Zelda Metzger

Ivan Skrblinski


Zelda Metzger drove her 1996 Volvo in the far right lane, 1 mile per hour under the speed limit. It was 5:30pm. The traffic was unusually light for a Friday night. She was on her way to teach a creative writing class in the most unusual place—a zoo-like building with hundreds of cages. Cages for felons—killers, robbers, assaulters—the Others to your average citizen. 

When Zelda got there, she thought it odd how easy it was to find parking. Normally, she’d walk with other volunteers who came inside to support rehabilitative programs, like restorative justice and anger management, programs that help people take deep dives inside their lives. However, this was a quiet evening, with no hustle and bustle; the tranquility seemed out of place. There wasn’t a single familiar face—only guards headed to their duty posts. 

Her wooden clogs clacked against the blacktop. 

The closed gate was a new experience. She pushed a brown button that gave off a dull buzz. 

“Sorry, we’re closed for intake,” an armed guard said. 

“When can I come back?” 

The guard came to the gate and handed her a pamphlet with telephone numbers and email addresses. 

“We’re on a COVID-19 lockdown,” he said. 

Zelda sensed dread. 

There’d been lockdowns before, but not like this—COVID-19 shuttered stores and emptied classrooms—city streets were bare of pedestrians while cruise ships dared not set sail—all the state prisoners were locked in their cells. 

The world had come to a standstill. 

As she walked back to her car, she thought about people in cages. How was she to keep the class going? In the 20 years she’d been in and out of this prison, she’d never seen what the cells looked like. Now, she wondered about her students’ living conditions. 


The cells are windowless—smaller than your average Walmart parking space. The housing units are stacked five tiers high with the outer windows welded shut. There’s no ventilation. Two small doors, in the front and back of the housing units, are pathways to the tiny cells. Pigeons, however, are able to swoop through the doors and generations of mice have come inside to make the place their home. Each cell has two incarcerated people crowded inside and is cramped so tight, there’s not enough room for two cellies to stand on the cell floor at the same time. The set-up makes it difficult to get used to each other’s outlandish mannerisms and foul smells. Added insecurity—they (generally) don’t know each other. All of these oddities put a continual tension in the air—with the want of freedom—the want of more space to live one’s life—the want of anything except this lonely place. Dissimilar perspectives stemming from generational gaps spark late night grumbles that turn into scuffles. Sometimes there are fights to the death. 

Armed guards staff the prison. They stand in towers with orders to “shoot to kill” any convict trying to scale its walls. The guards go home every day and tell wild stories to their friends and family about the evildoers they face daily. Then, they come back inside to keep the convicts docile and obedient.

Think of Michel Foucault—discipline and punishment. 

We’re all doing time—the freed and the incarcerated. Think of Bo Lozoff. 

Think of exterminating undesirables. 

Then came The Age of COVID-19. 


It was the beginning of June. 

Three green and gold buses pulled into the prison, loaded with about 120 older prisoners, who were fleeing a place where COVID-19 had already killed more than a dozen folks. The idea: send medically vulnerable prisoners away from the virus. 

Before the move, all 120 had tested negative for COVID-19, but between the tests and the transfer, they were sent back to mingle in the same crowded areas where COVID-19 ran rampant. For the next two weeks, they blended in with the general population. 

They got infected. 

Manny Espinoza developed a fever the night before the transfer. 

“I think I have COVID-19,” he told the bus driver.

“Tell it to medical when you get to your new prison.” 

Manny’s shackled body was loaded into a seat next to a prisoner who just wanted to sleep. 

The bus rambled on the highway. Manny coughed. The bus rambled on and on. 

Manny’s itchy throat made him cough some more. 

The bus got to the new prison. Manny coughed in the receiving building. “Do you want a cough drop?” a kind and gentle older incarcerated person asked. Manny took the cough drop. He coughed all the way to his new cell. 

The old man with the cough drops went back to his cell, and he and his cellie played some chess, ate a meal, and talked about the new movie on the TV. 

Two days later, the old man coughed. 

The next day, the old man got a fever. 

The next day, the old man couldn’t breathe. 

The next day, the old man died. 

Two days later, his cellie coughed. 

The next day, his cellie got a fever. 

The next day, his cellie couldn’t breathe. 

The next day, his cellie died. 


Two days later, Willie Shamrock woke to the sound of a stainless steel toilet flushing. 

He pushed the button on his watch. 

“Fuck! It’s five o’clock in the morning.” 

James Mackey, his cellie, felt embarrassed for disturbing Willie so early in the morning. But he had to shit. 

Willie’s real distress came from smelling shit. A standing joke between the two—James, so tiny, packed one hell-of-a punch to his shit. 

Willie covered his face with a hand towel soaked with deodorant. Then, for added protection, he put his head under his blanket. It never worked. His eyes were open, anticipating the stench. He clenched his teeth. The toilet flushed twice more, leaving only one more on the “four flushes per hour, water-saving device.” James saved the last flush for Willie. Willie pulled the blanket off his face and cocked his head to the side. For the very first time, all his precautions against stench had worked. He wasn’t mad. 

He coughed. He felt a little warm. He coughed. He felt an ache in his shoulders. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He wondered if he was running a fever. 


The doctors said that the sick ones must be isolated to be treated and then released back to the general population. When a sick prisoner was moved out of his cell, the guards quickly replaced him with a new one. The old cellie didn’t cough or have a fever, but still infected the new one with the virus. Then the old one was moved out of the cell to be isolated, treated and released back to the general population. The guards quickly replaced the sick one with a new one. The previous new cellie infected the newly arrived person. The doctors told the guards to move the one showing the symptoms to be isolated, treated and released back into the general population. The guards kept replacing the old with the new—all the while, losing track of who was with whom. By month’s end, COVID-19 was inside and everywhere. 

The prisoners got shuffled to death. 

The exterminations were underway. 


Willie, a student in Zelda’s creative writing class, kept writing about his experience. He’d contracted the virus, but it only took his smell—food still tasted funny. Nevertheless, he was able to hold his pen firmly in his hand and push it forward with messages of hope to Zelda, his fellow students and even the courts. With all that, updates from inside still came slow and the news was scant when it did. Zelda kept following what she could to understand what was happening behind the walls. 

The powers-that-be kept her in the dark. They didn’t want her to grasp the intentional breakdown/outbreak inside—that COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire. 

She wrote letters and sent emails that went unread or unreturned. With no response to all her efforts, she worked her way up the bureaucratic ladder, until she was able to confront the top prison official. A meeting was scheduled. 

“They’re fine. They’ll be okay. We’re taking care of them,” Roger Dyson laughed and joked. 

Zelda didn’t trust his catty smile. 

With hands on hips, Dyson told her, “The governor’s letting 8,000 out!”

She looked into his eyes. 

“While he’s letting 8,000 out, how many new people are getting locked up?” 

He threw up his hands and walked in a circle. He looked like a giant chess piece, searching for a discreet square to hide in. 

The next day, he quit. 

His replacement, Karen Appleton, said 76,000 of the 95,000 prisoners were getting a time cut and that there would be new programs after the epidemic was over—to treat the opioid crisis that developed during the pandemic. 

“With all the rehabilitation programs to come, we’ll be back to normal in no time,” she told the local newspapers. 

The death rate continued to climb. 

Zelda felt like a cup of tea in a hurricane, but her faith in culture, community and God wouldn’t let her give up. In a gesture of hope, she freed 23 of her favorite pigeons. (An unknown fact: some of her pigeons were the same ones that flew inside the prison housing units.) They all came back ashen and scarred. She nursed them all back to health. Then she remembered a saying from Willie. 

“All you can do is all you can do, but all you can do is enough.” 

She freed the pigeons. She wrote the letters. She paid attention to the updates from inside. She even talked to The Man. The next day, she went to the bridge over The American River and threw in a wish list of the people she loved. As she watched the paper drift downstream, she prayed. Now, she felt that she’d done all that she could do. 

In the midst of it all, she continued to send compassionate epistles to each of her incarcerated students. 


When Willie’s letter that described what was happening inside the prison made it to the courts, Judge Grace Jenkins read it. She immediately called Karen Appleton to her courtroom to explain herself about COVID-19 raging around the world, and especially inside the state’s prisons. The judge wanted to know why mostly old people were locked in the tiny cells. 

“Why aren’t you letting more people out?” 

“We put tents on the yard and beds in the church. We’ve given the inmates masks and extra soap,” Karen Appleton said, “But, in good conscience, I cannot let inmates out of prison until they’ve finished their sentence, even if it means they have to die in here.” 

Judge Jenkins asked her if she could create more space for the incarcerated population so that they could practice social distancing. 

Karen Appleton responded that prison is prison and prisons will always be the way prisons are. Judge Jenkins cringed at the cold-hearted response and summoned some incarcerated folks to testify. After hearing their harrowing stories, the judge told prison officials that shuffling prisoners to death was morally indefensible. She ordered the prison officials to let more people out of prison than they intended. Hearing the good news, all incarcerated spirits were rejuvenated (even the sick ones) and peace began to settle throughout. 

All that Zelda had done was more than enough. 


The freed people went straight to their husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, and friends. The older ones (with no remaining family) went to fish or sat in parks to watch the world go by. 

Roger Dyson changed his name, found a new job, but still walked in circles. 

Teary-eyed, Karen Appleton kept saying, “I didn’t know. The decisions were out of my control. Plus, I didn’t know what I did not know.” 

Willie’s faith had pulled him through and he got out. He and Zelda met in the free world and enjoyed each other’s company. The first evening out, she made him a dinner of chicken and rice. For dessert, they ate cherry pie. Full and relaxed, they ended the night by watching The Great Escape.