America’s inmates are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus. Experts have said prisons and jails are “tinderboxes” for an outbreak, since inmates live in close quarters, do everything in group settings and have minimal access to cleaning supplies or decent medical care. The virus’ spread could be deadly for the many prisoners who already suffer from health issues such as diabetes, lung disease or cancer. And about 125,000 U.S. inmates are over the age of 55, one of the demographics most likely to die from the coronavirus.
Inmates’ family members are terrified that their loved ones could be infected by COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and they are powerless to help them. They told HuffPost that prisons and jails are not taking the necessary precautions to protect endangered prisoners.
Inmates call home to say correctional officers aren’t telling them anything about the virus and that they can’t keep their hands clean because hand sanitizer is contraband and soap costs money. Prison staff and detainees around the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, but guards aren’t wearing masks or gloves, and they aren’t practicing social distancing. Sick inmates say their medical requests are ignored, and that their cellmates with symptoms are also not being tested or treated.
Prisons and jails have stopped social visits to protect detainees, which means their family members have to rely on phone calls to find out what’s going on. They panic at the sound of a ringtone. They say facilities don’t answer their basic questions about the precautions being taken to prevent an outbreak. They worry their sons and husbands will end up hospitalized or dead.
Jails in states including New York, Ohio and California have begun to release low-level offenders or sick detainees. But advocates and lawmakers say these efforts fall short, and on Tuesday they told President Donald Trump that elderly and sick people in federal facilities should be let out on “compassionate release” or clemency. The families of vulnerable inmates also want their loved ones home.
Below, four family members share in their own words what it’s like to wait for phone calls that could bring devastating news.
Michelle Lind, 61, Ulster County, New York
Her 73-year-old-husband, Robert Lind, was diagnosed with prostate cancer seven months ago. He has served 36 years and will be eligible for parole after 50. He is currently being detained at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York.
Robert just underwent aggressive chemotherapy the whole month of February. It kind of knocked him off his feet. His immune system is practically zero to none. He has all the odds against him. He will die if he gets this virus.
He won’t be able to call me to say, “I’m sick.” When he was sent to the hospital for a bacterial infection in 2015 or 2016, I couldn’t get any information about him. I won’t know where he is.
We didn’t use to speak every day, but now we do. He calls at 6:30 p.m. every night. By 5:00 my breathing becomes shallow, my chest becomes tight. What if that phone call doesn’t come?
I try to keep him abreast of everything going on out here. I ask, “Is anyone in there coughing? Are you hearing anything?” But they have no one telling them anything. The only thing that’s changed is that inmates are being given bleach as a disinfectant. Robert says the correctional officers don’t wear masks or gloves.
“They’ve really got to seriously think about letting these elderly and sickly individuals go. These people have served three and four decades. It’s enough.”
I am terrified. My stomach is in knots all day. Every day just waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. I’m not showering, I’m overeating. I’m stuck on the couch by the window, frozen. I have pains in my chest. I can’t breathe correctly. My mind is racing. I’m drinking two scotch-and-waters a day ― I never did that. It’s not OK. I’m smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I never smoked that much.
I take a lot of medicine for anxiety and depression. I may crash. I’m self-quarantined and not seeing my three daughters and five grandchildren.
They’ve really got to seriously think about letting these elderly and sickly individuals go. These people have served three and four decades. It’s enough. In 2016 my husband filed a clemency application. He met the criteria, but since then the paperwork has been sitting on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.
I just need that phone call to say, “They told me to pack up, honey. I’m coming.” I just need to see him and know that he’s OK. And to hold his hand. We should be scared together.
Malaika Canada, 47, Birmingham, Alabama
Her son, Jaylen Barker, is 23 years old and has served three years of a life sentence at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, Mississippi. He has seizures and bronchitis, and he is hypoglycemic.
On Tuesday my son called to say he was having issues with breathing, and it scared me to death. He was like, “Mamma, my throat’s a little scratchy and my breath is a little short.” I said, “You’re OK, you probably got a cold or something.” I want to make sure whatever I tell him is uplifting, but absolutely I’m worried.
I don’t want to get that phone call saying, “Your son, he didn’t make it.” The prison’s not going to call you and say, “Well, he’s in the hospital.” Most parents don’t find out until it’s too late.
Most of the time my phone’s in my hands. I always have it near me. When I don’t hear from him, it puts me in a panic. It’s kind of like torture. You’re waiting and you’re walking around and you look at the clock, you pick up your phone, you make sure your ringer’s on and try to keep busy. The ringtone for his calls is “679” by Fetty Wap, because he used to dance to Fetty Wap songs.
“There’s no pain like not being able to save your child.”
I watch all the news, and I’m googling the symptoms and anything I can pass on to him. He said the inmates are really scared because they have no way of protecting themselves. Nobody’s telling them anything, right? He’s trying to be careful with hand-washing, but they’re not giving them hand sanitizer and antibacterial things they can use to wipe down their cells.
I used to drive four hours to visit him every two weeks. But they stopped visitations this month. It’s hard not to lay my hands or my eyes on him. I feel hopeless and helpless. It’s ― I’m sorry, I’m emotional, I apologize. (She starts to cry.) Oh, God. You’re praying and you’re asking God to spare your child to look after him because you can’t do it. I’ve been through hell. I was in a wheelchair for more than two years after being hit by a drunk driver. But there’s no pain like not being able to save your child.
Julie Magers, 45, Fairmount, Maryland
Her 51-year-old husband is serving his fifth year of a 20-year sentence. She did not want to disclose the facility to protect her husband’s privacy. He has multiple sclerosis and heart issues, and he is pre-diabetic.
I’m 150% worried that the virus could be life-threatening for him, absolutely. He has severe symptoms from his MS on a regular basis, including an inability to clear his lungs and loss of consciousness. The virus would exacerbate his condition.
The medical care inside these facilities is already so poor. Because of a lack of care my husband is permanently disabled now. He is hearing- and sight-impaired and walks with a walker.
“How do we explain this to our children, that you may never see your dad again because the prison didn’t care enough? A child has got to question, 'Why can’t they protect my dad if he’s so sick?'”
I advocate for prisoners as my job with the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, but it’s also personal. With a virus like this, the likelihood of either pain and suffering, or a death, becomes imminent. It’s a ticking time bomb. They are still having recreation time in groups of more than 10 people and standing in lines for medication with hundreds of people. Some people are in cells without working sinks. When they go on lockdown, they don’t get showers. You can’t wash. It’s not a matter of if the virus spreads, but when.
My husband and I talk on the phone every day. I’m always on edge waiting for his call. I literally look at that clock and say, “OK, it’s five minutes after the time he’s supposed to call,” and I just wait and wait and wait. If I don’t hear from him the first thing that comes to mind is that he’s laying there on the floor and nobody’s coming. It’s just sheer panic.
We have two kids, 10 and 17. I think about having to have a difficult conversation with them if something really awful happens to their father. See, now I’m going to crack. (Her voice breaks.) I don’t normally do that. I’m the one who’s in charge.
It’s like a train wreck. You just do not want to look. I don’t want to have that conversation. How do we explain this to our children, that you may never see your dad again because the prison didn’t care enough? A child has got to question, “Why can’t they protect my dad if he’s so sick?”
We’re not saying open the door and let everybody out. They should expedite the processes that are already in place ― like medical parole, geriatric parole and commutations ― for the most vulnerable people. We’re not asking for anything so far out of the box.
Marlene Aloe, 61, Bronx, New York
Her 40-year-old son, David Marrero, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2017 and is currently being held in a jail on Rikers Island. He has served 14 years of a 25-year sentence, but appealed his conviction and is now awaiting a re-trial.
I’m very concerned with David’s health. His immune system is very low. They bring him to the Bellvue Hospital in New York every 30 days to get chemotherapy on his chest, neck and spine. But I don’t even know if he’s getting his treatments with the virus going on.
I haven’t been able to speak with my son since October 2019. He’s waiting for a re-trial, and the district attorney in his case made an order that my son cannot have phone calls, no mail and no visitors.
My deepest fear is that he’s going to be infected by the coronavirus. His body will not be able to fight it off. It’ll be a deadly situation for him.
“I dread every day when the phone rings that I'm going to get a call saying he's dead.”
I dread every day when the phone rings that I’m going to get a call saying he’s dead. What mother wants to hear that their son has died from a virus that is like a plague in the jails and they’re not doing anything about it? I sleep maybe one or two hours. I’m waking up in the middle of the night. I even called a priest the other day to ask him to pray for David.
The inmates are all in close proximity to one another. The correctional officers come and go. If he gets the virus, he doesn’t stand a chance with his immune system. He does not stand a chance.
I think about how he’s doing and how he’s feeling. Is he sick? Is he getting his treatment? Is he eating? I don’t know anything that’s going on with my son. Nothing at all. How is it as a mother that I gave birth to him and I don’t have contact? I can only go off of information from the news.
I want them to release him temporarily until they get this virus under control in the jail. I wish they were allowing him a call. Just to call me to say, “Mom, I’m OK.” That’s what I want.
These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.
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