COVID lockdown fuels prison suicide

February 5, 2021

By Miley Selena Fletcher

The following letter is from a transgender incarcerated worker at SCI Forest in Pennsylvania.

On Jan. 6, an inmate nicknamed Brother Bernie (Bernie Shank), who was in his 60s and doing a life sentence, came out of his cell at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Forest on the second tier of the Residential Housing Unit/Special Needs Unit. Brother Bernie turned his back toward the block and began to bounce while hanging onto the railing.  He then threw himself back, arms spread open to his sides, held his head back and hit the floor with a mighty thud.

Three days later he passed away.

There was no guard in the block pod. The guard in the bubble came running out, but too late. No one can understand why he did this.

Brother Bernie was quiet, always giving kindly from his heart to many inmates.  Never asking for anything back. He was always cheerful, in great spirits. Maybe COVID-19 and this lockdown, limiting us to 20 minutes out of cells per day, had something to do with his mental instability. I guess we will never know.

The administration here at SCI Forest said he was COVID-19 positive before he died. On Jan. 14 and 15, SCI Forest did COVID tests on the entire inmate population [2,300 people]. Over 850 inmates tested positive, including me. I was asymptomatic, meaning I have COVID-19, but I have no symptoms. [As of Jan. 22, 24 employees have tested positive.]

Immediately SCI Forest COVID-positive inmates were given Vitamin D3 tablets (cholecalciferol) and zinc sulfate for the next 14 days. A new COVID test will then be given out to inmates who tested positive.

A lot of people ask: “When will we go back to normal routines?”  I wonder if anything will ever be normal again. I’m talking about both inside and outside of the prison complex.

I truly believe that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has looked at lockdowns as a way to control a lot of violence, chaos and mayhem, without taking into consideration the mental toll on people like Brother Bernie.

The possibility of something like this happening again is on everyone’s minds, and everyone is wondering what is normal routine now?