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Making a bad situation unbearable: A state prison inmate’s wife explains the toll COVID-19 is taking

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[Editor’s note: The husband of the author of this commentary is imprisoned in a North Carolina adult correctional facility. Although Policy Watch knows the identity of both individuals, we have agreed to keep them confidential in order to prevent any possibility of jeopardizing the husband’s safety or potential opportunities for early release.] 

I am exhausted. Just like everyone else, I’m worried and scared about my family’s safety. I’m the mother of a beautiful child with a physical disability and the caregiver to a parent with Alzheimer’s. I’m doing everything that is recommended to protect them, and then some. But I am powerless when it comes to protecting my husband, and so is he.

He’s in the custody of the North Carolina prison system for a nonviolent crime, so his well-being is completely in their hands. He has congestive heart failure and takes medication for his condition. This puts him at high risk of complications if he were to become infected with COVID-19. He has less than eight months remaining on his sentence and he would be much safer serving that time under home confinement.

I’m used to being physically tired. I’ve always worked full-time while taking care of my daughter and my mom, as well as doing the usual household duties. And because my daughter attended public school with a disability, I’m familiar with the stress of having to stand up and fight for rights that are supposed to be in place. But this entire journey with the prison system has been an emotional roller coaster ride that I wasn’t prepared for.

Some days it’s hard to focus on anything else because you have no idea where your husband is. Inmates are moved without notice for security reasons, so it can be as much as 48 hours before you hear from them. If they are placed in solitary confinement, you won’t know unless they ask another inmate to call you or you call the prison to check on them.

Other days the depression gets the best of you. You don’t even want to get out of bed, but you have to because you still have responsibilities. Then there are the days when the “bad” guards are on duty or the gangs are particularly active, and you worry so much that you become physically sick. 

My husband has helplessly witnessed a guard throwing a handcuffed inmate down a flight of stairs. He’s seen another inmate be attacked by three gang members three times in the same day because the inmate couldn’t afford to pay them the $10 that he owed. He’s witnessed a man be attacked for using one of the phones that has been designated as a gang phone that other inmates are not allowed to use. He feels bad for the guys who are getting attacked, but if he were to step in to help, then he would be putting himself in danger, too. He’s just trying to stay to himself and finish his time so he can come home and get on with our life. But knowing that he could possibly die in prison not from gangs or guards, but from this virus, brings me to tears and has left me feeling alone and helpless.

The mental stress of living in two different worlds wears on me. I’m still living my ordinary life and doing the things that must be done. I’m actively present for my family and keep a smile on my face. I bake the cakes and play the games because I refuse to let my family suffer. But I’m also serving time right along with my husband. Time might continue to move forward, but my heart and mind are still stuck on the day he left. I can’t fully be me or fully live my life until he’s home so that we can continue our future together.

So now I’m fighting the state prison and criminal justice systems for my husband’s safety. It has been frustrating, time-consuming and impossible to win. No one with the power to act is willing to do anything. I have called, emailed and hand-written letters to every organization involved. Most calls and emails go unanswered or unreturned. Persistence is the only way I’ve been able to reach anyone. But each department just passes the buck to the next.

The Governor’s clemency office stated that a request takes over a year to process, so there was no need to fill out an application. Officials at the prison where my husband is located said the order must come to them from Combined Records, which is within the Division of Prisons. Combined Records then stated that the order must come from the judge in the county of conviction. Due to the reduction of cases in the courts, judges are only hearing only Motions for Release from inmates who are in custody of the county jail. The District Attorney’s office said there was nothing it could do because the order would have to come from the judge.

I’ve never been in any trouble, so I had no idea what to expect when he was sentenced to serve time. I was on the other side of the law when my checkbook was stolen, and my bank account wiped clean. And again when my home was broken into late at night when I was home alone with my daughter. So I’m one of the people that thought there was very little corruption in the judicial system. Now that I’ve seen it, I have a completely different opinion. But I still don’t believe the entire system is bad, just that there are not enough of the good guys left to make a difference.

The focus of the state prison system is not to rehabilitate inmates, despite what it leads the public to believe. Rules and regulations change from one facility to another, even within the same custody level. My husband has been in six facilities in less than a year, so he’s had to relearn the acceptable behavior and protocols at each one. Some facilities automatically refilled his prescription medication, yet others required him to fill out a medical request form. Twice he’s had to go without his medication for as long as three days. He didn’t get to visit a dentist until six months after he filled out a dental request form. 

I’m not asking that my husband be released free and clear. He committed a crime; I’m not debating that. But he is still a human and an American citizen. The steps taken by DPS are too little, too late. Some of the health precautions that are supposed to be happening inside the prisons — according to DPS statements and press releases — aren’t. The virus has already entered the prisons; every inmate and employee is now at risk. I’m saddened and disappointed in the lack of compassion. Many people like to say they believe in second chances, but the reactions and comments about releasing nonviolent inmates has shown it is indeed just talk.