When There’s a Pandemic and Your Loved One Is in Prison

Ideas for support and advocacy during the COVID-19 crisis 

By Evelyne Kane and Suzy Subways

It’s challenging enough for loved ones of people in prison: paying for expensive phone calls, trying to advocate for your loved one’s health, keeping your head up through it all. And now we have to deal with this new virus. Here are what we hope will be some helpful ideas and suggestions, which we’ve gathered from people in prison, their loved ones on the outside, and other activists:

Coronavirus Info to Share with Your Loved One in Prison:

COVID-19 is the name for the new disease spread by the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is very easy to spread from person to person, and transmission can happen in a number of ways, including:

  • From close contact with another person who has the virus (being within 6 feet of them)
  • Through contaminated surfaces or objects (the virus can live on many surfaces for hours or even days)
  • Through contaminated particles in the air (for instance, when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes)

Another challenging aspect of COVID-19 is that many people do not experience any symptoms for up to two weeks after contracting the virus. This means that people may feel healthy and go about their normal life without realizing they are exposing others to the disease. Common symptoms include: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath (trouble breathing). Some people seem to experience other symptoms, like fatigue, upset stomach or diarrhea. For many people, symptoms are mild or moderate and will not present a major threat to their health or wellbeing. However, severe cases of COVID-19 are life-threatening. People who are over age 60 and people living with health conditions (like heart disease, respiratory diseases including asthma, diabetes, and obesity) are at higher risk of having severe complications from COVID-19.

Unfortunately, there is no treatment or vaccine to prevent COVID-19 yet, and most experts predict that it would be unlikely for a vaccine to become available to the public any time this year. There are several steps people can take to minimize their exposure to COVID-19, including:

  • As much as possible, limit contact with people 
  • Maintain enough distance (six feet or more) between yourself and others
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for 20 to 30 seconds
  • As best you can, avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Stay away from people who are sick
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces, such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones and computers every day

We understand that many of these recommended steps are difficult or impossible for people who are incarcerated. However, ensuring your incarcerated loved one has this information may still be helpful to them. We have heard from readers on the inside that they are taking steps that they can, such as covering shared phones with a clean sock before using them, staying 6 feet apart from other people as much as possible, and increasing how often they wash their hands. We also realize access to things like soap and hand sanitizer is not the same for all incarcerated people, but you can check if the facility that your loved one(s) are in will allow people to receive these items by mail. Ultimately, we know that reforms and drastic actions are needed to ensure the safety of incarcerated people during this pandemic. There are many advocacy options for people who wish to be involved in these efforts, and we have already seen some early victories in this work. 

Resources for Supporting Your Loved One in Prison:

This Short Guide for How to Support Prisoners During the Covid-19 Crisis is intended to help incarcerated people through the public health crisis as well as create opportunities for people on the outside to support one another in various ways.

This Resource Guide from NAMI includes many practical tips to help anyone cope in these challenging times, and on page 12-13 includes resources specific to people with loved ones who are incarcerated.

How to Organize Together to Fight for Our Loved Ones in Prison:

As you may know, our loved ones in prison are facing tough challenges: Their sinks often don’t work. There may not be any soap, hot water, clean tissues, toilet paper, paper towels or anything sanitary to wipe their hands on after washing them. Trash cans are not emptied regularly, surfaces may not be wiped, and food trays may not be cleaned well. It is common for prisons to have no ventilators, few doctors, and improper screening of guards, who may have been exposed to the virus outside the prison. There may not be any public health experts making presentations inside prisons so our loved ones can ask questions. 

One step to take is to call your loved one’s facility and ask if you can mail them soap, sanitary wipes, and hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol. To call the prison, do a Google search for the name of the prison, call the phone number that is listed, ask the switchboard operator for the mailroom or the warden, and keep trying until you get an answer. 

Two activist groups, Survived and Punished NY and the Inside/Outside Soap Brigade, are raising money to send to incarcerated people across the U.S. for soap and other supplies. Please donate if you are able.

Activists agree that releasing people is the best and safest way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the most vulnerable incarcerated people. Some governments have started listening. The Prison Policy Initiative is updating a page on their website daily with news on which states and cities are releasing prisoners, ending medical copays, and reducing the cost of phone and video calls. The group End Incarceration created an online tool activists can use to track the number of people in different prisons, so we can see how well our pressure on states and DOCs is working. 

Two activist groups have created the COVID-19 Prison Hotline, 410-449-7140, for incarcerated or detained people to call when they have coronavirus symptoms, when there’s an outbreak in their unit, or when they are being denied adequate medical care for coronavirus. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee and Fight Toxic Prisons, the groups that set up the hotline, announced: “We want to know where and when there is an outbreak, so that we can help mobilize support networks and media to lift up the demands of people on the inside.” They ask people to share the phone number with people in prison. The organizers add, “We have dedicated volunteers ready to take their call at 410-449-7140. Please let us know what facilities your people are in when you tell them about the hotline, so we can make sure we fund an advance pay account for the facility. If the facility uses a phone service other than Global Tel Link, please contact us before sharing the hotline, and we’ll do our best to set up the necessary infrastructure. You can reach us at IWOC.CRC@protonmail.com.” If you are able to donate money to support the hotline, please visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/covid19-prison-hotline.

Most prisons have cancelled family visits and volunteer activities. Follow The Marshall Project to stay informed about which states have cancelled all visitation, and which states have stopped family visits but still allow legal visits. Many of us who work with people in prison are worried that in the future, in-person visits may be permanently replaced by video visits that cost money.

To start an activist campaign in your area:

Visit Beyond Prisons for a list of demands you can make of your state or local government. You may want to gather arguments to back up your demands. The ACLU has already written this letter you can download and address to your state or local officials. The Prison Policy Initiative offers this letter you can send to prison administrators at your loved one’s facility to demand free video and phone calls. On a more creative note, Free Them All for Public Health is sharing art that you can download to use in your campaigns and social media for free.

If you’re in one of these areas, please support these campaigns:

For all of us, and even more so for people experiencing incarceration, these can be frightening times. There are many things right now that are beyond our control. But we can all take whatever steps are available to us to stay healthy, we can use our voices to protest injustices that put people unfairly at risk, we can find ways to stay connected with one another while staying apart, and we can focus on the here-and-now rather than worrying about the many unknowns in the future. 

We are wishing the best to you and yours. Please reach out to us at PrisonHealthNews@gmail.com if you have questions or resources to share.

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