If Social Distancing Is Impossible in Prisons, People Should Be Freed

In early March, Michelle Tran drove 1,500 miles from her home in Wichita, Kansas, to visit her husband Thai at California’s Avenal State Prison.

It’s a trek that Tran makes every 45 to 60 days. She typically spends a week in California so that she can visit her husband for two weekends. During the week, she visits family in Fresno and drives to Los Angeles to check on Thai’s mother, who is battling Stage IV cancer.

That first weekend, the couple sat at the small round tables in the prison’s visiting room. They were able to hold hands, hug, kiss and eat snacks from the prison’s vending machines. On Sunday, Tran ended their visit after two hours to drive to Sacramento for a Drop LWOP rally urging lawmakers to change laws and end sentences of life without the possibility of parole. The couple planned to say their goodbyes during her visit the following weekend.

That visit never happened. On Wednesday, March 11, Tran received a memo announcing that, to stem possible exposure to COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was canceling all visits until further notice.

“I traveled 1500 miles to see my husband for basically eight hours,” recalled Tran. Despite her disappointment, she understands the need for caution, especially in a prison like Avenal where men live in dormitories with 200 beds and in a prison system which has long had problems with inadequate, substandard and even life-threatening medical care.

California is not the only prison system to cancel visits to stem possible exposure to COVID-19. Across the country, as health officials urge people to keep their distance and cities institute shutdowns of nonessential businesses and issue orders to shelter in place, 47 state prison systems, the federal prison system and Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisons have canceled in-person visits. As of March 16, only Arkansas, Nebraska and Wyoming are still allowing visits in their state prisons.

“Given that social distancing has been the most effective preventive measure thus far for this rapidly spreading virus for which we have no vaccine, treatment or cure, it’s reasonable to believe that minimizing outside visitations can reduce the risk of transmission/exposure,” Lipi Roy, the former chief of addiction medicine for New York City’s jail system, told Truthout. “For the time being, we need to aggressively minimize exposure and optimize ALL preventive measures.”

But, she adds, the minimization or ban on visits should be temporary.

Social Distancing an Impossibility in Prisons

Jack Beck, a correctional health expert and former director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York, noted that suspending visits won’t prevent COVID-19 from entering state prisons. “In my view, the most likely way COVID-19 will enter prisons is through the jails,” he told Truthout. In 2018, over 19,000 people entered the New York state prison system. Many had previously been held in local jails where turnover and risks of exposure to COVID-19 as well as other viruses and diseases is high. “Even if they discover it [COVID-19] a week after [admission], that person will have spread it to a number of other people.”

On March 15, a New York City jail investigator became the first city worker to die from the COVID-19. Jail commissioner Cynthia Brann stated that, as an investigator, the man had limited contact with the incarcerated population. Two others, an incarcerated man and a correctional officer, at Rikers have also tested positive. In the state prison system, an employee at Sing Sing, one of New York’s maximum-security prisons, also tested positive for COVID-19.

Furthermore, Beck noted that prison policies make hygienic practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as washing hands frequently with soap and water, nearly impossible. Hand sanitizer, which has alcohol, is prohibited in prisons (though New York prisoners are manufacturing hand sanitizer for outside use, and are paid an average of 65 cents per hour). Many people are in cells without hot water and, sometimes, without working sinks.

At the same time, social distancing is impossible in a prison setting. “You can’t control who you’re interacting with,” Beck noted. At meal times, for instance, people are “herded into meal halls where they sit where someone else ate 15 minutes ago. But that area hasn’t been sterilized.”

That’s true in Michigan as well. “Tara,” imprisoned in Michigan’s sole women’s prison, told Truthout that, although two of the prison’s 36 housing units have been quarantined because of women with flu-like symptoms, women still go to the cafeteria together with the quarantined women going after those in general population. “When I asked security, ‘Isn’t this a crowd over 100?’ they called me smarty pants,” she stated.

Texas prisons have also not reported any cases of COVID-19. But “Coretta,” currently imprisoned in Texas, worries that exposure will come from a staff member. In a letter to Truthout, she wrote, “these COs [correctional officers] are always sick. They are constantly coughing and sneezing.”

“Coretta” is in the prison’s restricted housing unit, where she and others are locked in their cells nearly 24 hours each day. But even in isolation, incarcerated people are at risk for exposure. Prison policy dictates that officers conduct cell inspections every three days. “They take us out of our cell — handcuffed,” she described. “They enter, flush our toilets, turn on the faucets, hit the walls with a black rubber mallet, then return us to the cell. When we are waiting beside our cell door, there [are] two officers, one on each side, holding each arm. They’re coughing and sneezing. I’m fussing, ‘Sneeze in your elbow! Use that Purell before you touch me!’”

Indiana prisons have not reported cases of COVID-19. It’s only a matter of time though, wrote Sarah Pender, currently imprisoned at the women’s Rockville Correctional Facility, in an e-message to Truthout. “We understand that when it comes here, we will not get any kind of treatment except Tylenol and temperature monitoring. We will suffer, and there will be people who die. There are several women who have compromised immune systems, are diabetic, who have lung issues, or are over 60. Since the death rate is 2 to 3 percent, that means we will inevitably have some deaths here.”

In another e-message, Pender added, “I don’t want to think about what they will do with women who need ICU treatment or ventilators. We only have 13 beds in the infirmary, and only one isolation room. I hope we don’t have to find out.”

Video Visits Can’t Replace In-Person Visits. What Next?

For the past three years, Donna Robinson has traveled over 400 miles from her home in Buffalo, New York, to visit her daughter Missy, who is serving a 15 years-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Robinson has no car, so she must travel from Buffalo to New York City where she then boards a Metro-North train. Once at Bedford Hills, she takes a five-minute taxi ride to the prison.

The last time she visited Missy was in late January. By then, cases of COVID-19 had already been confirmed outside of China and the World Health Organization was days away from declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In the prison visiting room, however, there was no hand sanitizer or soap for visitors or their incarcerated loved ones.

Even before New York suspended prison visits on March 13, Robinson, now age 64, realized that she could no longer visit. “I’m in the high-risk category,” she told Truthout. “I’m over 60. I have a lowered immune system. I have diabetes.”

New York prisons offer video visits (or televisits) and, in some cities such as Buffalo and New York City, have satellite locations where family members can video visit with their loved ones for free. Robinson has signed up for video visits and is now awaiting both approval and information on where she can go to access these visits for free. Video visits will never take the place of in-person visits, Robinson acknowledges. “There’s nothing like that hug,” she said. During their six-hour visits, mother and daughter play Uno, eat food from the prison vending machines, and take pictures together. Now, she and Missy stay in touch by phone at the cost of 43 cents per minute.

Advocates Demand Free Video Visits and Calls

At 10 cents per minute, the cost of prison phone calls in Massachusetts is less than a quarter of the cost of calls in New York state. Even so, many families struggle with the cost of staying in contact with their incarcerated loved ones.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley knows about these difficulties. Her father was in and out of prison throughout her childhood. As an adult, Pressley married a man who had served 10 years in prison. Though Conan Harris had already been released and successfully rebuilt his life in Boston by the time they met and married, hearing about his struggles gave the lawmaker insight into the challenges faced by many families, including the high price to stay connected.

“Any avenue to maintain familial bonds should be free,” Pressley said in a webinar about COVID-19 and the prison system. “If visits are going to be cancelled as a strategy of containment, then video conferencing and phone calls should be free.”

Jack Beck noted that phone time is already limited and, with visits canceled, there will be greater demand for the limited number of phones inside the prison. At the same time, calls continue to be restricted to small blocks of time, typically 15 to 20 minutes.

For Cat Perkins and her husband Gary, that 15-minute call ends way too quickly. “He always asks, ‘Why do those 15 minutes go by so fast?’” Perkins told Truthout. Her husband is in Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, California, where 2,733 people are incarcerated in a prison designed for 1,738 people. Many of the men around him cannot afford phone calls or have families in other countries, so Gary does not face longer phone lines. Nonetheless, Perkins pays $1.30 for a 15-minute call, a sharp decrease from the previous $5 per call.

In Georgia, a 15-minute phone call ranges from $1.95 to $2.40, depending on the distance. That’s now the only way that Cynthia Holland can stay in touch with her daughter Michelle, who is serving a life sentence at Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison.

For the past 11 years, Holland has visited Michelle every weekend, driving the 90 miles from her home in Atlanta. Now, like Robinson and Missy in New York and families across the country, the two must rely on phone calls and e-messages.

But Holland now gets fewer phone calls from Michelle. “It makes you worry more,” she told Truthout. She has avoided using video visits because of the cost (33 cents per minute as of 2016). “If it [the ban on visits] goes on too long, I guess I’ll have to start,” she said. She, too, thinks that prisons should decrease the cost of video visits and phone calls, especially while visits are suspended. (The company JPay, which provides e-messages for Georgia prisons, has stated that it will now provide two free e-messages per week while visits are suspended.)

Michelle Tran spends between $100 to $150 each month for phone calls and knows many family members who spend twice that amount. She expects that, as businesses close and employees lose paychecks and possibly jobs in attempts to prevent COVID-19 exposure, the cost of prison calls will become increasingly prohibitive. That, in turn, adds to the stress of not being able to see an incarcerated loved one. She thinks prison phone companies should offer free calls during this time. “We know it’s a billion-dollar industry,” she reflected.

In some states, prisons and private contractors are offering reduced rates to keep in touch. In New York, while visits are suspended, incarcerated people will receive five free postage stamps, two free e-messages and one free phone call per week. Incarcerated people in Connecticut will receive two free phone calls each week. Illinois prisons are allowing two free 20-minute calls and one free video visit during this time. This is not a weekly offer, noted Alexis Mansfield of the Women’s Justice Institute. Mansfield also noted that Illinois prisons do not have enough phones to meet demand even during non-pandemic times.

Officials in Shelby County, Tennessee, announced that they would waive all fees for phone calls and video visits in its jails. Utah prison officials are offering 10 free 15-minute phone calls per week. On March 17, California followed suit, announcing that prison phone calls will be free from March 19 to March 26. At Chuckawalla Valley, however, people were issued a memo stating that they would only be allowed free phone calls on March 19 and March 26, not continually throughout that week. For many inside that prison, even two days of free calls was a boon. In his nightly call on March 18, Perkins’s husband told her that men had started lining up at 6 pm so that they could call their families for free once midnight struck.

However, many other state prisons — and the private telecommunications companies with which they contract — have been slow to offer similar cost reductions.

“We Need to Start From the Framework of Release, Not Hand Sanitizers”

Meanwhile, at least one other country is taking more dramatic steps in the face of the virus: Iran temporarily released 85,000 prisoners to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In the United States, advocates in Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, California and New York are demanding that their states do the same. They have issued open letters to their respective governors calling on them to release people who are most vulnerable, including people who are over the age of 60 and/or medically fragile.

Cat Perkins’s husband Gary, age 56, does not fall into either category. Nonetheless, she’s advocating that California Gov. Gavin Newsom consider early release for people who are over age 60, medically fragile or have anticipated release dates in 2020 or 2021.

“We have a lot of inmates who are sickly. Why not release them?” she asked. She notes that her husband, who has been incarcerated since 1986 and is serving a life without parole sentence, is no longer the same man that he was at age 22. The same holds true for the many other people who have spent decades in prison. “They’ve done 30, 40 years. Why not give them a little bit of freedom?”

Across the country, in New York, Donna Robinson, a member of Release Aging People in Prison, has joined the call for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release incarcerated people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. That would not affect her daughter Missy, now in her 40s, but Robinson remembers — and is still outraged by — the death of 61-year-old Valerie Gaiter. Gaiter was 40 years into a 50-to-life sentence and 10 years from her first parole hearing when she died of esophageal cancer. “That could be my daughter dying behind bars at the age of 61 after complaining about pain for a year,” Robinson reflected.

No governors have yet responded to this call for releasing the most vulnerable people.

On the city level, however, judges, jail officials, jail oversight monitors and even prosecutors are considering mass release as a way to slow exposure. In Chicago, the Cook County sheriff’s office has already released several people who were determined to be at higher risk, including a pregnant person and a person who had been hospitalized for treatment not related to coronavirus.

The Los Angeles sheriff’s department and judges in Cleveland are considering doing the same. In New York City, the Board of Correction, which oversees conditions in the city’s jails, recommended the immediate release of people over age 50, those with underlying health conditions, people detained for technical violations of probation or parole, and those sentenced to less than one year behind bars.

Thirty-one prosecutors, in places ranging from San Francisco and Brooklyn to Mississippi and Alabama, issued a joint statement pledging to reduce the numbers held in jails by releasing people detained because they can’t afford cash bail, those with six months or less to serve, and people considered at high risk for COVID-19.

Not every county official is taking measures to reduce the flow of people into jails and prisons. Andrea James, co-founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, stated that a federal judge recently denied a motion from a woman who was scheduled to self-surrender and begin her prison sentence. The woman, said James, has a severely compromised immune system, recently underwent surgery, and is about to begin chemotherapy.

“We need to start from the framework of release, not hand sanitizers,” said James.