“We are panicking”: Families of the incarcerated fear the worst as coronavirus spreads

Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle, via Polaris Agency
ByNicole Lewis
Originally Published: 

This article was originally published by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.

Most Fridays, Yezenia Guzman knows where her incarcerated mother-in-law is: at a hospital near the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, receiving treatment for the melanoma in both her legs.

But now, as coronavirus spreads in the state, Guzman is worried. She hasn’t heard from her mother-in-law in over a week. Prison visits are suspended to reduce exposure to the virus, but she hasn’t received any word if visits to the hospital are cancelled too. She fears that her mother-in-law, who is 65, is at a higher risk contracting coronavirus and infecting other women in the prison.

“We are panicking,” Guzman said in a phone interview.

With the threat of coronavirus looming large over the nation’s prisons, The Marshall Project emailed our list of people with family and friends behind bars to understand how they are weathering the crisis. Nearly 450 people in 32 states responded. They fear for their relatives’ physical and emotional health, and they are scrambling to get even basic information about preventive measures the facilities are taking to keep their loved ones from becoming infected.

As reports of coronavirus crop up in prisons and jails, families say they are left in the dark about facilities’ plans to contain and treat the virus, sending their ever-present anxiety to new heights. They get no or only spotty information from prison authorities. Visitation is suspended at all state and federal prisons, so families cannot see their loved ones for themselves to determine if they are safe. If the prison is on lockdown or if their loved ones are in quarantine, even phone calls cannot get through.

Many facilities have offered additional phone minutes and video calls in place of in-person visits. But, while a limited number of calls are free in some facilities, many families say they still have to pay for the extra time. Federal prisons, for example, are offering 200 extra minutes each month, which can cost up to 21 cents a minute for long distance calls..

Laurie Shenk says she was 30 minutes away from the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota, earlier this month when her husband, who is incarcerated there, called to say visits were cancelled. She had already driven five hours from her home in Iowa with her 2-year-old granddaughter in tow.

Shenk, like many family members whose relatives have health issues that could put them in high-risk categories for the virus, is worried about her husband. She says he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had a heart transplant. Prison officials say they will call her if something were to happen to him, she says, but she fears that means they’ll only call if he is dead.

“I just have to keep faith,” she said. “It's the only thing that’s keeping me going.”

“I used to hear things about prison and think: ‘That’s not really happening.’ And now I am hearing things and I am like: ‘Oh my God!’”

Even in the days before the pandemic, it was a struggle to reach prison officials, family members say. A few months ago, Guzman made the four-hour trip to visit her mother-in-law, but when she arrived at the women’s prison she wasn’t there. Prison staff took her to the hospital unexpectedly. Officials told Guzman it was just a routine visit, but when her mother-in-law called a week and half later, she told Guzman she was hospitalized because of a dangerously high temperature.

Guzman says she tries to keep in touch with phone calls and emails, visiting in person when she can. But when she hasn’t heard from her mother-in-law, Guzman says the prison medical staff rarely return her calls. And when they do pick up, she says, officials often transfer her from one voicemail box to another.

“It’s always just up in the air,” she said.

A representative for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said staff are working around the clock to provide information to families, but that it is “entirely impossible to keep every single inmate’s support system updated” without redirecting the staff who are “working to keep their loved one safe.” The department has posted their coronavirus precautions online, noting that routine medical visits and appointments with specialists may be delayed or rescheduled.

Many corrections systems across the country have used Twitter or Facebook to notify the public about the steps they are taking to prevent the transmission of coronavirus within their facilities. But many of the families and friends who responded to our callout say they haven’t received the messages and lack a direct line into the prison to find out more.

Some friends and family members aren’t surprised by prison officials' lack of communication during this crisis. For others, the experience is eye-opening.

Before last year, Debbie Sessa didn’t believe the horror stories she’d heard about prison. She didn’t know anyone behind bars until her friend and former coworker was sent to Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut in January. Her friend, who is 62, stays in a dorm with more than 30 other women. Sessa says her friend called a few days ago to say that two women in her dorm went to the hospital for a routine test, but when they returned to the prison, they were placed in isolation.

Her friend doesn’t know why they were moved out of the dorm. But Sessa is worried that if they were exposed to the virus at the hospital, her friend and all the other women living in her proximity could be at risk.

“I can’t relax. I can’t sleep,” Sessa said. “I used to hear things about prison and think: ‘That’s not really happening.’ And now I am hearing things and I am like: ‘Oh my God!’”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which oversees several of the facilities included in this article, did not respond to requests for comment.

Providing incomplete information or downplaying the threat coronavirus poses could have unintended consequences, some family members say. Many respondents noted their loved ones and other prisoners are watching the news, seeing entire cities shut down around them as governors across the country issue shelter-in-place orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As the stress mounts, and the threat of an outbreak or lockdown intensifies, many say they’re worried about violence erupting.

That’s Hannah Benjamin’s biggest fear. Her boyfriend is incarcerated at McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania. “I am concerned the lack of adequate attendance will incite panic and a riot, which will do far more violence to the prison population than the COVID-19 will,” she wrote.

“We can't see each other and support each other now,” wrote another respondent, Lacona Darrah, whose husband is incarcerated at North Central Correctional Facility in Ohio. “I am concerned about him being hurt by violence breaking out due to pent up emotions and stress.”

“Nobody talks to you. ... You are just another loved one of a criminal.”

Aminah Elster spent 15 years in prison in California. She’s been out since 2007, but she still keeps in touch with some of the women she left behind at Central California Women’s Facility. She says officials have passed out flyers on the importance of handwashing and are attempting to practice social distancing by sending smaller groups to the dining hall and only allowing two women per table.

But Elster says such measures may well be in vain because the women are still expected to work in the prison industries, where they interact with workers from the outside. And, she says, the prison hasn’t provided the incarcerated workers with face masks or gloves.

“They are confused,” she said. “They are piecemealing a lot of information together. A lot of folks may not understand the gravity of the situation.”

A representative for the California Corrections Department did not specifically address questions about whether incarcerated workers have gloves and masks.

Several respondents noted the facilities have supplied bleach as a cleaning supply for the first time in years — normally such potentially toxic materials are not distributed.

“He's part of the shower washing team,” wrote Cheryl Floyd, whose son is incarcerated at Bent County Correctional Facility in Colorado. “The facility has been spraying the showers with bleach water and my son and another inmate wipe the surfaces down.”

Imagining the havoc coronavirus could wreak on their friend or family member in prison is terrifying, respondents say. And many say they have added reason to worry: If there is one thing they’ve learned in their collective years of dealing with the prison system, it’s that when their loved ones behind bars are sick or in need, families on the outside are often the last to know.

Anne Weiss hasn’t heard from her boyfriend at Butner Federal Correctional Facility in North Carolina for a month. The two are usually in regular contact, but their relationship came under strain when her boyfriend was diagnosed with lymphoma.

As the days pass and the coronavirus spreads, Weiss’s mind races. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Is he sick again? Is he on lockdown? What are they doing for him in terms of the virus outbreak? Are they testing people in this condition?”

Her boyfriend is in remission, but he’s still at risk of serious health complications should he become infected. The only information she has comes from a bulletin on the Bureau of Prisons’s website announcing a temporary suspension of visitation. After decades of unanswered phone calls and letters, Weiss says pressing for more details is pointless.

“Nobody talks to you,” she said, because, “You are just another loved one of a criminal.”

“They don’t care,” she added. “They just don’t care.”