April 21, 2021

COVID Diaries - Inside Prison: A Psychotherapist's Perspective

This is a fascinating guest post! As I've mentioned, I'm very interested to hear from people working the "front lines" during the pandemic. I think seeing things from their perspective is very impactful and can help the rest of us understand a bit more about how COVID-19 has changed the day-to-day lives of millions of people.

This guest post I'm sharing was written by a woman in the New England area, and she would like her name to remain anonymous due to the nature of her job. When thinking about the front line workers, prison staff didn't even occur to me--so I was very excited to hear from her when she emailed me. I'm grateful that she's willing to share her experience! Here is her story...

How many times have you been out in public and seen someone you thought you knew, only to realize it wasn’t actually them? How much more often has that happened over the last year, now that half of our faces are covered any time we're in public? How many of those times has that person been a violent sex offender, bank robber, or murderer?

It was about a year ago that "lockdown" became a regular part of the general public's vocabulary and wearing masks was the new normal. I began wearing a mask to work. See, stay-at-home orders don't quite apply to my jobs--I work full-time in a men's prison and part-time as a firefighter.

When people ask what my job is like, I usually just tell them "there's never a dull day!". It's easier than trying to explain the intricacies of working as a psychotherapist in a prison treatment program for high-risk offenders--and on a tactical response team at that!

That being said, my job can be pretty mundane on a day-to-day basis. There's always the possibility of an emergency that could derail my entire day (or week), but "normal" days for me typically include: time spent writing reports (some of which are upwards of 30 pages long); individual and/or group therapy sessions; and teaching psycho-educational classes.

The population I work with is particularly difficult, and I'm fortunate to be very good friends with another woman in my department. Given the disturbing nature of some of the things I hear on a daily basis, it's really helpful to have someone who has heard it all--someone I can vent to without vicariously traumatizing them!

Every once in a while, members of the tactical team I'm on are called to "suit up" for what's called a "calculated use of force". Typically, that means an inmate is refusing to do what they're being told to do, so a team of five goes into the cell and restrains him in order to accomplish whatever he was refusing to do.

However, a lot of times the inmate gives in before the team gets suited up. It may be a scare tactic, but it's pretty effective! Under normal circumstances, the team would train on a regular (monthly) basis, but with the arrival of COVID, all training has been put on hold.

Our last training as a team took place at the end of February of 2020--that training was my first one, so I got pepper-sprayed for the first time (a "rite of passage" for team members). We train in the use of less-than-lethal munitions, which can be used in a variety of situations (whether it be one unruly inmate in a cell, or 100 inmates with weapons on the recreation yard). We train for the worst-case scenarios, and hope we never actually see them.

I joined the fire department in the end of 2019. I knew after my first day at there that I was going to drink the kool-aid. I was OBSESSED with the job, right off the bat. I can't pinpoint exactly what it is about it, but the adrenaline is an experience like no other.

My department is what's known as a "call" department--our station is not staffed 24/7, but all the firefighters have pagers and when a call comes in, we respond to the station from home (or wherever we are... I can't tell you how many times I've left a half-full carriage in the middle of the grocery store!) and then head to the call.

There are certain times of the day that call departments may struggle to get a decent response (i.e. during the work day, in the middle of the night, etc.) but my department is pretty strong. I like to say that if I knew at 18 what I know now, I would have made being a firefighter my career path. However, I really do enjoy my job at the prison and it's nice to still be able to be a part of the fire department in my "spare time". 

While my husband, friends, and family members hunkered down under the state's emergency orders last spring, I continued going to work each day. While I was grateful for the opportunity to get out of the house and interact with other people each day (I’m a bit of an extrovert!), it also meant that because I was at much higher risk of contracting the virus, I wasn’t able to see my parents (both of whom were sick with cancer).

The pandemic altered my days slowly at first--prison visitation was cancelled, staff began wearing masks, housing units were segregated… and eventually inmates began wearing masks.

While that seems like an obvious policy to enact, I remember being vehemently opposed to allowing the inmates to wear masks initially. The thought of them being allowed to cover half their faces seemed like a huge security risk to me, and truly made me feel even more vulnerable in an already dangerous job. After all, it’s difficult enough to identify an inmate on a surveillance video even when his whole face is visible! 

Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that masking-up the inmates was the right thing to do. However, living and working in suburban New England during the early days of COVID, I was somewhat isolated from the true impacts it was having elsewhere in the country. That is, until April 20th, 2020. 

While my regular job is a psychotherapist, I’m also a member of a tactical response team at the prison. On April 20th, I got 23-hours' notice that the following day, along with three of my team members, I was expected to report to another detention center--four hours away in New York City. 

Details were scarce--we were told we would be there for at least two weeks, and that we would be given two weeks to quarantine when we returned. We didn’t know what we would be doing at the detention center, or even what days or hours we would be working. We were simply told to pack our things and report for duty.

That morning, I stopped at my parents' house on my way to work, told them I loved them, and "see you soon" from their porch. At that point, COVID-19 had not worked its way into the prison where I worked--we had zero cases among inmates or staff.

New York, on the other hand? They were overrun. It seemed like every staff member I interacted with while I was there had already had the virus.

"Empty" New York City

The days in New York were long. The inmates were struggling with lockdown fatigue and were acting out as a result: insolence toward staff, inmates refusing to lock-in to their cells, and flooding their cells will water were an every-day occurrence.

I was so grateful that I had been sent to the city with three other staff members that I was friends with from my institution--we made the best of our time there during our off-hours by getting takeout and playing card games as a group nearly every night. We spent our days off wandering around the city--a place that would normally be bustling with tourists in the springtime.

One weekend, we drove out to Montauk, a place I had always wanted to visit (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my favorite movie!) and I was able to put my feet in the ocean--something that made me feel at home.

By the time I left New York and returned to my regular duty station, COVID-19 had hit my institution. Not just my institution, but specifically the housing unit where my office is located. I was relocated to a different office outside of that unit, and my job duties shriveled up. I spent the majority of my day monitoring inmate phone calls and emails.

As I mentioned, both of my parents were battling cancer--my Mom was diagnosed in July of 2017 with glioblastoma, and my Dad in May of 2019 with oral cancer. During the time I was in New York, my Mom's condition worsened and her doctors discontinued treatment (it was not working, and having her come to the hospital for it, exposing her to COVID, was more risk than reward) and she was given six months to live. 

Additionally, my Dad's condition worsened and while I was on quarantine. He was hospitalized and it was found that his cancer had run rampant throughout his body--treatment was not working. His doctors told us there was no more they could do. He went home on May 21, the day before my post-New York quarantine ended. My siblings and I went to stay with him and my Mom and we cared for both of them around the clock from that point until their deaths on May 29th and July 3rd. Yes, I lost both of my parents during a pandemic in a matter of five weeks.

Because of this, I was on leave from work throughout most of the summer and when I returned in September, it appeared the institution had the COVID-19 situation under control.

Below is a picture of the room I stayed in at a COVID Recovery and Isolation Center for first responders when I returned from New York (so I didn't have to risk exposing my family to COVID-19). It had been a county jail pre-release center and was converted into a four-wing recovery center for this purpose. They provided all of our meals and services. It was an incredible resource and I’m so grateful to have been able to use it!

Fast-forward to December when the majority of the country got their “second wave”, the institution did, too. Except this time it was worse--much worse. 

I got a phone call the day after Christmas letting me know that my team had been activated a second time, but this time we weren’t traveling anywhere. The COVID-19 outbreak at my institution had gotten so severe that we had nearly ten times the “normal” number of inmates admitted to hospitals in the community.

As one would likely imagine, there are several security factors that come into play when an inmate is admitted to a community hospital. Normally, this level of security can be managed by the Correctional Services staff (those who work as correctional officers on a daily basis). However, the high number of inmates admitted to hospitals, paired with the high number of staff who were out sick with the virus, left the institution in quite the predicament.

We were being augmented from our regular duties and schedules and being sent to work in the local hospitals for as long as deemed necessary--working 12-hour shifts with no scheduled days off. Due to personal and family circumstances that were (still/again) occurring for me at the time, I was taken off the roster for this activation after about two weeks.

However, when I returned to the institution, many of the housing units were on lockdown status, with the inmates only being allowed out of their cells for short, designated time periods. It took the better part of six weeks to get the situation at the institution “under control”.

It seemed like every time my unit was cleared from quarantine status, another inmate would test positive for COVID-19 and everything would shut down again. The institution staff did everything they could to contain the virus, but the circumstances that come along with a prison setting are a dream for disease transmission. Fortunately for me (and the rest of the staff members who accepted it), I was fully vaccinated by Mid-January, receiving my first dose only a few days after the vaccine was approved for use.

The last three months at my job have been a blur, if I’m being honest. The psychology treatment program I work in recently resumed operations and things are starting to get back into the realm of “normal”. Units are still segregated, which complicates the daily operations of ancillary services: medical appointments; psychology, education, and food service; and recreation time.

The simple day-to-day tasks that would normally take no time at all to accomplish now take lots of advance planning. And then there are the personality traits and emotional reactions of the inmates, many of whom feel as though their rights have been infringed upon…

I’ve worked in the prison system for six and a half years. I’ve seen and heard a LOT. I’ve experienced two government shutdowns--one of which lasted 35 days--in which I continued going to work each day, knowing I wasn’t getting paid until the government reopened. I've also been afforded a number of really great opportunities for development.

But this virus? This virus has changed my job and my life to the core. I look forward to the day we return to “normal”, although I don’t know if we’ll ever get there.

If your life has been majorly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and you are interested in sharing your story in a guest post, I'd love to hear from you! Just send me an email at: katie (at) runsforcookies (dot) com.


  1. This lady should write a book!!!

  2. Thank you for sharing this! No one has been untouched but others have been changed forever. It is good to read other peoples reactions/change in circumstances and see their resiliency. I pray you find peace with your parents passing and can see a brighter future ahead.

  3. This was amazing! thank you to the author for sharing and Katie for posting!

  4. I'm sorry about the loss of your parents. Thank you for sharing. It was a fascinating read to see how different parts of our population are affected by the pandemic.

  5. So much to endure. Condolences on losing your parents so close together. I'm so sorry. And your job? Wow. Thank you for the work you do. And thanks Katie for sharing these stories. I have so much respect for this woman and the others who are sharing.

  6. Katie, thank you for providing a platform where your followers have the opportunity to hear this woman's incredible story. And thank you to [NAME] for your candor, courage, and compassion.


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