Ronald Owens, aka “Cornbread,” lives in Lynn, Massachusetts. He spent 13 years in a Massachusetts maximum security prison, where he and Noel Ignatiev met in 1996 as pen pals. They remained close friends ever since.
What has life been like for you during this time?
I used to run to Connecticut to assist Noel. I still do that with a gentleman from my prep school days who stays at a nice senior housing facility. I’m the person – because he is older and has no children – I go get his provisions from the market. My mother and aunt live in less affluent senior housing. I live in Lynn. So, it’s like a ten-minute drive. I do their shopping at the market. Some of the other people I know who don’t have cars, I get their list of things they need from the store. My mother’s a diabetic so I pick up her medicine.
My other aunt just passed away this past Friday. She was COPD with respiratory problems even before COVID. They took her out of the nursing home, and she passed away not so long after. Sad times. But I was able to help my family along with it. And, at least she wasn’t in pain. All I want to do now is take time to remember all the great things about her life. We can’t do it in a memorial fashion right now because of all of this which is very difficult. I have two cousins who have to self-quarantine because they were in the nursing home with her.
For myself, I’ve taken very stringent protocols to adhere to practicing good hygiene. I am finding it difficult to find toilet paper and Lysol. Other than that, it’s been pretty good.
I’ve got no wife, no kids in the background, so I don’t have anyone to take care of. I don’t go out of the house until 3pm. I stay up all night. You never know what’s going to happen with people in the apartment home. I’ve got a nice little routine. I walk down every evening just to stay agile. I don’t want to get too much inertia in my life.
Has this changed your income at all?
I live on a disability check and I’ve always been frugal, but yes, I don’t have the opportunities that I usually do. I do yard work and other handy man jobs. Right now that is totally off the table. It’s very tight financially right now. I’ve got $15-20 on me. That’s ok. I’ve got food and water here in the house.
Does this remind you of any other time in your life?
I was in Walpole state penitentiary here in Massachusetts. We were locked in our individual cells for twenty-two and a half hours a day, while also being in the state’s highest security prison. At that time, we were in the middle of the longest lockdown. You are locked down, so you use your limited time to take a shower. It reminds me of that in that I’ve done a lot of studying and spent a lot of time on the internet watching documentaries and YouTube talk programs. Something that can upgrade my mind spiritually. I do a lot of reading and try to keep an exercise regime. Not quite like I did when I was in Walpole. Then I did even more exercise and lots of reading.
What kind of spirituality do you seek?
During the whole season of Lent, there is something every day for their followers to read. Buddhism, Taoism, what people in churches are going through in terms of being locked down. I haven’t started anything on Ramadan. But I’ll find a Muslim teaching at some point. I’ll start reading the Art of War again or Machiavelli. I’ve always been a nerd in that regard. My love of the written word is how I met Noel Ignatiev when I was in prison. Other inmates wanted photos of hot women and talk of sexual favors. Not me. I wanted literature and a chance to think through things. We started off as pen pals. He would send me literature, then I would write back and we would discuss it. Eventually he came to visit me. He would bring John Henry (his son) to visit too, so he could get the experience. We were friends ever since. I met Noel in 1996 and we stayed in touch. He was a Renaissance man.
How else does this remind you of a Lockdown?
It seems like there is a bigger potential for a maniacal thing to happen right now. People who might be in a situation that was on the edge, might be walking time bombs, because they don’t have a distraction like work.
The stress makes a person a time bomb. I am more worried of that now even more than when I was in prison. When you are in a “free” society, you don’t normally think along those lines. You like to think this is a different environment. But, now you have to wonder, because everyone is in their own home prison. People who are thrust into it may not know how to handle it. When your home turns into a prison, which is supposed to be everyone’s castle, it may be harder.
There’s a fear factor. Everyone does not know.
Some of the chivalry and social norms are tattered right now. That whole thing about women and children first doesn’t work when you are standing socially distanced in a line at the grocery store.
I am starting to see what I lived with for those thirteen and a half years while I was incarcerated out here. Prison is an artificially contrived environment. So, in the prison system, you are supposed to have constitutional rights, but you are like serfs. It’s the same way out here. Municipalities and states are doing things differently. I’m wondering after all of this how people are going to reconcile the idea of individual freedoms with government dictates. It’s a good petri dish not only to study people’s reactions to a pandemic, but also people’s reactions to the government forces that are sending out new rules, that a couple of months ago no one would have ever thought would affect them.
Have you had any other insights during this time?
I believe more people are cognizant about the frailty of human life because normally we think if you are a young age, from 9th grade up to 35-40 that life is still ahead of you. You can stumble and make mistakes. But with the pandemic spawn, more people are starting to understand the frailty of being alive. Hopefully that translates into a more spiritual awakening.
I think many people are putting family first right now which is great. We are paying more attention to the things that matter.
That whole non-essential worker shit is total bullshit. Regular people, young people, old people, people from low economic backgrounds are all being impacted by this. And yet, all of those stores are open — the distribution points, the supply chain. It’s not like everything is shut down. We don’t have a national guard rationing out things like food.
Say you are a waitress, and work at a place that has good food, good atmosphere, good tips, a good social scene and you are still able to go home and do your school work. So, all that’s taken away from you. But, if you are a federal worker, whether you work or not, you are still getting a check. Those federal checks are still coming on a regular basis. Those people’s ability to earn money hasn’t been interrupted through any of this. If they stayed at home, they still get paid. I’ve been thinking about how that whole dynamic is thrust upon society. They call that a silent war. This is worldwide. That’s what makes it even scarier. It reveals such a class dynamic.
What about the large sector of people who work remotely and are completely outside of the federal government’s categories of essential and non-essential?
Well, thanks for bringing that up. I hadn’t thought of that. We obviously know that the affluent are doing much better than others in the world. We’ve moved past Darwin where the strong survive to now where the affluent survive. It’s not a theory of Darwinism anymore. It’s a theory of Capitalism.
Knowing that there is a world being affected by this, why is there is no in depth news about how this is playing out in other parts of the world, like in Africa, for example? In Africa, you have the locusts eating up all of the vegetation in the crops. Now you might hear about how people are upset in France, but you don’t hear much about the locusts. The powers that be are holding all that information close to the vest, which is worrisome.
You would think this time would be something like out of a Marvel movie where you would have the very best from all over the world come together to figure this out, but that’s not what we have. We have a bunch of bickering. We are supposed to be at our most advanced societal stage on this planet which we call our home.
Over the next days and weeks we hope to continue publishing stories about daily life amid the Coronavirus. We are looking for testimonials from everyday people about workplace safety, unemployment and housing issues, struggles with paying bills and taking care of their loved ones as well as any acts of solidarity and collective action in these very difficult times. We want to hear from you! If you have a story that you want to share with us, please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.