Photo by Haydn Golden on Unsplash

These are difficult times, no doubt. And even though new COVID-19 variants are emerging, which in turn caused previously lifted state requirements and sanctions to be put back into effect, certain aspects of everyday life have returned to normal.

I stay informed about the free world through my family as well as daily local and world news, monthly magazines and journals.

I know restaurants are open for indoor dining; museums, theaters, arenas and stadiums are open to the public; and contact visitation is allowed in hospitals, nursing homes and special care facilities. 

I recently read in an article that New York state prisons have reopened their libraries, churches and contact visitation to inmates, and other state prisons are doing so as well. 

But not Arkansas.

I am warehoused in Cummins Unit, an Arkansas state prison near Pine Bluff. It’s one of the prisons that “Brubaker,” the 1980 movie about a corrupt southern prison starring Robert Redford, is based on. 

The library and law library here are not open to check out books or conduct legal research. The church doors are closed to the population. Services have not been held for a year and a half. Visitation is now open but with very strict rules.

Visits are now non-contact and masks are mandated. There are also new plexiglass partitions, separating inmates from visitors. It is obvious to everyone that the dual requirement of mask and plexiglass partitions are designed to dissuade visitation altogether. 

More importantly, visits are only permitted with immediate family. Did you know that grandparents are not considered immediate family? I didn’t, and I’m still finding it extremely hard to understand why. My grandparents, Maw-maw and Paps, helped raise me during the first years of my life, and again during my mid-teens. 

Many of us who are incarcerated have people who travel several hours to come see us, and we used to be allowed up to four hours for their visits. Now the maximum duration has been reduced to one hour. Visitors also must now call the prison’s visitation clerk beforehand to make an appointment for a visit, which was never required before. 

But the visitors are not the ones bringing the virus into the prison. 

On a daily basis, we, inmates, interact closely with the Arkansas Department of Corrections staff, some of whom are not vaccinated and have made clear that they have no intention of being vaccinated. 

Paps and Maw-maw have been my one true constant throughout my youth and incarceration. For more than two decades, they have made great efforts to try to visit with me at least once a month, yet they are no longer allowed to come see me. 

Maw-maw just had her 81st birthday. She’s not as physically capable as she once was, having to depend on a walker and often a wheelchair. She experiences pains I know she downplays just so I don’t worry. 

But I do worry. Because even though the three of us have talked about the inevitable fate we all face, the one thing the three of us want most before that time comes is to be able to actually see each other again. And, perhaps if we are especially lucky, to embrace at least one more time.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Jeremy K. Phillips

Jeremy K. Phillips is a writer incarcerated in Arkansas.