Nicole Lewis - March 26, 2020
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 the 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, last weekend 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.”
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.
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