my thighs. We had our vitals taken twice a day, and I was asked if I was experiencing any symptoms. I’d let medical know that I was experiencing symptoms and what those symptoms were, but nothing at all was done.

All I really did was sleep. I had absolutely no energy. I felt pretty helpless. Mostly because I didn’t know how to make myself feel better. And because of the isolation, I started to feel all alone. Isolation just does you like that.

I wasn’t concerned with dying though. I was actually thinking that I and others have been fighting too hard and for too long to go out from a virus. I won’t die that way. I tried to just concentrate on taking care of myself as best as possible. We didn’t have a lot of help. Staff didn’t know what to do. And they were doing what they were told. And medical didn’t seem to know what they were doing, or they didn’t care. They were just going through the motions. Medical staff showed a total disregard for our well-being. I’d ask for something for the headaches—Tylenol, ibuprofen, anything. But medical would tell me to get it from the previous shift. But when I would ask that shift, they would tell me that I must get it from the next shift! And this went on every day that we were housed in quarantine for the three weeks that we were there.

I was fortunate that I had this tablet and I was able to communicate with people outside. They provided me with some valuable information and support that made it possible for me to take better care of myself. You really are on your own where it involves medical issues in prison.

We’d all have conversations with each other about it, and everyone felt the same way. Medical just did not care.

For the most part, all you heard over in the quarantine building from the guys was what amounted to concerns that flowed from just not knowing anything. We weren’t being provided with any information at all. We didn’t even know how long we might be in quarantine. On one occasion when we did have a chance to speak to staff, they really didn’t have any answers because they were not provided with any information.

I had my moments when I was upset at the hypocrisy of some of the medical staff. I said to one of them, “I could never get away with acting so recklessly.” If I refused to take the test, I would be given a rules violation report and kept in quarantine. But we cannot even get answers to basic questions. When we ask a question, we are ignored. We are told to “put in a sick call slip.” And when we did that, we didn’t get any reply. In a way I had no reason to be upset. Many of them don’t care, and they were just staying true to that.

I’m not really sure what to say to people about who we are and what we are experiencing in prison. We are people. We are part of the human family. We have gone through many of the same experiences that others out there have, and continue to go through, specifically as it relates to the virus. The only meaningful difference is that many of us in here aren’t getting the health care we need. And we hope that people out there have access to the kind of quality health care that inspires people to be confident that those who are responsible for their care really do care. Regardless of who they are.

Mateo Hoke is a writer, journalist, and co-editor of the Voice of Witness book Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary.