In September 2020 we received a letter from a service user in the US, who described the extreme conditions many people in his prison had to endure as COVID swept the globe.

In response to the pandemic, we sent messages out to consular staff worldwide to tell us if prisoners needed more support related to COVID and we were able to provide funds. This included sending payments to prisons to buy PPE and sanitiser for prisoners.

I’ve been in jail now for over seven years waiting for a trial. Being on remand here is hard – for most of that time I’ve not even seen the outside world and only breathed fresh air a handful of times. Unlike convicted prisoners, we have no TVs or radios in our cells. We have nothing but bare walls. Not even a chair or desk.

I was here through the whole ongoing COVID pandemic. We have very limited access to news but we tried to follow what was happening. The first thing the jail did was take away all our services – no library, no law library, no haircuts, no classes, no doctor or dentist visits. As soon as it looked like the courts were closing I filed a demand for a trial to stop them trying to hold me indefinitely, but they stopped all the demands, even though there is no authority to do that in this state, and they told us they were now holding us indefinitely – just like I feared.

There were 40 guys in my cell block. In March one guy said he couldn’t smell anything. When I got back to my cell my cellmate started opening food items and sticking them under my nose. “SNIFF THIS!” I couldn’t smell a thing. Neither could he. In the days that followed nor could anyone else in our block.

At first the symptoms were annoying – sniffles, coughs, lack of energy. A cloud of despair settled over our block. No one spoke and everyone sat around looking morose.

Then we got sicker – first I started to get back headaches, then I started to have trouble breathing, then I felt nauseous and had diarrhoea. My cellmate had diarrhoea really bad which is horrible when you’re stuck in the cell together. By this point the jail had realised something bad was happened and was keeping us all locked in our cells all day except to shower and make a quick phone call.

Then the chest pains started. That was the worst. It felt like you were having a heart attack. If they staff thought you were showing symptoms they would take you out, give you a face mask, and then put you back on the block. We were all thinking we were going to die.

Then the dying started for real. Seven of us died in quick succession, and even the guard from our cell block died.

By early April 2020 over 500 detainees had tested positive and over 250 guards. I only ever saw one person testing, but almost everyone they tested was positive. No one wanted to be tested because if you came up positive they would drag you to a horrible building and stick you in a huge dormitory with all the other infected people.

They tried to social distance us by converting the whole jail to single-man cells, but they needed more cells to do that. Instead of releasing more people they reopened all the buildings they’d shuttered years before due to age and dilapidation.

I was moved to one of those buildings. It was horrid. Nothing worked. Toilets and taps all broken. Our cells were all flooded for weeks – my bunk was an island. There was no heat. I literally could not sleep as I was so cold even wearing every piece of clothing I owned. They gave us an extra blanket but everything was damp. The water was the colour of mud in the sinks since all the pipes had rusted due to disuse. The only plus was there were a lot less cockroaches and mice in this old building, but since summer solved the flooding we’ve been overrun with ants and flies.

The ones who had recovered after testing positive were double-celled as they were ‘immune’ now and didn’t need social distancing. The court had ordered the rest of us to stay single-celled but the appeals court overturned that on a legal error and the jail quickly started jamming everyone back in with cellmates. Everyone immediately started getting sick again, even the guys who were ‘immune’ now tested positive a second time.

Right now is the middle of September and we’re in quarantine yet again – only out of our cells for a short time each day. There are 24 guys on my block, but two were just taken out as they tested positive.

Well, that was my experience of COVID in jail in the world’s richest country. God help those in poorer regions. I’ve not been to court in 8 months. I’m told it’ll be another year at least before they restart trials, so COVID has cost me at least 18 months of my life.

The only upside has been that the jail started to allow a 15-minute Skype call every week so I’ve been able to see my family in the UK, which has been nice. As we all know, one of the biggest issues with being locked up abroad is not getting to see a friendly face.

Providing life-saving services in a time of crisis.

Prisoners Abroad translates human rights law into practical life-saving actions by providing prisoners access to vitamins and essential food, emergency medical care, freepost envelopes to keep in touch with home and books and magazines to help sustain mental health. During the pandemic, we have expanded our services to respond to those most in need.

Can you help to support our life-saving work by donating today?