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Kelly Halverson, 48, doesn’t know the next time she’ll see her fiancé, Mike Stevens. He’s serving 17 years on a drug conviction at FCI Sandstone, a low-security federal prison in Minnesota. In normal times, she sees him once or twice a month, far less than she’d like. Sandstone is a four-hour drive from her home in Port Edwards, Wisconsin, and with bad weather it can take even longer. “Seeing him in person is what keeps me sane,” she said. “It’s the place where our dreams, hopes, and plans are laid out. It’s the place where we have our deepest connection.”
Halverson last saw Stevens on February 22. Since then, overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions have placed the US incarceration system on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing is often impossible, and many inmates reportedly lack access to hand sanitizer and protective gear. Cases of Covid-19 are increasing rapidly. As of April 8, The New York Times had identified at least 1,324 confirmed Covid-19 infections inside in prisons and jails, numbers it said were “most likely a vast undercount”; according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, there had been at least 63 deaths by April 16. Although thousands have been released early to slow the outbreak, about 2 million people remain incarcerated.
In order to insulate facilities from outside infections, prisons and jails have suspended in-person visits. But for people with incarcerated loved ones, that measure carries a devastating emotional toll. The physical contact that Halverson looks forward to has been reduced to rushed phone calls, brief e-mail exchanges, and days of solitude and uncertainty.
Without the chance to interact face to face, inmates’ friends and relatives—including some 2.7 million children—are forced to speculate from afar. For them, mounting evidence of Covid-19’s spread inside prisons hits particularly close to home. They hear reports of dire conditions and rumors that some facilities quarantine healthy inmates in the same units as sick ones. They read harrowing stories, like a mother whose 36-year-old son called from a New Jersey jail, complaining of flu-like symptoms, and passed away two days later. It’s those nightmare scenarios that terrify Halverson and so many others.
When Sandstone suspended visits, Halverson, an engineering specialist at a telecom company, tried to make the best of the situation. She recognized that seeing her fiancé in person could spread the virus to him and other inmates, and she understood the stakes: After surviving two bouts of bladder cancer, Stevens has a compromised immune system; if he catches Covid-19, it’s more likely to kill him.
“I can live without the visits for now, because I know it’s for the greater good,” Halverson told me. At first, she was relieved when Sandstone increased the number of minutes that inmates had to make phone calls. On April 9, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with funding from Congress, also made outgoing voice and video calls from federal prisons free (video visitation is not available in all federal prisons). She thought she would be in constant contact with Stevens.
But that hasn’t been the case. Stevens still only has a 15-minute window to use a computer or phone each day, so the amount of call time he’s officially allowed doesn’t matter. In the morning, he puts his name on a waiting list just to get in line for the phone. Because Sandstone has reduced its staff because of the pandemic, there’s no communication at all on the weekends. As a result, Halverson and Stevens speak less than ever.
“It’s been extremely stressful,” Halverson said. Over the past month she has suffered from frequent panic attacks and started taking anti-anxiety medication. “Going days on end with zero communication, not being able to talk things through with him, it’s really tough. I try to tell myself that no news is good news, and that he’s fine. But I’m so worried about what would happen if either of us got sick, or something happened to someone in the family.”
Reform advocates say that prisons and jails could do more to keep families informed, particularly while in-person visits are suspended. “In this day and age, there’s no reason why these institutions can’t share updated information on their homepages,” said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.
Even under normal circumstances, inmates’ relatives often have to fight to get basic information. “The prisons don’t respond, or you’re on hold for hours,” Ring said. “It’s brutal. These places are black holes.”
Justin Long, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, wrote in an e-mail that in addition to increasing inmates’ monthly allotted phone minutes from 300 to 500, the bureau is updating its website and issuing regular press releases to keep families informed. Long did not identify any outreach measures specific to the pandemic.
Letisha Bivins, 43, an attorney in Florida, is familiar with the struggle to find out what’s happening behind bars. Her best friend, Jeremiah Sailor, is serving a 30-year sentence at FCI Coleman, a medium-security federal prison. Even before the coronavirus hit, the prison had reduced in-person visits, allowing two weekend days and one weekday per month. That’s a national trend. For the past several years, many prisons have phased out face-to-face visits in favor of “video visits,” provided, for a fee, by technology companies.
“You sit there and wonder every day what’s going on in there,” Bivins told me, adding that she’s tried and failed to get information about the prison’s response to the pandemic. Earlier this year, Coleman faced outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease and scabies—a situation Bivins said was handled poorly. Sailor, who is 43, has high blood pressure and experiences heart palpitations—comorbidities that put him at risk should he catch Covid-19.
Since Coleman canceled visits, Bivins and Sailor have had limited contact. Sailor has an hour-long window to make calls or send e-mails, and lines up with about 150 others to access just a few phones and computers. When they’ve managed to speak—”never more than 5 minutes,” according to Bivins—Sailor has expressed concern about his health. “He knows that if something happens, he won’t get adequate treatment,” she said, noting that he couldn’t always obtain medication for his high blood pressure. Because of overcrowding, “if he wanted to isolate or get away, there’s just no way he could do it.”
Because Coleman had already reduced visits, Bivins is accustomed to seeing Sailor less. But that hasn’t made the transition any easier. “The visits are vital,” she told me, especially for Sailor’s three kids—two sons, 15 and 19, and a 13-year-old daughter. “That’s when he can really catch up on what’s going on at school, their extracurricular activities, and find out what’s happening in the household, in the community,” she said.
There’s also the loss of tactile contact. “People don’t realize how much it means, just to hold someone’s hand, just to be next to him,” Bivins said. “That’s something that, in normal circumstances, you only get three times a month, max. And now that’s gone, too.”
Nonprofit organizations that work with families of incarcerated people—providing transportation, offering community and counseling for children with incarcerated parents, and working with jails to guarantee special areas for families during visiting hours—have struggled to navigate the pandemic. The New York–based Osborne Association, for example, has paused most of its activities but has tried to adapt, connecting kids to their parents via video chat.
“Kids feel like their parents are going to die in there, so just being able to hear the sound of their voice is so reassuring,” Liz Gaynes, the president and CEO of Osborne, said.
Gaynes, whose ex-husband was incarcerated, recalled the “guessing game” of trying to find out what’s taking place behind bars. For the families she works with, managing anxiety is often paramount. “People are referring to prisons as ‘death camps,’ saying that 100 people are sharing a shower, that there’s no sanitizer,” she explained. “These things are correct to point out in advocating for release. But they are terrifying to children and families. We have to balance the need to focus on just how bad things are with how we can help kids cope with those fears.”
In-person visits are especially important for children. Having an incarcerated parent “completely disrupts you, it leaves you traumatized, stigmatized, and afraid,” Ebony Underwood, whose father has been in prison for 31 years, said. “I can’t emphasize how important it was for a kid to be able to hug, kiss, and see their parent. Not over a phone, not over a video,” she explained. “That allowed my father to keep being a parent,” despite being locked up.
Underwood, the founder of We Got Us Now, a nonprofit that works with children of incarcerated parents, has fought for years to preserve in-person visits. She said that the fears that so many of us are facing now—the constant concerns about the health of loved ones, the gnawing uncertainty over when we’ll see our family members next—should draw attention to what she’s endured since childhood: “This new normal is the abnormal I’ve experienced my whole life.”
Although prisons and jails across the country are releasing inmates to reduce overcrowding, the coronavirus can have the perverse effect of prolonging incarceration. Amanda Lugo, 24, last saw her father in early February. He was set to begin a work release program later this month, going to his job during the day but returning to his upstate prison in the evenings. But with New York’s stay-at-home order, Lugo’s father remains incarcerated. “We’re not getting any information about what comes next,” she said.
In the meantime, she’s worried about his health. “It’s an archaic facility, and I’m scared if something happens to him, he won’t get proper attention,” she said. In the year that her father has been incarcerated, in-person visits have been a lifeline. “On the phone it’s go, go, go. There’s always something you forget to say, and if you miss a call, or you get cut off, you can’t call him back, ever.” On the phone, her father doesn’t like to open up. “When I’m there, we can really engage.” She often visits with her sisters, and they take pictures, or bring his favorite snacks.
Ring, of the FAMM Foundation, hopes that the current moment will spur reform—and that some temporary measures, like free calls from federal facilities or compassionate release, will become the norm and be generalized across the entire incarceration system. “Communications between incarcerated people and their loved ones won’t be any less valuable six months from now,” he said. “In so many parts of our society, we had accepted that certain rules made sense. With the pandemic, we’ve waived them, and, well, the sky didn’t fall.”
Bivins isn’t so optimistic. “Maybe the only thing that will lead to change is what I fear the most: that so many people in prisons will die, that we’ll finally start to ask, ‘Why do we have such a high prison population?’” But that reckoning seems distant. “To get there, people will need to see that they’re more than just inmates—that they’re not just a number,” she said. “They’re fathers, brothers, and children, and they mean something to someone. They don’t deserve to be cut off, or to die alone.”