A view from the inside: What does it feel like to be in jail during a pandemic?

Inmates at the San Benito County Jail take classes to continue their education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, jail staff and Gavilan College have improvised to maintain students' education.

This article was contributed by Julie Morris, writing teacher for Gavilan College in the San Benito County Jail. Following an introduction by Morris is an essay, ‘A View From the Inside’ written by inmate Joseph Rosiles and published with his permission.

Coronavirus has disrupted life as we knew it. Collectively, we’re learning how to work from home, keep six feet away from each other, and ration household staples. Millions of people have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had to close businesses that took decades to build. A pandemic is no small occurrence. As a writing teacher for Gavilan College in the San Benito County Jail, I asked my students to write about how COVID-19 has affected their lives. What does it feel like to be in jail during a worldwide crisis?

When we realized teachers would no longer be able to go into the jail to teach Continuing Education classes in person, Captain Tony Lamonica and his staff went out of their way to work with Gavilan College and continue offering classes at the jail. With a smart TV, internet connection, and a Zoom account, we have been able to continue offering several classes to inmates. Jail staff have put into place safety protocols and a classroom setup that enables inmates to communicate with teachers and continue their education.

The following essay was written by a student in the San Benito County Jail. Despite the multiple challenges, we hope this first-person account gives readers a glimpse of life “on the inside,” and contributes to the many stories of people in San Benito County.

A View From the Inside: What does it feel like to be in jail during a pandemic?

By: Joseph Rosiles

The President employed awkward language with abstinent psychological consequences like “under attack” and “deadly enemy” and “at war.” There was a war alright—the media was attacking our minds.

As if by osmosis, the virus, now called COVID-19, seeped into commercials and public broadcast announcements. It was the subject of talk shows and the banter of game show hosts. It was impossible not to think about. COVID-19 had become more than a pandemic—it was a lifestyle. Like a computer virus, it was re-programming the way people function. We had been hacked.

By the end of the week there was another major adjustment inside the jail. Before any kind of indication, the loudspeakers called the names of a dozen inmates, all being released without precedent.

With no word of explanation, those of us remaining were left wondering how long we were going to remain. I felt like I had just missed the rapture.

I felt like Saint Peter just told me that God turned down my application and I had to wait for Hell to come to Earth. I didn’t eat dinner that night, even if it was a Friday. I took a long shower instead, willing the hot water to drown out the sound of the TV in the suddenly empty dorm.

The following Monday the captain himself, flanked by two deputies, made an announcement of his own. Solemn with purpose, he began by commending the jail personnel for their performance in the face of turmoil, and explained the conditions of the early releases to all of us left behind. Though we had the opportunity to ask questions, I didn’t think a single one of us felt any more confident about the circumstances for his sake.

A grotesque quiet blanketed the jail in the days after, and the scene reminded me of a gross perversion of “The Masque of the Red Death.” Education programs resumed by way of video networking—a harbinger of the way of things to come. COVID-19 has continued to wreak more social breakdown every day. The news introduced the possibility of putting the state of New York under quarantine, and has begun to examine the new crime that is defying the shelter-in-place order. Each time the door opens I cringe at the thought of another announcement. The utterance of the phrase “coronavirus” alone makes me recoil like the sounds of gunshots.

A few more days ran into each other. I know it’s because we had scrambled eggs for breakfast. Quikoloco got released last night. Katy Perry got knocked up. The virus has touched down in Europe and North America. The early birds were up and watching Good Morning America in an area around the TV, and the POTUS was delivering a statement.

Over the last couple of days we learned that the virus, called “Corona,” originated in a farmers’ market-like environment, where some rural-types were vending improperly prepared bat meat. A juicy bit of culture shock to beef up the story, I’m sure, but people from around the world appreciate different delicacies. For example, not too far from that same region they snack on chicken embryos served in their own unbroken shells. Ask them how they feel about chicken McNuggets after you tell them where they come from. And here I am in county jail, where mechanically separated chicken is the specialty of the house. For all I know, bat meat makes a wicked egg roll.

The coronavirus is a pulmonary affliction that manifests in respiratory symptoms. In other words, it’s like the common flu, but it’s different and harder to get rid of. Now the president was on TV admonishing people all over the country to avoid crowds and places of gathering, with California and New York observing the highest number of cases. The response was reflexive.

The population swarmed to purchase protective face masks and hand sanitizers. Retailers couldn’t re-stock shelves fast enough. The trendiest fast food beverage venues were the first to close their dining rooms to the public. Larger chain restaurants and fine dining establishments were made available for takeout only. Frightened parents kept their children home from school, out of playgrounds. Students evacuated college campuses. Adults of all demographics were afraid to go to work. Nobody knew how to protect themselves, and precaution bordered on superstition.

On the inside, I don’t think the magnitude of the situation registered among us right away. After all, the world’s problems seem less real, less personal, when one is removed from it.


Note from Julie Morris:

“The community college system is sustaining our educational purpose in the fact of the pandemic crisis,” Gavilan College President Kathleen A. Rose wrote in an e-mail to staff this week. “We are using the metrics of predictability to improve our services for students to the best of our ability, and we are showing flexibility in our processes for the greater good of our students. Today I heard from others that in the absence of hard data about the impact of these extraordinary events on higher education, we must continue to tell our story. The story we are experiencing now includes a heroic effort to educate despite multiple challenges.”

We are grateful for the San Benito County Sheriff Office’s willingness to work with Gavilan and we appreciate the county’s commitment to inmates’ education. Gavilan College is a resource for all of San Benito County, and its mission does not stop at the doors of the jail.

-Julie Morris, writing teacher for Gavilan College in the San Benito County Jail


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Julie Finigan Morris

Julie Finigan Morris is a journalist and business owner. She has worked as staff writer for several news organizations, including Thomson Newspapers in Washington D.C., McClatchy Newspapers and Scripps News Service. She is also the Co-Founder and Owner of Morris Grassfed and has lived in San Benito County for more than 25 years. Morris has also worked in corporate communications, marketing, and the non-profit sector. She is a founding board member of BenitoLink and currently serves on its Editorial Committee. She recently published her first novel, Exit Strategy. Visit her online at juliefmorris.com