The Coronavirus is in My Pen Pal’s Prison

Letters before the coronavirus

Over the past year, I’ve been corresponding with a man named Lacino Hamilton who’s in a Michigan prison. I found Lacino when I was reading an article he wrote on Truthout about the past 26 years he’s spent incarcerated (here’s all of his published articles on the same website!) and I felt compelled to write to him. Thankfully, he quickly wrote back and we’ve been close friends ever since. Lacino and I write to each other at least once a month and we talk about how our lives are going, what we’ve been up to, full drafts of articles he wants to write (some featured above), and updates on his case with the Innocence Project. He’s extremely smart, kind, and gentle; always wanting to know if there’s anything I need or have something to talk about. Even though Lacino has the worst classification, the label couldn’t be farther from the truth. As a brief summary, Lacino was sent to prison in 1994 when he was wrongfully convicted of murdering his foster mother, Lonnie Bell. He will remain in prison until 2046 at the earliest, when he will be 71 years old. A journalist named Aaron Miguel Cantú wrote an article called “Ring of Snitches: How Detroit Police Slapped False Murder Convictions on Young Black Men” on Truthout, which highlights the facts surrounding Lacino’s case. In that article, Cantú wrote, “Hamilton’s murder conviction hinged on two pieces of evidence: a coerced statement, and testimony from a jailhouse informant claiming that Hamilton confessed to the murder while awaiting trial in his jail cell. But according to affidavits, courthouse transcripts, letters and internal memos obtained by Truthout, the informant – who is long deceased – may have received incentives from Detroit police to falsely testify against a number of individuals. These documents also suggest that the informant was part of a ring of jailhouse informants – or “snitches” – that allegedly received lenient sentences as well as food, drugs, sex and special privileges from detectives in the Detroit Police Department’s homicide division in return for making statements against dozens of prisoners eventually convicted of murder.” Lacino has been in prison for decades and now, the coronavirus is in the same facility as him.

Last month when the coronavirus quickly started infecting people throughout the United States, I wrote a post about how it will rapidly kill incarcerated people because of their current living conditions, overcrowding, and lack of healthcare and basic sanitary supplies. Most, if not all jails and prisons do not have toilet paper, soap, alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, or face masks to keep people safe during the coronavirus spread. Multiple people often live in one cell and social distancing is quite literally impossible in these facilities. The quarantine steps people are having to take outside of jail and prison walls is unattainable inside. According to Michigan Radio, as of April 7, “Of the 66 inmates tested at Macomb Correctional, 55 tested positive for COVID-19,” (Macomb being the facility in which Lacino is housed). One of the other men in the same prison, Dwight Henley, said, “The cases have surpassed 50. Three guys have been hospitalized for severe (COVID-19) infection. This place is housing guys in dayrooms. One guy tested positive today in the 1-unit day room, so the other 10-15 guys were relocated to building 300-school building. The problem is much worse, however. Many prisoners are refusing to report their symptoms fearing isolation and moving. Although I can not verify this, one staff said not all guys on quarantine are getting tested. They are simply being quarantined for a period of time and then placed back into population.”

I was worried about my friend before last month, but knowing how quickly the coronavirus is spreading through his facility makes my fears all the worse. I write this all simply because it’s literally inhumane to cage people in general, but especially in close proximity and without reinforcements to keep safe and healthy during a fatal pandemic. Lacino, just like hundreds of thousands of other incarcerated people across America, could be infected by the virus (if he’s not already, I haven’t spoken with him recently) and would possibly receive absolutely no medical care for the impending symptoms. There is no reason at all for states to keep people locked in cages and left to die instead of releasing them to their families or awaiting resources outside of the cell walls. I know many governors are considering or implementing the release of “low-risk, vulnerable, nonviolent people,” but we also have to reckon with those labels, or rather the labels “violent” and “dangerous” and why we believe only the former group of people deserves to live. For now, I can only wait for Lacino’s letter and hope that he and everyone he’s locked up with stays safe.