A PA Man is Punished for Getting Sick -- 
and Sanctioned for Speaking Out

Shaun Campbell, Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

This multimedia reportage includes a short film about Shaun Campbell 's experience with COVID at State Correctional Institute - Phoenix, a maximum security state prison in Collegeville, PA. It also includes original writing by Shaun about his mistreatment and the despair he experienced before he was released from SCI-Phoenix on May 9th. 

During his bout with the virus, Shaun was denied timely and adequate treatment, held in solitary confinement for four months, and denied access to mental health services. His elderly cellmate died, and a window in the cell block filled with posted photos of many residents who passed away. When Campbell used the video visitation system to speak out about the PA Department of Corrections’ failure to protect residents’ health, he was sanctioned and denied visitation.

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Shaun Campbell was serving the last few months of his 11-year sentence when he was infected with COVID-19 at SCI-Phoenix, a maximum security state prison northwest of Philadelphia. His experience of COVID behind bars reveals a series of failures to protect residents’ health and to respect basic dignity and human rights. 

According to Campbell, corrections officers purposefully ignored basic COVID prevention techniques, such as masking, hand-washing and sanitizing of surfaces and equipment. When this resulted in a deadly pandemic, the prison administration dragged its feet on diagnosing COVID and withheld basic medical care to those with obvious symptoms. Campbell lost his sense of smell and taste, then started throwing up. But because he didn’t have a fever, he was sent back to his cell. “Other people had the same symptoms I had, and the DOC refused them a simple test,” Campbell said. “That means that the virus was being contracted and spread throughout the prison by people who had clear COVID symptoms as described by the CDC.” 

Once residents were diagnosed with COVID, prison officials authorized the use of solitary confinement for as much as four months. “Most dehumanizing of all, the COs treated us like we had done something wrong,” Campbell emphasized. “Like it was our fault that we got sick, and lived.” Campbell was placed in an “observation cell” that was monitored with cameras 24 hours a day, leaving him with absolutely no privacy. At the same time, the prison denied psychological support to him and others who were isolated and struggling with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

As a result of this mistreatment, many other residents chose not to report their illnesses, leading to additional spread of the virus. The prison experienced numerous deaths among residents, especially among the elderly, including Shaun’s cellmate who was in fragile health. Summing up, Campbell calls the experience of COVID at Phoenix “one of the worst times of my life.” 

Interviews with Campbell were conducted during video visitation hours. Two video meetings, carried out in compliance with all publicly available rules and regulations, were completed without any problems. However, during a third video visit, two officers abruptly entered the visitation room and gruffly called out, “The visit’s over,” a scene recorded in the video. 

Campbell was later convicted of misconduct as a result of this visit and barred for one month from any type of visitation. Prison authorities asserted that Campbell violated a rule against giving an interview. However, he is proud of his efforts to spread the word about the PA Department of Correction’s response to COVID-19. “To suffer for getting my story out was worth anything the State could conjure up,” he says. “If I could go back and do it over, I would.” He firmly believes that prison authorities sanctioned him to silence his voice about the severe shortcomings of their response to the pandemic. 

On May 9, 2021, Shaun Campbell was released from SCI-Phoenix after serving his 11-year sentence. This is his story.

CHAPTER 1: The Punishment for Getting Sick

Shaun Campbell

November 2020

I was asked by a good friend to write something about what doing time is like in the COVID-era, and to point out some of the things that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has done and is doing to "protect" us from this pandemic. Let me be the first to point out that I am just one man in a seemingly endless sea of humanity that is currently imprisoned during this pandemic, and my story and opinion is just one out of hundreds of thousands of people who have been locked up since the start of the pandemic. I hope that more people who have their own stories to share can one day bring their experiences into the light.

Being asked to give an account of what I've gone through and to do it in a way that doesn't make me feel like a ranting madman is a bit of a challenge. I am going to give my account more as a logbook then as a story. My hope is that whoever might read this will get a basic understanding of what doing time is and has been like for people in prisons. 

At the beginning of April, we started to hear about the COVID-19 virus. We watched the news and heard the growing concerns from the CDC, state government, and local officials. The prison (SCI Phoenix) was still running the same way it always had for the three years it has been open. Main yard, chow lines, and mandatory programming were still running like clockwork. Even library, gym, and chapel services were still active weeks after we heard about COVID.

The first response the administration attempted—and I do mean attempted—was to order the correctional officers (COs) to wear facemasks. The order was widely rejected by the staff, because "they are not N-95 masks and would not protect [them] from the virus." For three days after the order, most COs had no masks. The fourth day, a call was put over the jail’s intercoms that “all staff and residents are to have masks on at all times.” For three days, the same message was given, three times a day. By then, the virus had already been introduced into our prison community.

As most of you might imagine, we don't get to just leave the compound, so there are only a few ways that the virus can be introduced into our isolated population. The largest threat of this comes from the staff that we must interact with every day. Yes, the same ones who would not wear what we now know as “life-saving masks,” even when ordered to. Their care was never for our safety, but their own. 

My first realization of this happened one day in mid-April when I saw a CO not wearing a mask when he was passing out lunch to my block in the early days of the statewide lockdown. I asked him to put a mask on while handling our food. He told me, "I don't give a &%$# about these masks," and, "I've been tested." I told him that the head of the CDC said that I wear a mask to protect you, and you wear one to protect me. He told me again how he did not care and that he gets to go home. This logic baffled me, to say the least. Yes, he can go home and bring the virus in and breathe it onto my food, and pass it out with the food he's giving other people.

Halfway through April, the prison had its first case. One week later, my block, E-Block, was dubbed a COVID hotspot. My celly at the time was a 70-year-old man who was at very high risk. He contracted COVID and had to be sent to the infirmary. I was told to pack his things, which I did. All the possessions he'd had were put into bags and placed in a closet. I contracted the virus one week later.

When I got sick, the jail was already on lockdown. The three-stage system went as follows. Stage 1: stopping all outside visits and visitors. Stage 2: ending all non-mandatory programming and activities. Stage 3: ending all meals in the mess hall and movement off the block. We were on Stage 3 Quarantine when I got sick, where we were not allowed out of our cells for phone calls and were denied showers for two weeks.

My first symptom was the loss of taste and smell. Then the next day, I could not keep any solids or liquids down. Knowing that my celly tested positive, it was safe to assume that I too had contracted COVID. We were told that if we had any symptoms, to let the medical staff know and they would help. The doctor had the medical staff going to every cell in the jail taking people’s temperature. If we had a temp over 99.0, we were sent to be tested. I was not showing a high temp, but I kept getting sick, so I put a sick call slip in, which is how we request to see a doctor. I waited through the following day; no one showed to treat me. Knowing that what I had could be life-threatening, I asked for an emergency pass to medical. Two COs walked me down in the middle of the night. When I got there, the nurse took my temp and told me that I didn't have a fever. I asked, “What does that mean?” She said, "No fever, No COVID,” and sent me back to the block.

I remember this to be one of the most terrifying nights I've had in jail. I couldn't sleep. I had to spend it sitting next to my stainless steel toilet, getting sick all night long. The next day a doc finally responded to my sick call slip. She took my temp and checked my breathing. She told me that she heard a slight wheezing sound and wanted to have me tested. I got tested and came up positive.

It’s at this time that I would like to point out to the reader the utter abandonment of reason by the DOC. This administration has prided itself on the low number of confirmed COVID cases in the last eight months. There has not been any widespread testing for COVID, nor COVID antibodies. The only time tests were given was if a fever was detected. I never showed a fever. Other people had the same symptoms I had, and the DOC refused them a simple test. That means that the virus was being contracted and spread throughout the prison by people who had clear COVID symptoms as described by the CDC. But the DOC was instructed to classify them as negative.

I was taken to the infirmary after my test. I was there for only two days before I was moved to a quarantine block. The block that the prison chose for us was a Maximum Security block that was designed to be a Restricted Housing Unit for housing people with misconducts or Death Row prisoners. We only had 30 minutes out alone to shower or use the phone. There were 12 people on the block with me. We had to spend about four months in forced solitary confinement. We did not have access to any of the small amenities that were given to the rest of the prison. No access to kiosks for emails. No access to the yard or sunshine. Not even windows that can be seen through. And most dehumanizing of all, COs treated us like we had done something wrong. Like it was our fault that we got sick, and lived.

We were allowed to get our property after five days on the quarantine block. Most of our things were either broken or missing. When the COs came with my things, it was labeled with my name and number, but it was someone else's, not mine. It belonged to someone else. I can't imagine how they could screw something like that up.

The next day, when they came back with my things I found half of my personal property missing. My personal information, my legal info, pictures of my father who passed away. It’s the policy of the DOC to make a “Personal Property Inventory Sheet.” It lists every item that is packed and transferred. One was never made for me. When I tried to get some kind of justice for myself, I was told I had to show an inventory sheet.

The DOC had very little consideration for the people who got sick, so you can imagine what the rest of the population was going through. In June, when I was released from the quarantine block, the prison was still on a lockdown. The DOC had created a new five-tier system. Tier 5, one cell at a time, 15 minutes one day for phones and emails, 15 minutes for showers the next. Tier 4, four cells at a time, 40 minutes for showers and phones. Tier 3, eight cells at a time, 45 minutes, twice a day, for phone, shower, and yard. Tier 2, 16 cells at a time, 30 minutes in the morning, then two 45 minute block-outs. Tier 1, back to normal operations. We have not gotten to Tier 1 yet. We will most likely not go to a Tier 1 until a viable vaccine is given to the whole population and staff. 

It seems like this lockdown will go on for a long time. With no end in sight.

Religious (Church, Jumar, Temple, Native American) services that were held in the prison chapel have been stopped altogether. A chaplain is assigned to three of our 13 blocks. Even though they are always some of the most caring employees of the prison, they are tasked with trying to care for 1000 people’s spiritual needs. Most aren't even the same denomination as the people they are assigned to cover. And can only manage to make it to any one block once a week. And to each cell only for a few moments. 

Religious services are broadcast on a channel that can only be seen if you bought a $200 television and paid a month in advance for cable. If you don't have a TV, one is not provided to us by the prison. If a family member is sick or we are in need of spiritual guidance, we are for the most part on our own. No confession. No Communion. No Holiday services. Not even memorial serves are held to remember the people we have known for years and who have passed during the pandemic. Or from it for that matter.

Our food gets brought to us. Most of the time, it comes cold. And we almost never get flatwear to eat with. The DOC can't even provide something to eat with. So how are we to trust that they really care about keeping us safe?

In the last seven months, I have spent four months in a cell by myself. I have developed some emotional and mental issues. Most of you have seen advertisements on TV about getting help with any emotional issues you might have from being cooped up in your homes. The only help here that is offered is from one Psych who has to treat hundreds of people. I have asked this person for help. She has not seen me one-on-one. We are expected to share our issues through our cell door, for all to hear. 

I cannot get counseling here for any of the many mental and emotional issues that come with prolonged solitary confinement. I was just sent to receive medication instead of actual therapy. What equates to a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Both are caused by the poor reaction by the DOC, and in my opinion, by this administration caring more about keeping their COVID numbers down than the people their hastily-created policies affect, and the long-term damage they are causing, have caused, and will cause for years to come.

The most troubling thing I feel is the encouragement of the people here to work on our "emotional resilience." Having the people who are responsible for all that happens within these walls telling us to "man up" and “be more resilient” puts the shortcomings of their policies on us. That’s to say that it’s my emotional shortcomings that are at the root of any suffering I have, and will have, because of my time in prison during this pandemic.

Treatment for mental health issues has not been the only thing that has suffered since the start of the COVID pandemic. 

Most people call prisons by different names. These names all have their roots in the history of our country. Most stem from before the era of “Mass Incarceration” began in the colonial justice system or European justice system. For example, “The Pen” or “Penitentiary” comes from the first prisons created by the Quakers in the 18th century. They were created and designed for the incarcerated person to pray on their crimes. Being penitent was the intended avenue for a person to become reformed. Hence the name “Penitentiary.”  

Today in most states, the Department of Corrections is the name given to the governing body that is assigned the task of reforming people to reenter our communities. One commits a crime and is sent to an institution to be “corrected.” This is accomplished by a wide range of DOC-prescribed programming. 

At the heart of almost all of these programs is CBT—Cognitive Behavior Therapy. CBT uses group therapy to look at how one thinks and tries to challenge their thought processes and value systems, with the goal of the person changing the behaviors that brought them to prison by changing their thought processes. Being in a group allows the facilitator to get the participants to give vital feedback to the group members, which can get someone to look at how they think and act differently. Cell work is given, which is to be completed and reflected on over the week; then, questions can be answered and insight given to the participant.

I tell you all of this because groups are the core of the current corrections system that the state depends on to keep our communities safe, even though I believe there are other, more effective, and humanizing ways to accomplish this. This is what we’ve got, like it or not. Now, we cannot meet in groups. The new way the DOC is trying to administer these groups is in packet form.

Packets are dropped in our cells with a "complete by" date on them. We have no instruction or explanation of the material. No feedback from facilitators or group members. No one to let us know if we are actually doing the cell work correctly. And no one to push back on how we think or to point out how risky our actions have been—and may continue to be—to ourselves and the people around us.

It’s like being given the homework to a class and never getting a lesson. The DOC has forced their facilitators to throw together work relevant to that group’s overall general theme, expecting the people completing these packets to have deep, life-changing revelations about their behavior. Imagine if it were that easy. No jails. We would just give people who commit crimes a packet, problem solved. Unfortunately, problems that stem from a lifetime of problematic and unhealthy thinking can't be solved so easily, let alone solving all of the other issues our system has. 

Morale continues to be low, and will continue to be, here at SCI Phoenix. We are all just waiting for the next case of COVID to pop up. The next "step back" to a restricted lockdown. The next CO to test positive and bring more death into our little captive community. The next news that another one of us has passed because of an unseen virus that has caught a ride on one of our captors. Fearing people on the block might label us unclean like the lepers of old. Fearing that the isolation might never end. Fearing a vaccine might not come soon enough to protect us and our families. Hoping we are one of the lucky ones. Hoping that one day we might get help for months of isolation and state-made madness. Hoping that doing our time can once again be a meaningful, productive, and healing experience.

CHAPTER 2: The Aftermath of Anger

Shaun Campbell

March 2021

They say that when you observe something, you can't avoid changing or impacting the subject that you are observing. This goes for people in prison too. In my case, I was offered the opportunity to share my experience of what life in prison was/is like in the era of Covid. I gave my personal observations in written and video form. I am very thankful that anyone would be interested in listening to my story. 

When I first started to share what life is like in prison since the beginning of the pandemic, I attempted to do it as a "Just The Facts" article. As if I was a fly on the wall. Like it’s someone else's story and not my own. It wasn't until I was asked, "How did it make you feel?" during our last video interview, I realized that I was allowed to feel anything at all about any of it. It never dawned on me that how I feel was of any value to people. That cold, hard facts are just that: cold and hard. And without emotions, a basic humanizing aspect of the events are missed. 

I can say that at this point in time, after the fact, that I feel angry. Angry that some of the DOC and its employees treated us so poorly. Angry that we were treated with anything but basic human dignity early on in this pandemic. Especially those of use who were sick. Now that we are a year into the pandemic, policies and protocols have been improved. But those of us who were sick in the first wave will always remember how the system failed us. 

Lastly, I feel pride. During the last interview I had to complete my story, a Captain and Lieutenant burst into the room and covered the camera. Telling me that "The visit’s over!" and ordering an officer to "Take him back to his cell.” They did not want me to give an interview. I was silenced. They then gave me misconduct for giving an interview. They then took my visits for 30 days. 

I have never been more proud of anything in my life. To suffer for getting my story out was worth anything the State could conjure up. If I could go back and do it over, I would. I believe that when people look back and try to uncover the truth of what prison was like during the pandemic, there will be people there trying to cover it back up. I do hope that other people get their stories out. And people realize that we are willing to suffer anything to have them be heard. 

I also believe that it’s worth pointing out that the stories we have about life in prison in the era of mass incarceration are no less important to be shared and heard. And that what is "Uncovered by Covid" are systemic issues that existed well before the pandemic hit a single prison, or affected a single American. And when people choose to observe the stories, and the people they represent, they stand to change the environment they are learning about. Just by looking inside of a prison, a person can change it and the people who work and live there. One can have a positive impact by just observing what we have and continue to experience. So, thank you for looking inside.

CHAPTER 3: What Will Remain of Me?

Shaun Campbell

March 2021

It’s midnight. I've been awoken by what can only be described as a night terror. I look around my prison cell. Trying to make out anything that could be a threat to me. It takes a few moments to realize that I must have been sleeping. I attempt to convince myself that it was just a dream, and try to fall back asleep. 

Morning comes and I brush my teeth, wash my face, and silently reflect on the night before. I then stand at my prison door, and wait for it to open. I listen to the sounds of slamming cell doors, people yelling, and COs barking orders. I listen with an alertness that I only have known in prison. I think I hear people talking about me. Are they talking about me? Or are sounds of people and prison acting like an audio Rorschach inkblot? 

I tense up, and with a hyper sense of defensiveness and anxiety, I start to search my memories for other times when I felt this way. My celly asks me if I am good. I lie and tell him I'm fine. I've been going through the same emotional mania for as long I can remember. I start to go to my default setting, depression. The cell door opens and I put my mask on. The mask with the standard 1000 yard stare. I can’t let anyone know how I'm feeling. I can't show weakness. 

I get back to my cell but I can't get this mask off. I feel every part of my body tense up. I tell myself that I am fine. Maybe tomorrow will be different. It’s not. I hold all the weight of my emotions and then pack it on top of 1000 days that came before this one. 

I decide to write one of the prison psychologists. Maybe they can help me cut some of this emotional baggage off that I've been holding onto for the last decade. They come to my door and want me to speak to them about the most personal emotions I have for all to hear. I tell them I don't want to talk in front of people. They walk away. 

I am left feeling like no one wants to help me. Then I convince myself with disturbing quickness that I don't deserve help. Who cares about if I get help. Who can help? I think to myself maybe it would be better to end it. I lay down to sleep and think it over. I decide against it for the moment. 

I fall asleep. I am awakened yet again by another bad dream. How long was I out? How many hours have I been awake? I lay there thinking what the record is for staying awake. I contemplate what kind of person I will be when I get to go home. I think about the soldiers in WWII. About how battle fatigued troops were called cowards. And about when they were sent home, they were given the diagnosis of PTSD. 

It’s morning again. I have to put my mask back on. I will not be seen as a coward. Uh...another day, another bag to put on the pile. Each day that passes, it gets harder and harder to hide it all. I think I'm going crazy. Am l crazy? Does it really matter? 

I ask one last time to be seen by a psychologist. They tell me that there's nothing that they can do but medicate me. They tell me I should take a pill for my anxiety, one for depression, and one to help me sleep. I ask them if it would be possible just to meet one-on-one. I feel like talking about what I am experiencing is important. They tell me that their caseload makes it impossible to meet weekly. They say each prison block only has one psychologist. 

So I do the math. (There are 2 sides on each block, each side has 2 tiers, each tier has 36 cells, there are 2 people in each cell. So 36×2=72, 72×2=144, 144×2=288.). There are 288 people on my prison block. I walk back to my cell. I can't stop running the numbers. 1 psychologist for 288 people? I wonder how that can even be possible. Even if they work 24 hours a day, they could only meet with 168 people a week. 

I start to think about what medication might do for and to me. I reluctantly decided to take the State’s medication. The psychologist tells me that when I go home in a few months I can get the kind of therapy I want and need. I point out to them that it’s just a Band-Aid till I'm someone else’s problem. Someone else's problem? I accept that to be a fact. I will be going home as a problem for others to fix. 

That night I get the meds. I sleep. The next few days I don't feel like myself. I feel disconnected. I feel dirty. I feel empty. I can't keep taking these pills. Better to feel like shit then feel nothing at all. Why won't someone just come and talk to me? I turn my TV on. A public information ad pops on "Are you or someone you know feeling depressed? The pandemic has hit us all hard. Call this number. You are not alone." 

Aren't I though? I am at any given moment surrounded by 100s of people, but always alone. I keep thinking about going home. Most people are more than happy to leave prison. I only can think about how me leaving as I am now would only be a problem for the people I care about. A burden they don't deserve. So I go back to that dark place, where a reality without me might play out to be a gift to the world. 

The next day comes. Yet another in the endless presentation of days that is life. Another bag for the pile. Another brick for the wall. Another scream that no one can hear. Another mask to hide my pain. Another equation to add to the problem. Another day to fight with the only weapon I know how to use. Resilience. An unwavering knowledge that I can take the pain, the madnesses, the anxiety, the depression, the sleepless nights, the nightmares, the blind eyes to my mental and emotional suffering, the fears of the future, the pain of the present, the ghosts of my past. I have to take it all. Not because I want to. Because I must. I have no other option. At least until I'm "someone else's problem." 

But whose problem? When? I imagine I will have a whole new set of problems when I go from this place. I think of what adjusting to a new normal will be like. How will I respond to people in an environment where sharing what you feel is normal and not a sign of weakness? Will I be a good friend? An understanding partner? A compassionate person? Will I trust? Will I be trusted? I contemplate all the questions I know. And all the ones life hasn't given yet, but are sure to come. Trying to create hope where none exists. I try to focus on something, anything else, just to feel as I imagine a "normal" person would feel. Anything just to not feel so broken. Not to be so broken. Even for just a few moments. 

I tell myself that suffering is both objective and subjective. That there are other people in this world that are suffering more than I am. And I should be and am grateful. This gets me through another day. Another week. Another month. Another year. It's just a Band-Aid to cover it all. Just to get by. To make me feel like all of it is not that bad. 

I think about the people who lost loved ones during the pandemic. People who can't find food. People who are in pain and suffering in all its diabolical forms. I think about my family and my friends. I think of God. Who I was when I was young. Of the man I am now. I think about the person I hope to be. I think about the people I've hurt. I think about the kind of person who would or could love me. Think about how I will love. Will I love? 

I think of what will be left of me when this is all over. I think about it ALL over and over and over again. I try to find myself in all the noise. Whatever it takes to make it into the dark void that is my tomorrow. Just one more day. just one more........ I'm getting so, so tired......... I try to sleep........... It's midnight. And I am awakened by what can only be described as a night terror.............

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