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Locked up in lockdown: the COVID-19 toll for prisoners and their loved ones

The New York Times reported this week that, “in a sweeping acknowledgment of the risks of the coronavirus in cramped prisons”, New Jersey would on Wednesday release more than 2,000 inmates in one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population.

It said more than 1,000 additional prisoners will be released in the coming weeks and months after earning early-release credits for time served during the health crisis — resulting in a roughly 35 percent reduction in New Jersey’s prison population since March.

Since April 2020, Croakey Health Media has published 21 articles, podcasts and a number of artworks as part of the #JusticeCOVID project, which investigated the urgent need to address the COVID-19 threat to people in detention and prisons in Australia, as well as globally.

While Australia looks to have contained its second wave, the infection risks to prisoners remain high in the case of any further outbreak and, as Sydney freelance writer Venetia Vecellio writes in this #LongRead news feature below, the costs on prisoners and their loved ones of averting outbreaks have also been high.


Venetia Vecellio writes:

There are so many rules for these letters. No drawing on the envelope, no handmade cards, no stickers, no crayons, no white-out. Any letter is scanned and reprinted. Only then is it forwarded to the recipient.

So a two-week turnaround seems fast. Pages and pages come jam-packed into an envelope stamped by Australia Post.

This one runs to four pages, numbered at the top. So the day revolves around trips to the mailbox, checking every day, maybe three times a day. This is the slowest interview ever.

“My name is Katie* and I’m 30 years old, I was sentenced to 2 years 15 months non-parole period. This began on the 16th of July 2020.”

Katie’s* name has been changed due to concerns about her protection. Other inmates have been punished for speaking out against the prison. On 16 July 2020, Katie was incarcerated for stealing from her work in order to fund her gambling addiction. Her journey in prison started during Australia’s second and most deadly wave of COVID-19.

“Every day that we are let go from our rooms I think is today the day? With the way the 2nd wave has spread I believe it’s only a matter of time.”

Katie is one of 43,028 Australians who are desperately trying to stay safe in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic. Katie watches as different guards enter and leave her prison each day. They are meant to wear masks at all times but she says she frequently comes in contact with guards who won’t wear them.

Katie spends her free time pacing the 1.2-kilometre oval. Over and over. She’s scared about what would happen if the guards were infected. “It would spread like a wildfire in here,” she says, “I realise that it is out of everyone’s control, but it feels even more out of control for me as I already have such little control of what happens to me in here.”

“Nothing gets communicated to us, we are in the dark about the protocols and processes that they are following to ensure our safety.”

Deadly COVID-19 clusters have plagued prisons all over the world. We saw it first in February with China, then Iran, Italy, Brazil, the United States, the list goes on.

It’s difficult to know if history will ever record the names of the people who died behind bars in this pandemic. Calling out for their families as they take their last breaths.

In the US, prisons make up the largest COVID-19 clusters. Research has consistently shown prison populations are vulnerable to infectious diseases. In many countries, COVID-19 has turned prison sentences into death sentences.

Like nursing homes and cruise ships, prisons have proven dangerous places during a pandemic. Aged care and prisons have a lot in common. Both suffer from a lack of resources, poor ventilation, limited healthcare facilities and access to testing, and vulnerable communities in confined spaces.

Fears of a death sentence

Thalia Anthony, Professor of Law at the University of Technology Sydney, is concerned about the capacity of prisons in Australia to handle an outbreak of COVID-19, which she fears would result in preventable deaths. While there have been zero COVID-19 deaths in Australian prisons, and just a handful of cases, Anthony says we’ve just been lucky so far.

In her trips over the years to Australian women’s prisons, she has been heartbroken by the conditions she saw women living through. Serious infections going untreated. Women who suffered miscarriages. Preventable deaths. They weren’t safe long before the pandemic, she says. “When you add that layer of COVID… people fear this is a death sentence.”

The virus preys on the high-risk groups; people over 60 years of age, those with chronic health conditions and compromised immune systems.

While the rest of the world still hums Happy Birthday as they wash their hands, some prisoners are left scrambling to make their own cleaning concoctions out of whatever chemicals they can find to attempt to stay safe from the virus. “People are still saying they don’t have access to soap,” Anthony says.

A report from Human Rights Watch found half of the current inmates in Australian prisons have a disability. People in prison are three times more likely to suffer from chronic physical health conditions. Anthony questions how prisons can handle a pandemic if they’re already struggling to handle basic healthcare.

Katie says healthcare in prison is “rubbish”.

“I had to wait a full month to be given my asthma preventer that I need to take every morning and night.” she writes.

Then when she got sick, she thought a doctor would eventually come and see her. She knew she needed antibiotics for an infection, but as the days turned into weeks, Katie lost hope she would get the healthcare she needed.

“I didn’t get any antibiotics nor did I get to see a doctor. I just got better myself. I didn’t get isolated either,” she writes.


Fewer ‘eyes on’

The healthcare conditions in prison had advocates scrambling to try and get prisoners released before it’s too late. Debbie Kilroy is one of them.

For almost 30 years, Kilroy has been at the forefront advocating for the protection of human rights of women and children in prison, through the Sisters Inside organisation. Not only does she have lived experience of being incarcerated, she knows first-hand the many complications which come with COVID-19. She’s still struggling with its long-lasting effects, more than 200 days after first testing positive for the virus.

But her biggest concern? That governments do not care that people will die of COVID-19 in prison.

As of this week,  there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in Australian prisons. However, Kilroy  says you won’t see cases if you’re not doing frequent testing and it’s been impossible to find out how much is going on.

Because there have been so fewer ‘eyes on’ under the restrictions, it’s been difficult to know what’s going on in many respects inside prisons, but Kilroy says some women have been put in solitary confinement for weeks, often not receiving three meals a day and refused access to medication, she says. For some it’s due to moving prisons, which happens a lot and means 14 day isolation each time. Other times it’s because people are acting out under the stress or want to be alone and that is their only way to ensure their safety.

Advocates say the conditions in prison legally constitute torture. There are few masks available for prisoners. Sanitiser is a luxury, if not deemed contraband due to its alcohol content. Most prisons are massively overcrowded, with many Australian facilities already operating overcapacity.

A spokeswoman for NSW Corrections says the state’s facilities are prioritising the health and safety of staff and inmates. Guards are screened before entering and anyone with a temperature over 37.5 degrees is not permitted in. Kilroy says that omits people like her who contracted COVID-19 without a fever.

The spokeswoman said along with supplying all inmates with masks and gloves, there has also been increased cleaning in the facilities. Katie says that might be true, but it’s up to the inmates to do it.

“There are girls in here – inmates – who work as COVID cleaners,” she  writes.

Katie remembers her first couple of weeks in prison as the worst.

As a new inmate, she underwent quarantine — kept locked inside her cell for 23 hours a day, without access to medication and unable to call her fiancée Brodie.

After Katie was taken away by officers at the courthouse, Brodie lost all contact with Katie. Was she in a prison 2 hours away, or fifteen hours away? Was she okay? Was she sick?

Eight days after they were separated, Brodie finally got the call. Katie was  scared, but she was ok.

Across the state, Katie spent her days writing and drawing in her cramped cell. Each cell had room to sleep up to four women. Two sets of bunk beds lined the walls on one side. On the other side, a shower, a desk, shelves and a toilet with a sink built into the top.

She spent hours writing and drawing to pass her time, slowly collecting pages and pages of work. When one of her cellmates was granted bail, Katie asked if she could take the letters with her.

At 10:44 pm one night, Brodie’s phone pinged. A text from Katie’s ex-cellmate. She was out of prison and she had a package for Brodie. She can come and pick it up whenever. Brodie instantly starts replying.

“Hey Tara! Yes I would love to!! When is good for you? Is it too late to come tonight? All good if so” – Brodie’s text..

Brodie got straight in her car and drove to the address. In return, she was handed a stack of letters, drawings and poems. Feeling like a kid at Christmas she rushed home to read them. For the first time, Brodie felt relieved. It took her over an hour to read them all. She cried the entire time.

For Katie, not being able to see Brodie is taking a big toll.

“Not having physical contact with our loved ones is extremely stressful and emotional – things that corrections really don’t care about.” she writes.


“Unfathomable damage”

Most Australian prisons went into lockdown in March. Social visits have since been reinstated in Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, though New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT are still preventing in person visits with no dates for review. Support and rehabilitation programs have been cut back, if not completely suspended.

The steadily increasing rate of incarceration is stretching Australian prisons beyond their limits. The most recent data from the ABS shows over the last 10 years, incarceration rates have risen by more than 45 per cent.

The prison system ushers 160 people into its holdings each day, three-quarters of them will be unsentenced — held on remand ahead of their convictions or sentencing.

Alarmingly, remand rates have risen by more than 120 per cent in Australia over the past decade, mainly due to tougher bail conditions. Some may have been found guilty and are awaiting sentencing, but most often they haven’t  yet been found guilty of any crime. They haven’t yet been tried. Sometimes they’re held because they can’t pay bail.

Keenan Mundine, a proud First Nations man and co-founder of Deadly Connections, was first incarcerated at the age of 14. Now in his 30s, Mundine  has made it his life’s purpose to help others who are incarcerated. The  risks of COVID-19 in prison is ruining  families’ lives, he said.

Mundine  meets me at the front door of the house where Deadly Connections is based. He’s in the middle of lunch, chicken drumstick in hand.

Mundine’s  brother is currently incarcerated. Due to lockdown measures, they haven’t seen each other since March. He’s really, really struggling, Mundine says.

His brother’s daughter was born in April, but he is yet to meet her. His brother asked him to send some photos so he can see his daughter for the first time.

No child should have to grow up without their parents, Mundine says. “It’s going to do uncontrolled and unfathomable damage.” By the end of our talk, his lunch is stone cold and I apologise deeply. He smiles and tells me not to worry, “I’ve had worse chicken, I’ve been to prison.”

For many of us, COVID-19 is the first time we’ve experienced such an event that’s kept us separated from family for so long. But for those who are incarcerated, family is too often a distant memory.

Dr Tim Senior spends most of his time working with people suffering from complex health and social problems. He is a fierce advocate for environments which keep people healthy. Prison is not one of them. Senior, a GP, worries that if COVID-19 were to breach the walls and make its way into Australian prisons it would spread incredibly quickly, making it harder to contain.

But COVID-19 is not the only thing he’s worried about. Loneliness can be deadly too.

Recent research has found social isolation and loneliness can have serious implications for people’s health, linked to higher levels of heart disease, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system and even death.

Kathleen is glued to her phone at all times. If her husband calls she needs to be there to answer. Otherwise she might not know when she will get to talk to him next.

Her husband is currently in a prison in New South Wales, sentenced to three years as the result of a fatal car accident. He’s almost halfway through his sentence. The last seven months have been the hardest for him. He hasn’t seen his wife and kids since March 2020.

Kathleen and her husband overlooking their farm. Photo: supplied

Kathleen and her two children long for the day they see they get to see their dad again. It’s been more than seven months since they got to hug him. No child should have to experience that, she says.

For the time being, phone calls remain their main source of communication. Each call lasts six minutes and costs $3.00. The calls are a lifeline for both. Kathleen can’t help but worry about her husband’s mental health in prison. ‘It’s very hard to keep a marriage together’, she tells me.

Her husband’s time in prison has been an incredible strain on all aspects of their life. Financially and physically, Kathleen can no longer run their business and farm.

After paying for her husband’s medical insurance, calls and food, she’s often left with $300 per week for her  family. “His bills don’t disappear because he did,” Kathleen says.

Her husband works five days a week  in prison, but he only gets paid $34 a week for 30 hours of labour. With each phone call costing $3 per six minutes, a week’s wage is gone within an hour. Kathleen says her husband mainly works just to keep himself busy:  ‘there needs to be change’ she tells me ‘before it’s too late.’


“I never got that call”

Globally, there are over 11 million people incarcerated, with prisons exceeding their capacity in more than  124 countries Making social distancing impossible.

The US has the highest incarceration rates in the world, with an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars.

Like in Australia, the US  justice system disproportionately affects Indigenous people and people of colour.

Clay Banks/unsplash

COVID-19  has run rampant in American prisons. By October,  more than 242,000 people,  had tested positive for the virus, a number which is steadily climbing. Families and loved ones of inmates sat back and watched COVID-19 claim lives in prison, an estimated death toll of 1,450 inmates and correctional officers to date.

Around the country, protests and rallies broke out as families pleaded for the early release of their loved ones, meeting up with the #BlackLivesMatter protests for justice reform. In Sacramento, a vigil was held for those in prison. Families gathered to pray or mourn for their loved ones, laying down roses.

One woman lays down white lilies instead. On her face mask there is a printed photo of her and her husband, smiling in each other’s arms. Her husband was infected during his time in prison by a volunteer in the kitchen, she says. He called one day to tell her he was sick and would be placed in a 14-day quarantine, he would call her again as soon as he could. You can’t see much of her face behind the mask, but you can see it in her eyes before she even says it. “I never got that call.”

To this day, Emelia O’Brien thinks about that story. Emelia was at that vigil to pray for her husband Sean. They haven’t seen each other in months. Sometimes they go weeks without a phone call. Sean has spent months in lockdown due to COVID-19.

For 23 hours a day, Sean is confined to his cell, often without access to a phone. Sean is serving a life sentence without parole in California. Together, Emelia and Sean successfully fought for a new hearing of Sean’s case. But that was held almost four years ago now and they’re still awaiting the results.

“My name is Sean O’Brien. I am wrongfully convicted and incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison. Covid-19 began to negatively impact me March 11, 2020.” Sean writes

In late May Sean called Emelia and said he was starting to feel unwell. It started with a headache. Then nausea kicked in. Soon he was unable to leave his bed. That’s when Emelia lost contact with him.  She spent a week not knowing whether he was alive or not. constantly revisiting the last time they spoke, trying to remember whether she had said “I love you” or not.

Her biggest fear is that either she or he will die without getting to say goodbye to each other. With the stigma around prison, Emelia feels incredibly isolated from the other people in her life. No one cares about inmates, she says. “It’s as if he has already died.”

The air conditioning unit blares in the background over Zoom, it muffles the sound of Emelia’s voice as as she starts to cry. “I’m grieving the loss of this year. I’m grieving the life that we had before COVID-19. I’m grieving the loss of every single month that goes by without him, and our future that just slowly slips away.”

While other couples complain about being stuck with their partners during lockdown, Emelia wants nothing more. For now, letters are the most reliable form of contact, though it’s sometimes hard to call it communication, having to wait weeks for an answer to a question.

In August, Sean’s letters lay out the details of his time in lockdown.

“In the past 84 days, I have been locked down 24 hours a day for 68 of those days. Confined to my cell, denied the ability to call my home. No access to fresh air, sunlight or the exercise yard,” Sean writes.

Other states have been hit harder by COVID-19. Florida has had more than twice the number of COVID-19 cases than the whole of Italy. Working in Florida in the middle it all is Patrick Megaro. For almost 20 years, Megaro has worked  to improve the lives of people negatively impacted by the justice system. An appellate lawyer,  he is now desperately trying to get people released from prison,  to get them out before they die in there. He’s already lost one client to COVID-19. He’s scared it’s the first of many.

Over the past seven months, Megaro has ramped up his work. “Prison, on its best day, is the filthiest place you’ll ever encounter; and in this situation, it’s even worse.”

Megaro is currently representing Corvain Cooper who, in 2014, who was convicted for life without parole for possession with intent to distribute marijuana. He’s trying to get him out of prison before COVID-19 gets to him first. He doubts the statistics are accurate, they’re probably much worse, he says.

For US prisoners, as the pandemic only gets worse, the future is grim. The months of lockdown have no end in sight. Multiple people are spending months held in a cell the size of a bathroom, some watch as their cellmates struggle to take their last breath.

They fear at any moment, they will be next. Their  loved ones  watch with horror as they see the numbers rise.

In Australia, prisoners and their loved ones worry the same will happen here.

Kathleen’s husband is set to be released this month. She’s counting down the days.

Keenan’s brother is yet to meet his daughter. Emelia and Sean patiently hope for their nightmare to end. Katie and Brodie hope the journey ahead will be better. They’re not hopeful an early release will happen, but Brodie is looking forward to the day she gets to see Katie again.

Maybe next year, she says. Until then, they’ll keep writing letters. They’re currently playing the longest and slowest game of 21 Questions.

Venetia Vecellio is a Sydney-based freelance journalist who focuses on social justice issues, women’s rights and disability rights.

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