‘Am I going to die in prison?’: Incarcerated person recalls life in jail during pandemic

Gabriel Little Dog spent 10 months in jail during the pandemic

By: - April 25, 2021 6:15 am

Gabriel Little Dog fishes with his 13-year-old son, Benton, on March. 18, 2021.

Two masks. Bars of motel-sized hand soap. A cleaning solution akin to bleach.

Those are the items Gabriel Little Dog, 45, said he received at the Montana State Prison to help fight the coronavirus behind bars.

Watching the pandemic take a grip on the rest of society struck fear inside him, he said.

“You hear on TV about people dying,” he said. He wondered if his chances were worse if he contracted the virus in confinement, inside the men’s prison in Deer Lodge. “You’re stuck … ‘If I get it will I die?’ That’s what’s going through your mind.”

In early March 2020, Little Dog was just four months away from parole. In the facility that can house some 1,600 people, he played cribbage, watched television, and hung out with his friends.

On the weekends, before he faced disciplinary action, he spent as many as 10 hours with his wife and son with his full visitation rights, he said. During the week, he said he talked to them on the phone even more.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic reached Montana. Outside the prison, restaurants started closing voluntarily. Shoppers raided grocery stores. People flocked to trails.

On March 26, then-Gov. Steve Bullock issued a stay-at-home order.

Little Dog wasn’t going anywhere. But as prison guards tried to keep the contagious virus from slipping inside the walls and causing an uncontrollable outbreak, the Blackfeet man’s life came to a grinding halt even within the limits of the compound.

He didn’t get a surgical mask until October, more than six months after a test result showed Montana had its first case of COVID-19. During peak months of the pandemic, he said he and other people in the facility were not allowed to go outside. At times, he said he spent 23 hours a day in his cell.

“We could go out for one hour to make phone calls and shower,” he said.

Little Dog even missed things like getting snacks from the vending machine.

Editor’s note: On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and two days later, the coronavirus was confirmed in Montana. Since then, Montana has counted more than 104,000 cases and more than 1,400 deaths. This month in an occasional series, the Daily Montanan is talking with people about how the pandemic changed their lives. If you know someone you believe would be good to talk with about living through the pandemic, or if you would like to share your story, please email the Daily Montanan at [email protected]

The July parole he had waited for evaporated. The treatment center he had planned to be released to closed from COVID-19, and all he could do was wait.

“All prerelease centers were closed,” he said.

All told, Little Dog served 10 months of his nearly three-year sentence at Montana State Prison in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. At the tail end of his sentence, he caught COVID-19.

But getting infected wasn’t even the worst part, he said in a recent sitdown interview. The most challenging part, he said, was not seeing his children and wife and worrying about his elderly parents.

“It is a horrible thing. You don’t even know how much you take simple stuff for granted,” he said.

***

According to the most recent data from the Department of Corrections, 487 people in prison and 182 staff have come down with COVID-19 at the men’s prison in Deer Lodge.

In total, 980 people jailed in Montana prisons throughout the state and 224 staff have caught the virus. Six inmates have died.

The DOC said incarcerated people who tested positive were isolated. Still, if multiple positive cases were identified in an area of the facility, offenders were placed in cohort isolation or quarantine with others who had already been exposed to the virus.

Prison workers provided each incarcerated person with two cloth masks in April, but it wasn’t until a breakout in October that they distributed surgical masks.

There was no mask mandate for the incarcerated people, but a memo was provided to MSP staff that mandated they wear masks on May 6, 2020, according to Carolynn Bright
communications director at the Montana Department of Corrections.

The DOC workers complied with Bullock’s executive order and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline, Bright said.

Now, the vaccine is actively being offered to those who want it in prison.

According to Bright, 1,238 vaccination doses were administered in their facilities as of April 16. In Deer Lodge, 504 people, or roughly one third of the population, are fully vaccinated.

***

Little Dog said prison guards could have handled the pandemic better.

“They weren’t up to speed on anything. They were confused themselves. A lot of workers for maybe three or four months didn’t wear masks,” he said. “They could have listened to us. But they treat us like animals.”

People jailed at the facility weren’t offered testing until some started getting sick from the virus, he said. As the pandemic progressed, testing became more frequent, but to receive a test, people jailed at the facility had to sign a waiver clearing the DOC of any liability should they test positive.

Part of Bullock’s executive order, which continued with the Gov. Greg Gianforte administration, directed the early release of medically compromised people and others nearing the end of their sentences — an effort that only led to the release of eight jailed people as of Jan. 22.

Little Dog’s wife, Laurie Little Dog, an advocate for incarcerated people’s rights, said the pandemic should have compelled the board of pardons to move him earlier.

“But they just didn’t have their act together,” she said.

In November, Little Dog got sick. He was brought to the infirmary, where he was told he had contracted the virus.

“I was frightened ‘cause there were people dying at all different ages,” he said. “It wasn’t just affecting old folks … so it was like, am I going to die in prison? Am I not going to see my kids again?”

He said he was offered remdesivir but opted out because he did not feel incredibly ill — a decision he would later have mixed feelings on. He described the virus as feeling like a strong case of the flu but eventually said it moved to his lungs, where it caused him trouble breathing for months.

After testing positive, Little Dog said he was sent back to his cell with his cellmate who had not tested positive and whose mom had recently died after contracting the virus.

“Quarantine was just being locked in the cell,” he said.

Little Dog said the COVID lockdown was much harder for other people, but luckily his cellmate was a relative on his mom’s side. Along with having a friendly cellmate, Little Dog knew his time in jail would be coming to an end, so he focused on that to get through the elevated isolation brought on by the pandemic.

***
Little Dog spent two years and eight months at Deer Lodge after pleading guilty to criminal endangerment and threats to official matters in 2017.

According to a Flathead Beacon article, Prosecutors said Little Dog threatened his wife with a knife, punched her and pulled her hair during an argument at their home. Prosecutors also said he threatened to kill her in multiple jailhouse phone calls.

His wife, who was referred to by prosecutors as his girlfriend at the time, said his incarceration resulted from the criminalization of mental health and racial biases against Native Americans. When Gabriel threatened her in 2017, she said she called for a mental health responder.

“I just wanted him to get a mental health evaluation, and they twisted what I said into a domestic dispute, which led to the criminal charges,” she said. Despite her pleas, she said Gabriel didn’t get appropriate mental health care until he was out of custody and back on his reservation.

Before COVID-19 shut down visitations, Little Dog was facing disciplinary action and was stripped of his visitation rights for six months — a punishment unintentionally furthered by the pandemic.

Instead of in-person visitations, Bullock’s order granted incarcerated people one free 10-minute video and one phone call every week. But the system was fraught with technical difficulties and an unfavorable incarcerated-person-to-phone ratio.

The lack of communication took its toll on his relationship with his son, his wife said.

“The lack of consistency in the relationship was so critically affected … if he calls during school hours, that kiddo gets left behind,” she said.

Little Dog said he was never able to make a video call, and his wife said their time together disappeared.

“Most families are lucky to have, like, 10 hours of quality time every weekend … we had a really strong network, and then bam,” she said.

The DOC recently announced that it is starting to bring back visitation rights.

Little Dog was released on Dec. 18, 2020. In early March, he graduated from in-patient drug treatment at Crystal Creek Lodge Treatment Center.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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