(Author’s Note: The identities of prisoners and their family members are confidential in order to protect their safety and privacy. Each source is identified by a randomly chosen letter.)
(Part 1) Introduction
Over the past eight months, prisoners and their families discuss how mass incarceration impacts them and their loved ones, both in general and in the newly dangerous context of the coronavirus pandemic. The stories in this series arose from several such discussions.
In late March and early April, 2020 interviews, a Ventress prisoner, identified as “Z” to protect his safety and privacy, raises the topic of family and other relationships while discussing Ventress’s chronic broken phones problem, and new implications of that problem during the pandemic.
(During our March interviews, three out of four phones on the side of the dorm in which Z lives were broken. They were repaired weeks before the writing of this article, but prisoners say the one that previously worked no longer did after the other three were fixed, and many other phones in dorms throughout the prison were allegedly left still needing repair.)
Z feels that the ADOC and the prison’s phone company, Securus Technologies, must “know [that] people need to call their families.”
In late March, Z and others noted that, due to restrictions on prisoner visitations and other coronavirus-related measures, more prisoners have more calls to make the more unsanitary it becomes to share the only working phones because of the pandemic. At that time, prisoners were still making their own masks. Then and now, prisoners say there are no cleaning products nearby with which to clean or sanitize the phones before or after each call.
Z is incarcerated on nonviolent drug charges, of which he maintains his innocence. His original court-date for his release was delayed late in 2019 for bureaucratic reasons, then again in April, 2020, because of the coronavirus. He did not expect to be imprisoned longer than a year.
His birthday, as well as his son’s, occurred soon after the writing of this article. On his birthday, he tells HTR over the phone, he’s been sleeping all day.
He is increasingly eager to be released, concerned for his safety, and more eager to see his children with every passing day that Governor Kay Ivey does not “come up with a release plan for nonviolent felons, and people who got short time [and were supposed to] go home anyway,” Z says.
“As far as my understanding, they ain’t trying to let nobody go home,” he concluded in late March, and the situation remains unchanged as of this writing in July.
In late March and early April, another Ventress prisoner (identified as “C” throughout the Ventress series) also comments on the phone problems in the context of the pandemic, noting its impact on families. He says restrictions on prisoners’ visits, questions left open about whether non-violent prisoners will be released, and other issues exacerbating the phone problems during the pandemic, all “causes a lot of stress.”
C explains, “I mean, visitation means a lot. I want every single visit. I know it is taking a toll on my family, my relationships with my family. And…what’ll happen if – if [a family member] gets coronavirus? We can’t see each other in our last – our last minute?”
While C is afraid that if “one of us gets sick, there won’t be one of us left” in the prison, the fears preoccupying him most regarding the pandemic are generally about his family, being away from them.
His primary fears are “not about myself,” he says. “I’m more worried about my mom and my sister… I’ve got a good family and we stay in contact. They’re doing good.”
Gregory Anderson, Jr. was released from Ventress on March, 25, 2020, just one week after the ADOC announced its coronavirus response measures. His years in Ventress were highly traumatic. Like C, Anderson has a good relationship with his family.
In an interview a couple of weeks after leaving Ventress, Anderson describes the day of his release, spent with family, as “one of the happiest days of my life… I was about to cry just seeing how things changed in three years, like cars and changes to my city, people who died.”
The night of his release, Anderson and his father stay up almost all night, just talking.
A prisoner who has been incarcerated in Alabama for almost four decades, and in all but two of Alabama’s prisons, interviews in late April. He is identified in this series as “G.” His prison sentence started at age 16 – primarily, he says, because he “didn’t have no help.”
He has “no sisters or no brothers. I’m the only child. My momma died in 2010. So I’ve just been – just been still basically on my own,” he says about family life.
For the most part, the variety of burdens placed on families by mass incarceration during the coronavirus pandemic are not caused by the pandemic, and existed long before the lockdown measures. But these burdens and problems are more burdensome, more dangerously problematic, for additional reasons, during a pandemic.
This series will begin with interviews conducted with one source before the coronavirus hit the United States. In many ways, mass incarceration was already a pandemic of its own. Looking at the life and relationships of the prisoner and his family should begin before the era of coronavirus in America, for a view of what prisoners and their families already dealt with before life behind bars became even more dangerous.
Before the pandemic, in an early December, 2019 interview over written correspondence, a prisoner in Holman prison discusses how mass incarceration has already impacted American families over the decades up to that time. He is identified as “X” in this series.
“The system of law enforcement and mass incarceration has impacted so many lives. First, it takes fathers, sons, and brothers from their family. It leaves young men without their fathers. It cripples … communities,” he writes in early December.
He adds: “Then, if moms got to work long hours, that means, who is watching their kids? Not to [mention] the family trying to support the person that is locked up.” X has two cousins also in prison, he says, who, like X, have “no relationship with their fathers.”
X elaborates on the financial impacts of incarceration on prisoners and their families in a letter on January, 4, 2020. “First of all,” he writes, “the telephone calls are high. [Many prisoners live] in poverty, and the [prices in] the canteen, and for visits, is very high. That is a big strain on families in poverty.”
Further, X says he knows “no family history beyond my grandparents, never looked up our family history. More [of our] family history exists, but I don’t think anyone went back to find it out. Family history have a lot of stuff they want to hide. Getting past shame creates problems. The elders of our family haven’t opened up about our family history.”
X knew his father only briefly right before his father’s death when X was a young teen.
X’s relationship with his mother was “not good” growing up. He “carried her abuse with me for years, which affected my relationships with women,” he writes in February.
He got along well with his several sisters growing up, he says, and their relationships are even better now. His “mom has changed a lot” since his childhood, he writes, “due to I have changed.”
He elaborates: “Here is an example: For years, my mom could never sleep, because she worried about me [being in prison], but after I gave my life to Jesus, and she heard it when we talked, she started going to sleep early with no problem.”
Further down, X writes that he “never felt poor” as a child despite growing up in deep poverty. The pain caused by childhood poverty that he remembers most clearly is “seeing my mom come home tired” from work, and “not spending time” with her.
“One of the downfalls of single parenting for men or women,” X explains, is having to “work long hours and neglect the bond of their child or children […] Those long hours my mom had to work also left me unsupervised.”
X elaborates on his father’s death in the February 10th letter, writing, “I first became conscious that my father was absent from my life at the funeral for him. I felt rebellious in my childhood without my father, which really affected my relationship with my mom. I feel like if my father were still alive, I would be more connected to his side of the family.
All X remembers of his father is going to work with him; his father worked at a horse racing track in Detroit; they took a picture together in 1986 “when one of his horses won,” and he died of a heart attack.
X notes later in the letter, “I would say that a majority of my family lives in poverty,” and again writes about how mass incarceration and “institutional racism impact my family and friends in a lot of ways.” He describes a close friend of his who was released soon before X’s February letter.
The friend who was released had “done 16 years here, which hindered his relationship with his kids and their mom, the relationships in his family […] What a past he is carrying, now that he’s free. The racism he endured, the executions [on death row], the people who passed away who he couldn’t be there for. And think about all the people that Jesus brought into his life, who walked away.”
He adds: “We are not made to purchase these shoes and canteen products. The reason for their cost is to keep families in poverty. Remember, it is not rich people locked up.”
“I would love to know more about my family history,” X notes at the end of his February letter.