The Intimacy Of Eating Together and COVID Protocols    by    Ruth Utnage

COVID-19 has really caused changes within the prison system that I’m not sure outweigh the dangers COVID presents. As inmates our sources of support are heavily dependent on other inmates, I’ll speak for myself here, my sources of day-to-day support relies heavily on other inmates. COVID safety measures are really impacting that.

Parts of our brains as human beings are dedicated to reading faces that move, not masks. Wearing masks 100% of the time is beginning to effect our ability to connect socially as it is, let alone heavy restrictions on where and when and with whom we can go places, if at all. Besides not being able to see faces and parts of my brain potentially atrophying, I am also missing key moments to engage in intimacy, like eating.

The family dinner table can be a cornerstone in anyone’s life, inmates are no different. Meal times are key elements in how we engage in socializing and create social bonds. It’s a moment of potential vulnerability and a time where we want to set aside our armor and take care of our bodies life sustaining needs, like eating. Its not just preference for certain company, it’s actual neurological stimulation that is necessary for human health.

COVID protocols are making these moments, and they truly are just a few moments, difficult to get. A time where me and a friend can sit down across from one another and talk, without masks, where we can see each other. You’d be surprised at how important those moments become when they are no longer available.

Tonight I went to our dining hall, where we are only allowed 2 at a table, I walked with a friend. Because it is 2 per table it’s standard to fill every table in a sequential order. Usually I count the people in front of us but tonight I was one person off and I was the last one for the row, which meant my friend and I don’t get to sit down and eat together, no social bonding tonight.

Instead I was forced to sit with someone I do not know and what little I have interacted with them wasn’t pleasant. That person is not well-liked and while I make my own judgements and walk my own path, eating is intimate, like I said. It’s a time of vulnerability, where the mask comes off. Those moments are rare these days…

So, tonight I didn’t eat. I chose to throw my meal away instead of be forced to be vulnerable and intimate with someone I cannot. So tonight, I go hungry, happily. I simply will not eat with someone I cannot trust, not when I have no other times to intimately socialize available to me. So I’ll starve, eating only every other day (when we are told to bring our meals back to our cells) and I will do that until I get sick from malnutrition, go home in 15 months, or am able to sit with someone I trust.

With Love
Ruth Utnage
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Jeff Utnage