By Elizabeth Thompson
Prisoners are not the only ones impacted by their incarceration.
A prison or jail sentence affects that person’s family, from parents and siblings to partners and children. It means being separated from the outside world, missing birthdays and weddings, missing funerals. Not being there when they’re needed most.
That absence is also felt by the people who did not commit any crime, the loved ones who become collateral damage.
As the newest variant of the SARS CoV2 virus continues to permeate throughout the state’s prisons, it affects the ability of incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has limited visitation as different prisons experience outbreaks in order to limit the spread of the virus both in the facility and outside in the community.
North Carolina prisons first suspended visitation on March 16, 2020.
“This was a difficult decision,” said Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee in a press release at the time. “I know this will not be good news to offenders and their families, but this is being done with everyone’s health and safety in mind.”
As the Omicron variant took hold in the state, on Jan. 12, all state prisons returned to non-contact visits. Visitation was suspended at prisons with large outbreaks of COVID-19, as the highly transmissible variant swept through the prison system, sickening thousands.
Even though the North Carolina prison system has a high vaccination rate, sitting at about 80 percent of incarcerated people — most of whom received two doses of an mRNA vaccine — the beginning of the Omicron surge felt like 2020 all over again for some prisoners and their loved ones.
After North Carolina Health News published a story anticipating the high caseload Omicron would bring, family and friends of incarcerated people rushed to contact us. They expressed the need to do “something,” expressing the helplessness they felt around their ability to protect loved ones in the face of the next deadly surge.
“I don’t know what to do,” one person commented.
And as the Omicron variant has spread with a vengeance throughout North Carolina’s prisons, it has also impacted incarcerated peoples’ mental health.
Loved ones are left to pick up the pieces.
When many people currently incarcerated in North Carolina’s prison system were sentenced or took plea deals, life looked different. There was no pandemic, they could more or less rely on visits from family to maintain connections and their sense of hope.
Those visits are lifelines for families too, who now ride the “ups and downs” of visitation in the pandemic era, said Melissa Radcliff, program director at Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center, a statewide education and advocacy program for children of incarcerated parents in Wilmington.
The uncertainty of “am I going to be able to see my loved one, parent or child?” is enough to give loved ones anxiety, Radcliff said.
Maybe today they can see their loved one, only to have that reassurance pulled out from under them the next day, with an uncertain timeline.
Prisoners at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women went from two-hour visits before the pandemic to nothing after the first lockdown in March 2020, one woman incarcerated there recounted. She asked NC Health News to keep her name anonymous since she fears retaliation from the prison system.
The state resumed limited visitation on Oct. 1, 2020 — but with “significant restrictions, physical contact was not allowed and visitation would not be permitted if there was COVID outbreak in the prison. Visits were limited to 30 minutes and could be canceled “with little notice if dictated by health and safety concerns.”
Visitation at NCCIW has been on and off all year.
By April 1, 2021, visits were no longer limited to 30 minutes, but physical contact was still prohibited, and visitation was only allowed at prisons that were not experiencing an outbreak.
Visits resumed at NCCIW just before Omicron struck, but since mid-January, they’re once again suspended. Currently, all that’s available to inmates at the facility are 15-minute video calls which can sometimes be glitchy, but they’re the only thing to look forward to while in-person visitation is temporarily suspended, the prisoner said.
“I was able to hug my daughter and husband right before Christmas,” she said. “And that’s really been it.”
The woman incarcerated at NCCIW said she worries about her daughter, who is 21.
“When I call my daughter, she just cries,” she said. “‘Mommy, I miss you so much.’”
Radcliff said she hopes that the separation everyone has felt from their loved ones throughout the pandemic “can serve as a reminder of what that’s like for children and families.
“That’s their reality all the time,” she said.
Radcliff also acknowledged another possible barrier to communication — the prison system’s switch to TextBehind, a private company that scans mail sent to the prisons and sends it in digital copies that can be printed and given to prisoners.
DPS switched to the system in September to reduce contraband in prisons.
“Contraband makes a prison unsafe in so many ways,” Ishee said in a press release. “You have offenders struggling for control of the contraband trade. You have the risk of overdoses. Anything we can do to cut that off makes our prisons a safer, more secure place to live and work.”
For families, though, another consequence is losing that feeling that a loved one had touched the same piece of paper, even if they can’t touch each other.