Covid in the Prisons: The Ungrievable Neighbor

by Joni Zavitsanos | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Русский | Српски

Roger Rust
Roger Rust

“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed coyly by a slick lawyer looking for an easy answer, is most poetically answered by Christ in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The story involves a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Many supposed noblemen pass by and offer no help, while a foreign stranger of an offbeat faith comes to the man’s aid with great compassion and becomes the silent hero of the day. The Good Samaritan was insightful in its Biblical time, but I also find the story to be most relevant now in our post-pandemic world.

It has been over a year now since I began working on a tribute art piece honoring lives lost in the Houston, Texas area due to Covid-19. I’ve combed through obituaries, news articles, TV programs, and have spent literally thousands of hours trying to place a name and a face to the over 7,000 deaths that have occurred just in and around my own city. So many stories have come out of this project—the loneliness, isolation, separation of families, the inability to properly grieve and bury loved ones, the mental strain—so much sadness. 

In my quest for names and photographs, I stumbled upon yet another tragedy within the tragedy that was our pandemic. An article was published in early April 2020 about the first prison death in Texas due to Covid-19, a guy in Houston named Bartolo Infante, a 72-year-old inmate who was already health compromised (common amongst most prisoners, I’ve learned). He died on April 2, just a day after Correctional Officer Kevin Wilcher died in the same prison of the same virus. These deaths prompted me to look up the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s website to see if there were others. I found the outbreaks in the prisons have been staggering.  They may, in fact, be our largest number of deaths, along with the nursing home facilities. Hundreds of these prisoners and the few guards who braved the odds and showed up to work as well died of the virus. They were male, female, black, white, every age and ethnicity, every color and creed. The virus took them regardless. 

These men and women who were incarcerated for various misdeeds ranging from petty thefts and misdemeanor drug charges to more serious crimes such as rapes and murders were housed in facilities that were all but abandoned during the crisis. For a prison housing 300-350 inmates, there needs to be at least 30-35 guards to make sure the order and basic needs of prisoners are met. Yet during the pandemic, the prisons and jails were fortunate if 2 or 3 guards came to work. I’m sure the men in the cages had no idea why, but there were articles I read talking about the complaints of prisoners not having clean bedding, toilet paper, proper food, not allowed any hand sanitizer as this is a banned substance, and being crammed together literally bed to bed near one another, covering their mouths with socks and blankets to shield themselves while the virus raged on, mowing down all in its path.

I remember the phone call I made to Jometra, who had not seen her father for over 20 years since his incarceration for theft, as the prison was quite a distance from her city and job. She was informed well after the fact that her father had fallen ill with Covid-19 and had died at the Hospital Galveston where most all Texas prisoners were sent if they contracted the virus. She described her dad in such a flattering light. “Hawk,” as he was affectionately called, served in Viet Nam and was a talent in many creative areas. Mostly, she says, he loved God and his church, and his home was always open to anyone. I told her I was so sorry for her loss, as her father was supposed to have been released from prison but was not, that during this pandemic the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. She answered, “The right hand didn’t care what the left hand was doing.”

I also spoke with Austin, Roger’s son. Roger was in a halfway house, a place where inmates are sent before being released back into society; a place for those who are not hardened criminals but have done some petty crimes or have not adhered to their probation guidelines. Roger, like many, was right at his release date yet still stuck inside. His son had set up a trailer on the property where his family lived and was ready to take him in, but this was not to be. The phone calls between father and son each week became harder and harder as Roger became sicker and sicker. In a final phone call, he was barely able to whisper his few words of love to his son and family. Roger died during the Covid-19 outbreak at his halfway house along with several other friends who were locked up there. He will never be able to have the hope of a life with his family on this earth. It is this great pain that his son Austin lives with now.

There are so many others with such tragic stories as Roger and Hawk. St. Silouan the Athonite says, “The saints were people like all of us. Many of them came out of great sins, but by repentance they attained the Kingdom of Heaven.” The names and stories should be told. There is Antonio, Gerald, Timothy, Jose, Daniel, Preston, Gustavo, Theodore, Johnny, Alonzo, Edward, Cedric, Rolston, Valentin, Jimmy, Michael, James, Jerome, William, Cedric, Fernando, Francis, Sylvia, Nicole, David, Jesus, Roger, Nicholas, Melvin, Thomas…

These are the ones like the guy in the parable. They are dirty. They stink. They carry the baggage of a life of crime they once led. They are outcasts and ones to be discarded and forgotten as if they never existed, as if they did not matter. Their stories keep me up many late nights thinking of the pain and loss and feeling quite helpless to lend a hand. Who is my neighbor? The answer is sadly obvious. My neighbors were those laying sick and alone, while I obliviously walked right on by.

Joni Zavitsanos is an artist living and working in Houston, Texas. She has created a tribute entitled LIVING ICONS: A Commemoration of the Victims of Houston’s Covid-19 Pandemic. To date, she has collected over 500 of the over 7,000 people who have died in her home city.  In homage to her Greek heritage and Orthodox Faith, and to her father Byzantine iconographer Diamantis Cassis of blessed memory, she has depicted each individual with a gold-leafed halo around their head. The project gained the attention of the John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science, where they will host the tribute from October 2021 – February 2022.   A memorial service and reception for the families of the victims will be held at the opening. Joni currently searches for a permanent space to house the work in Houston.