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Raymond Rockman faced a life-or-death decision — and he had to make it by himself.
Rockman, a prisoner at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, had watched helplessly as scores of fellow inmates fell ill with COVID-19. Then, in mid-March, he got it himself. After being refused a test for more than a week, his health deteriorated and he was rushed to the hospital, where he was told he needed to be put on a ventilator.
“I asked if I could call my mom. The thing I heard on TV was people don’t come off the ventilators. And they told me no,” Rockman, 31, told VICE News. “I felt hopeless. I felt like it was the end and I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to my mom. It scared me to death. I cried constantly.”
Rockman found the prospect of a ventilator especially alarming, he said, because he’d been through this before. He was put on a ventilator a decade ago when he caught swine flu. This time, because prison staff wouldn’t allow him to talk to his mother — who holds power of attorney for his medical decisions — he rejected the doctors’ advice.
“I didn’t want to be put on a ventilator and then not be able to ever talk to her again,” Rockman said.
Rockman is one of 179 prisoners at Parnall Correctional Facility who have tested positive for COVID-19, out of 1,370 total prisoners at the facility; 74 staff have tested positive as well. Ten inmates have died. The facility has one of the highest rates of coronavirus in the state, but it’s just one of many prisons where the inability to socially distance, combined with a lack of preparation — including access to cleaning supplies, gloves, or masks — has led to massive outbreaks.
“I felt hopeless. I felt like it was the end and I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to my mom.”
More than 20,000 U.S. inmates have been diagnosed with the disease as of May 6, according to the Marshall Project. That’s a quarter of the total confirmed cases in the country. And many of the prisoners who are the sickest have had to face the disease completely alone, with the virus blocking them from having visitors and security precautions keeping them from talking to loved ones.
As Rockman struggled to survive, his mother frantically searched for his whereabouts.
Laura Rockman knew he’d been sick and suspected coronavirus, and suddenly wasn’t able to reach him. She said a series of frantic calls to the prison on a Friday led only to an officer hanging up on her — then repeatedly sending her to a voicemail.
“I went all weekend not knowing anything until Monday, and when I found out they took him out by ambulance, I was in panic mode,” she said. “That one officer who hung up on me several times, that really upset me.”
The Rockmans’ ordeal isn’t unusual: The Michigan Department of Corrections has long barred family members from knowing when prisoners were heading to the hospital, because of security risks. Department spokesman Chriz Gautz said some prisoners have intentionally hurt themselves so they could alert family when they were outside the prison in attempts to escape.
On April 30, in light of the coronavirus outbreak, the Michigan Department of Corrections changed its policy to allow next of kin to be contacted to let them know if prisoners had been sent out to the hospital. They’ve also begun allowing deathbed calls. But unlike in prisons, where inmates have the ability to make phone calls and send emails to their friends and family, hospitals often don’t have the infrastructure for prisoner calls and emails, which must be screened by the state through secure systems. That means as prisoners struggle to survive COVID-19, they’re cut off from their support networks.
“Communication is not available while they are in the hospital, unless there needs to be a deathbed call because the hospital won’t allow a deathbed visit,” Gautz said.
Gautz declined to discuss the specifics of Rockman’s experience, and the secure unit at the Henry Ford Allegiance Hospital, where inmate patients are treated, directed questions from VICE News to the prison. The warden at Parnall Correctional Facility didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Prison systems are belatedly making changes to try to slow the spread of the virus, both by letting prisoners out early and by improving social distancing and sanitation standards within their walls. But in March, when Rockman and so many others fell ill, little of that was in place.
For weeks, as more and more people got sick, Rockman and other inmates say they were required to sit four to a table for meals. Cleaning supplies like bleach were in short supply. Guards and prisoners didn’t wear masks.
“At night you could hear everyone coughing,” he said.
Around March 20, Rockman began coughing himself, and developed a fever. He said the prison’s medical officers denied him a test because his cough was productive, given some tylenol and told to rest up. He said he asked at least three other times to be tested and was denied each time.
Ten days later, Rockman’s condition had deteriorated dramatically. Struggling to breathe, he was finally sent to a hospital around April 1. A test for COVID-19 came up positive. Doctors told him he needed to be put on a ventilator.
Rockman has a number of other underlying health issues that made him an especially high-risk COVID-19 patient, including asthma and an immunodeficiency disorder.
Because of his depressed immunity, an immunologist was added to Rockman’s coronavirus case. They agreed to an alternative treatment when he refused ventilation: A heavy dose of steroids along with hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug with high risk of side effects that has been pushed as a potential treatment for the coronavirus. After four days of painful recovery in the intensive care unit and at another hospital, Rockman was transferred back to a prison recovery unit. Earlier this week, having mostly recovered and finally tested negative, he returned to Parnall.
Rockman is serving four years, nine months to 10 years after pleading guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual penetration. He’s eligible for parole in just over a year — his earliest release date is June 2021.
He still has a sore throat and headaches but counts himself lucky.
“Coming down with COVID this close to my ERD [earliest release date], I was scared I wasn’t going to make it. I’d done all this time and took responsibility for the crimes I’d committed, and I might not make it home to my family,” he said. “By the grace of God I’ve been able to pull through.”