“The Officers Were Taking Our Toilet Paper”: One Woman’s Life in Prison Right Now

Social distancing, hoarding, and financial uncertainty affect prisoners too.

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Earlier this week, lawyers representing the state of California notified a panel of federal judges that the state’s corrections department intends to slow the spread of the coronavirus in its facilities by freeing about 3,500 inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes who were already due to be released within 60 days. Those early releases won’t affect Stacey Dyer, who is currently serving life without parole after she was convicted of murdering a 19-year-old in a small city in California’s Central Valley. Sixteen years into her sentence at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, the 40-year-old works as a peer drug and alcohol counselor and sees her children once a month at most. Survived and Punished, a prison abolition group that advocates for prisoners who are survivors of sexual and domestic violence to be released, has petitioned Gov. Gavin Newsom to commute her sentence.

I spoke with Dyer by phone last week. Her prison currently has zero confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to data published by the state corrections department—but just one inmate there has been tested for the virus. With the prison on a modified schedule to promote social distancing, Dyer has been spending up to 22 hours a day in a shared cell with four bunks, watching TV news to glean information about the pandemic outside. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of her comments based on phone and email correspondence.

Stacey Dyer

Courtesy of California Coalition for Women Prisoners

Stacey Dyer: In the beginning, the officers were taking our toilet paper. I don’t know if they’re still hoarding toilet paper out there or not, but this was at the time everybody had first started going to the grocery store and there was, like, no toilet paper.

We have boxes of toilet paper, gloves, and sanitary wipes, stuff like that, that the janitors use to clean up. They keep an inventory of everything, from the toilet paper to the cleaning chemicals to the pads and tampons. They check it frequently and pass it out weekly to each room. A couple of boxes came up missing, and there was no other way it could have disappeared but staff, because it’s locked up. We kind of joked about it, because our toilet paper is horrible. It’s not really even toilet paper; it’s like this one-ply sandpaper. It has, kind of, a smell to it. It’s the worst of the worst of toilet paper. So we laughed and said they must be really desperate.

The staff that was here that day agreed that the remaining toilet paper in the closet would be safer if we passed it all out and started hoarding it in our rooms. So there wasn’t any toilet paper for staff to steal unless they came in our rooms and got it, which—then we would know who they are.

Once the boxes came up missing, everybody kind of panicked and started hoarding toilet paper and pads, and sanitary napkins, and stuff like that. The same with the groceries at the canteen. The canteen supervisor said that she has a couple thousand dollars worth of canteen left, and after that, she didn’t know if the next shipment was coming in. So everybody was basically buying up everything in the canteen. We’re hoarding things like people were hoarding things out there. The big difference is we can’t go to the grocery store any time we want.

I’m a drug and alcohol counselor for the drug program here. [With programs canceled,] I’m missing my support network, and my pay. Everybody that I work with is positive. They’re all mentors, they’re all drug and alcohol counselors, and they’re my support system. And even though I live in a good room and a good unit, there are a lot of people that are on a different page—a lot more negativity. People are taking drugs and drinking to try to cope with the lockdown, which in turn usually ends in some type of conflict among roommates. It’s basically pruno, fermented juice or fruit that they let sit. It’s really unhealthy, pretty risky, but they do get drunk off of it and usually end up fighting.

You definitely have to have a good room right now. There’s four bunks, and I’m not sure the dimension of the cell, but it’s a pretty tight squeeze. It’s definitely less than six feet apart from one bunk to the next. We share the bathroom, the shower, and the sink. We’re pretty much with each other all day, except for our hour and a half out and in the dayroom.

A lot of people I see are having problems. A lot of conflict, a lot of arguing, a lot of fighting. Some people don’t handle being locked down all day well. I don’t think they handle it mentally and emotionally, so they start lashing, taking it out on each other, or they start trying to complain or control things. If somebody’s not washing their hands enough, they might start bullying them to wash their hands, calling them dirty or nasty. People are getting bullied if they sneeze, cough, or sniffle.

Officers are really grumpy and angry and taking it out on us. I got a lot of comments from some of the officers in passing, saying, “Oh, you better not have the coronavirus,” stuff like that. There’s been a lot of rumors. Like if things got really bad, the officers could abandon us. That they don’t have to, legally, help us or save us or do anything for us. They can leave us for dead. I don’t think it’s going to get that bad. But my first thought was feeling sort of a desperation. Like, oh god, how am I going to survive? If worse came to worst, and there was nobody there to feed us or to even unlock our doors? Being trapped in the cell and not having food, or what if they stopped running the water or the electricity?

Thinking about it, and just seeing the tone of the officers and their attitudes, it just really made me feel like I was basically worthless, like I’m not worthy of being saved.

Watching the news and seeing things on TV, seeing how people are reacting out there to being isolated from each other, it’s like watching the whole world get locked up in prison with us. Watching the news, I’m seeing them struggle emotionally from not having a connection with people, missing their family, and loved ones. I see it’s taking a toll on people. They’re depressed, in the free world. And it’s just interesting to me because we’ve been going through that since we’ve been in prison. Going through these emotions, feeling isolated, and trying to find creative things to do with our time. Most of us are used to entertaining ourselves and have games, puzzles, and adult coloring books to keep ourselves occupied. We are used to being locked up, while the rest of the world is getting a small bitter taste of what we go through.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says no toilet paper has gone missing from the Central California Women’s Facility, and that allegations of increased drug use, drinking, and fighting there are unfounded. “We understand that the inmate population is watching the news and are experiencing the same kinds of uncertainty and anxiety that many might be experiencing in the public,” CDCR press secretary Dana Simas said in a statement. “We have contingency plans on top of contingency plans to address any situation where COVID-19 might significantly impact our operations, including ensuring we always have enough staff to continue operations at each institution.”

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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