The nightmare of having a loved one contract COVID-19 in prison

A sign pleading for help hangs in a window at the Cook County jail complex. Like many jails and prisons, COVID-19 spread rapidly there. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

“Mom. I have COVID.”

My heart sunk at the words I’ve been simultaneously dreading and expecting to hear since spring. The only surprise is that it took this long.

My son Nick is midway through a prison sentence in Wisconsin where — as in every prison and jail in the US — overcrowding and close quarters makes social distancing and other public health protocols almost impossible.

When the pandemic hit and the nation shut down, we shared the collective worry, stress and uncertainty about what lies ahead. We turned inward and online, learning to work from home or navigate unemployment applications. We tackled remote learning, took up new hobbies, watched with unease as case counts climbed and death tolls rose. 

That played out for me with an added layer of anxiety. Families of incarcerated persons learn to live with the generalized worry that is a collateral consequence of loving someone behind bars. But this feels different. Heavier. Scarier. All of the messages about mask wearing and hand washing and social distancing meant to generate solidarity about our role in controlling the spread is juxtaposed against the knowledge that these measures are incompatible with daily life in prison. Incarcerated people often have to buy their own soap and hygiene products. Masks were not readily available or embraced on the inside — at least not in the early months. Social distancing in jam-packed facilities is little more than wishful thinking. So it always felt like a matter of time before the virus breached the walls to take up residence among the men sharing space with my son.

Nick’s voice on the other end of the line was small and hoarse. His test had just come back positive. Despite a high fever for two days he wasn’t tested until the third day of symptoms and only then was given Tylenol. He has asthma, and the virus settled quickly in his lungs and chest, making breathing painful and coughing exhausting. He told me the nurse who had checked on him that morning had been concerned about his oxygen, but no one had been back to check it again in the hours since. He was worried about his cellmate, a man in his fifties who ate and slept within 8 feet of Nick, who hadn’t been moved out until a day after Nick’s positive test. 

Say the important things first

“The party on the other end has disconnected the call.” 

Prison calls are closely monitored, time-limited. When your time is up an automated voice tells you time is up. We’ve learned to say the important things up front, things like “I love you,” knowing most of our calls will end before we’re ready. We didn’t say it that night; we were too intent on exchanging critical information. When the line disconnected all I could do was hope I’d hear something soon.

The forgotten souls

Days went by before I did hear anything else, not for lack of trying. I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Corrections COVID hotline. I searched for contact information for DOC caseworkers and called the health center at the prison directly. I knew that if Nick hadn’t signed a release they couldn’t share information about his condition unless it dramatically worsened. I hoped at least I could learn what to expect about the treatment he and other COVID-positive incarcerated people would receive or that they would let him know someone was asking about him. 

None of that happened. My calls (the ones that actually got through) were met with the indifference with which people in prison — and by extension their families and loved ones — are often treated. 

For an entire week I had no respite from worry, no sense of whether Nick was holding steady or taking a turn. He is in the custody of a system charged with keeping him safe. But the prison system isn’t designed to keep people safe from a pandemic, nor to offer compassion in a time of crisis. 

The American Public Health Association (APHA) recently declared prisons a public health crisis and released a set of corresponding policy proposals. As I write this, the facility where my son is housed has 89 active cases, and a total of 525 positive cases since the pandemic began, not including staff. 

Given the virus’ trajectory, that’s likely to rise in the months ahead, leaving a lot more people getting sick and a lot of families waiting for news.  

One small measure not included in the overarching APHA proposals could go a long way to ease some of the worry incarcerated persons and their families are experiencing right now. Prisons and jails could offer every incarcerated person the opportunity to sign a health release before they get sick. That way if the worst happens, staff could update families on the condition of their loved one, easing the minds and hearts of those separated by illness and distance.

There’s been much written and said about our collective sense of isolation as we approach the eight month mark of the pandemic. That isolation pales against the reality of the millions of men and women in our nation’s prisons and jails, cut off from family and friends, programs and jobs, books and recovery meetings, forgotten souls more forgotten as days turn into weeks, months, years. Prisons dehumanize incarcerated persons in thousands of ways, and the hard existence they lead is unimaginably harder now, while on the outside mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, daughters and sons worry and wonder if a prison sentence will turn into a death sentence. 

At the end of that nerve-wracking week, Nick called again. He sounded tired, a little breathless and congested. His cough was improving and his fever had broken. The loss of taste and smell had resulted in some weight loss and fatigue. We didn’t talk long because he was looking forward to his first shower in days, finally feeling strong enough to tackle this basic task of self-care. Before he hung up, we both said the important words: I love you. 

I’m grateful we said them, grateful he heard them. They’ll have to carry us through till the next time he calls.