We read about the impact of COVID in prisons. The journalists report on the number of inmates infected, those who recovered, and the many who died. But there is a significant area of impact that does not get reported on, that is the number of inmates who have lost loved ones to COVID.
This week, I held a sobbing young woman who had just lost a loved one to COVID. This person died less than two weeks after they had been diagnosed. COVID shut down all of this person’s major organs, resulting in death. The family witnessed the passing via video chat. No one could be by their bedside in the hospital. The inmate had to sit on her bunk and imagine what was happening.
Phone access in prison is limited during non-COVID times. But these days there is not enough phone time for every inmate to get calls. During a family crisis, the staff tries to help by getting inmates access to the phones, but it is not always possible. Inmates are left to mourn without their families.
Mourning a death in prison is not like mourning a death in the free world. In prison, you are not likely to have others around you who knew the person you lost. Friends can empathize, but they can’t really share your pain. Most empathy comes from their own experiences with losses they’ve suffered while they have been inside. You can’t get together and share stories or relive memories of the person you lost. You can’t have family around for love and support. You can’t go to a cultural ritual like a funeral to say goodbye. It makes the loss seem less real. The reality that your loved one is gone often comes in the middle of you dialing their phone number, or when you begin writing them a letter. The loss sits heavily in limbo, on the spirit of the one left behind the prison walls, to mourn alone and deal with it as best they can.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.