Joseph Chavez says he gets one “tiny” bar of soap a week, gratis.
If he wants more, it’ll cost him.
And yet, corrections officers have for weeks steadily reminded Chavez, 42, and the other inmates being held with him in solitary confinement cells at the Penitentiary of New Mexico’s south facility near Santa Fe that they need to wash their hands.
That’s because the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory illness it causes, has torn through the world and, in some places, hit incarcerated populations especially hard.
The disease is often spread by touching an area that’s been exposed to the virus, then one’s face — hence, the hand-washing directives.
Chavez is about six years into an 18-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and battery on a police officer. He spent 20 minutes on the phone with New Mexico In Depth last week to talk about how things feel inside one of the highest security areas in one of the state’s highest security prisons.
He described insufficient disinfectant supplies, which are used by inmates to clean common areas in Chavez’ pod, plus nervous energy among the inmates about the possibility of an outbreak inside and, of course, the dearth of soap.
No New Mexico prisoners or corrections officers had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening, although inmates in at least two of the state’s jails have contracted the virus, according to officials.
But in nearly all cases, very few inmates and staff have been tested. Just three state prison inmates and five staffers had been tested as of Wednesday. All results were negative.
The following interview with Chavez has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
New Mexico In Depth: How familiar are you with what’s going on with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Joseph Chavez: I hear a lot about it, a lot about what’s going on out there … I’m over here at the penitentiary in Santa Fe, at the south facility.
NMID: Are you still in what’s called the X-pod, Joseph?
JC: Yes. I’ve been here 17 months total already in this pod.
NMID: Can you describe what the conditions are like in that pod? How often are you taken out of your cell? What kind of access do you have to recreation, and has any of that changed since the coronavirus stuff started?
JC: Actually, these phones — they turned on the phones since this coronavirus pandemic hit. They’ve been letting us have contact with our family. The whole time that I’ve been here in this pod, these phones have been off. I haven’t been able to speak to my wife, my son or my family in over 17 months. So…we’re locked down 22 hours a day in our cell. …We come out for two hours with whoever’s in the pod. They bring reading books once every two weeks. We shower in the mornings, and we get locked in the shower. Recreation: We get it maybe three times a week. We’re locked in our cells the other 22 hours in a day with nothing in our cells, no TVs, no radios; just books, paper, whatever we have. We don’t have our property.
NMID: Are you in the cell by yourself? Or do you have a cellmate in that pod?
JC: No, we’re in there by ourselves. We’re in individual cells.
NMID: What has the staff, or any of the corrections officers (COs) or anybody else who works at the prison told you about the coronavirus?
JC: Basically, they came in here telling us that we need to wash our hands and do different stuff like that. They said that they were gonna be bringing disinfectant and stuff like that into the pods and wiping down our pods every day. But the disinfectant is diluted. It’s not good disinfectant. And we don’t have disinfectant in the showers. The only time disinfectant comes into the pod is when somebody comes in to spray down different areas where people touch.
NMID: How often does it seem like they’re doing that, Joseph?
JC: An inmate comes over here from the other pod and gets the disinfectant and sprays and kind of wipes down different areas … They do it the majority of the time, but not every day.
NMID: They told you all that you need to be washing your hands — is there enough soap, do you have enough material to be doing the things they’re telling you to do?
JC: No. Basically … Hold on … Sorry, a bunch of people just came out for tier time, so I got kind of distracted for a second.
NMID: Your wife was telling me that you’re not given enough soap, that you have to buy it. Is that correct?
JC: Yes. They make us buy the soap off of the canteen. The only soap they give us is the little, tiny bars. It’s maybe half an inch thick. It’s a small bar; it’s probably two uses in the shower, and it’s gone. And we get just that one bar one time a week, and that’s it. We don’t get no other hygiene or nothing else — just that one bar a week.
NMID: Your wife also mentioned that you’re not seeing any of the COs wearing masks. Is that correct?
JC: No, that’s correct. No COs are wearing masks.
NMID: Do you guys have masks? Are inmates given masks?
JC: No. We don’t have masks, the COs don’t have masks … They’ve been saying not to be scared or trip out if they start wearing masks, but none of them are wearing them. Nobody wears masks over here at all.
“In regards to the inmate’s comments – while I understand his concern, NMCD has multiple preventative measures in place to reduce the risk of introducing COVID-19 to the inmate population and the agency is providing inmates with the proper hygienic materials needed. As of today, we have no positive COVID cases in any of our 11 prison facilities.” –Corrections spokesman Eric Harrison said in response to New Mexico In Depth on Tuesday.
NMID: How does the tier time work? Like, right now, for example: A bunch of guys it sounds like got out for tier time while you were on the phone. Are you all required to stay six feet away from each other? How are they managing that part? Are people getting close to each other or touching each other?
JC: We ain’t required to stay six feet from each other. It all depends on us. We came out at 12:30, and we’ll go back in our cells in two hours. That’s it. We stayed all morning locked in our cells, we came out for two hours, then we’ll spend the rest of the day locked in our cells.
NMID: Are there COs out in the rec area with you guys?
JC: There’s one officer that basically sits in like a little tower watching the rec cages. There’s three rec cages out there. We go out, just our pod — we don’t go out with everybody else to recreation. We go out by ourselves …
NMID: I want to ask about the mood, or the vibe, inside the prison. Does it feel like people know the coronavirus exists? Is there a feeling that the staff isn’t dealing with it very well? Are people scared? Has the mood changed at all in the last few weeks?
JC: I can’t really speak on that because I ain’t really in contact with anybody else. These other pods that are here, we don’t have any type of contact. We’re basically isolated from the rest of the population. We’re supposed to be a population pod, but there’s nothing population about this. There’s no TVs or anything, and we’re isolated from everybody else. So, pretty much the only thing we hear about this coronavirus is through family — now that I can call my wife and talk to her about the situation that’s going on out there. You know, it’s pretty scary. I worry about my dad, he’s an elderly man, and I worry about my wife. I worry about my son because he works at a jail. He’s a CO at a jail. He works in booking, so he’s in contact with everybody that’s getting booked. I worry a lot about him, too. … In my pod, with the people I’m in contact with, yeah, the moods have changed a lot. It ain’t no joke out there right now.
NMID: Are you worried at all about the possibility of the virus getting into the prison and getting into your pod?
JC: Oh, yeah. Tremendously. I’m always trying to keep everything clean as best I can. I’m a clean man, well-organized. I like to have my cell clean. I’m trying to do that. It’s a big worry; it’s a big worry that one of these COs is gonna bring it into this facility.
NMID: What do you know about how many inmates have been tested in New Mexico prisons? Or how many guards have been tested?
JC: As far as I know, they haven’t tested no inmates — I haven’t been told anything about that at all — or the COs.