“Hey Aunt Lori. They are releasing me now. I’m going to walk to your house. I love you.”
That was the message my 25-year-old nephew left me from Orleans Parish Prison in the morning while I was brushing my teeth. I called out to my partner, who was just rising from bed: “Well, I guess that Jonathan is coming home.” He was as shocked as I was.
I became the legal guardian of Jonathan after he overdosed for the first time at the age of 15. He has spent his life battling drug addiction, specifically opioids. After losing both parents to overdoses, he was shuffled through treatment centers and incarceration. Jonathan has become a casualty of the war on drugs.
I have always tried to support him, knowing his addiction is ultimately rooted in trauma. Over the years, I have witnessed the repeated failures of our mental health care and criminal justice systems as they struggle to eradicate addiction with antiquated and unsuccessful protocols. His life has become a tragically predictable revolving door.
We live in New Orleans, which currently has one of the top coronavirus fatality rates per capita. My nephew, like many people who have struggled with addiction, has an underlying respiratory illness. While I am grateful he was released from incarceration, I am struggling with what to do now.
There has been an outbreak of coronavirus within the Louisiana carceral system. More than likely, Jonathan has been exposed. According to his social worker, he is one of over 1,500 individuals who have been released from incarceration in Louisiana since mid-March, many of them with no support system in place.
When my nephew was 18, legally an adult, he left my care. I had struggled with his addiction, and finding him unconscious and blue from another overdose was the final straw. He entered a treatment program, and once he was released, he went his own way.
My partner and I suffered through the unpredictability of loving an addict, and it took time and therapy for us to heal our relationship. For a few years, it seemed that Jonathan was doing all right. He was working, and had avoided overdosing and incarceration. I was getting older and wanted to start a family. Because my partner wasn’t able to have children, we found another couple to co-parent with. Unbelievably, I became pregnant after the first round of artificial insemination and our son was born in the fall of 2013.
Our 6-year-old son Wilder has one mother and three fathers. He divides his time between our two households, which are less than a mile apart. Since the initial information of coronavirus was publicized, we have all taken social distancing very seriously. We were relieved when Wilder’s school was closed, as we had decided that we would keep him home anyway.
New Orleans has a very high number of people suffering from comorbid conditions. Social distancing is imperative to protect the weakest members of our community, including the elderly and those who have lacked access to standard medical care.
Jonathan arrived at my house in the later morning hours without his prescriptions or his release paperwork, which the facility had “forgotten” to give him. We had locked the gate on our porch to prevent him from touching the front door. When I heard him call from the gate, I rushed to greet him. I had to stop myself from hugging him. Instead, I offered him my freshly sanitized cellphone so he could call his social worker, who’d been trying to find an open bed for him at any of the shelters in the city. I could tell from the look on his face as he paced in front of our house that she had been unsuccessful.
He hung up the phone and we went over our options. He admitted he should go into a treatment program if he was to stand any chance of not relapsing. We looked at what centers might be able to take him, and saw many of them had suspended intake due to coronavirus concerns.
In the meantime, there were questions as to what to do with him right then. With no beds available at any shelters, missions or group homes, the idea of allowing him to stay with us in our home was emerging as the only solution.
To risk exposing my entire family is a huge fear of mine. We have streamlined shopping into a once-every-two-weeks expedition, complete with several precautions and many Clorox sanitizer wipes. We don’t interact with others except from a very safe distance. We have tried to embrace virtual play dates and group chats. Our son has watched more Netflix than any of us want to admit.
But the peace of mind is worth it. Not only do I hope to prevent any of us from getting sick, I hope to prevent further spread in our community. Allowing Jonathan into our home presented a moral quandary.
I conferred with all of the fathers and asked what their thoughts were. It was a quick decision that under the circumstances, we would have no choice but to either offer Jonathan a place to stay with us, or turn him out onto the streets. All of us have an understanding of the nature of addiction, and we knew the second option was really a potential death sentence. Addicts who have been clean for even short periods have a higher risk of overdosing, due a lowered tolerance. With the state of the world at the moment, trying not to engage with known past coping mechanisms (that is, opioids) would likely be even harder. I thought about the empty bottles of wine in our trash can. We all decided it was worth the risk.
My partner and I went to work fast, sectioning off an area of our house that was designated for Jonathan. We placed clean sheets and blankets and a selection of snacks in his room. We went over the house rules with him from a safe distance of 10 feet outside before letting him in. Actually, there was only one rule: no leaving your area.
I haven’t hugged my nephew in months, and it broke my heart not to be able to embrace him then.
After spending the afternoon frantically searching for a treatment center, we found one that will hopefully take him within the next few days. I have little faith in the efficacy of such centers, since too many fail to investigate the underlying causes of crime and addiction, many of which are rooted in trauma. But I feel that something is better than absolutely nothing.
I wonder about all of the other incarcerated people who have been released due to the coronavirus. Jonathan’s social worker said most of her clients have nowhere to go. They will be living on the streets. What will happen to these individuals who don’t have access to continued care and support? Many of them will die.
Wilder was thrilled when he heard Jonathan was out of jail. I carefully explained the situation, and he assured me he would keep a safe distance because of “the virus.” The evening wore on and the house was filled with the comfortable familiarity of preparing dinner. Low music played, the smell of roast chicken filled the air, and if you listened closely, you could hear the voice of a 6-year-old yelling at a window from outside: “Jonathan, is this better than jail?”
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