If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, round-the-clock help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, and the Crisis Text Line by texting “hello” to 741741.
On Sept. 14, 2021, my brother Josh Pirkel died by suicide in the early hours of the morning.
Josh spent the 31 years of his life looking for positive social relationships but found mostly rejection. When I was a boy, I at times made his mental health issues worse. Later in life, though, I became one of the few people who helped him cope with his schizophrenia — to the extent that I could. Ultimately, my incarceration, with its severe length, conditions and distance from him, hindered our relationship and no doubt contributed to my brother’s tragedy.
Like many incarcerated people I know, I was the center of my family’s social circle. Once a person is incarcerated, many families no longer celebrate holidays together, or, if they do, those occasions are somber affairs in remembrance of the person inside. In the last year of my brother’s life, he retreated from such events.
Perhaps this was because they reminded him of an unpleasant past, much of which was my own fault. I treated my brother poorly until I was 16 years old when I realized how much I had been hurting him. Three years later, in 2007, I committed a crime that led to my incarceration.
The loss of social connections is a natural result of a prisoner’s removal from society, but it also places hardship on families.
Correctional systems around the U.S. have adopted a number of policies that exacerbate the strain on relationships. For example, many states hold inmates hundreds of miles away from their homes.
While this is sometimes necessary based on a corrections department’s infrastructure or a prisoner’s security level, officials often do not take the social needs of incarcerated people into consideration when closing and reopening facilities.
In the 1980s, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) built multiple facilities in the Upper Peninsula, despite the fact that most of the state’s population lives elsewhere.
Rather than ensuring that prisoners live as close to home as possible, MDOC sends many people to the Upper Peninsula before they are placed on a waiting list to be transferred down state. Prior to my time in the Upper Peninsula, I received one or two visits a year. However, my brother’s mental condition made it nearly impossible for him to visit me while I was incarcerated up there. It was an 8 1/2-hour drive from his home in Indiana, compared to the 3 1/2-hour drive to Ionia Correctional Facility, where I had been housed previously.
After four years, I was transferred back to Ionia because I was accepted into a college program, but the damage was already done. My brother’s mental condition had worsened, and our relationship was strained.
The lack of visitation was not the only reason. Prison phone calls can be costly, and ate up a significant chunk of the $25 to $35 I made each month. I mostly called loved ones who could afford the calls themselves, like my parents. I only talked to Josh on occasion.
Many facilities also do not supply enough phones to meet demand. Gang members control who uses the phones by selling time slots to their friends and highest bidders. On Christmas Day 2020, I spent two hours waiting for the phone only to be cut in line. When I voiced my displeasure, several gang members threatened me with knives.
COVID-19 made the fight for phones significantly worse. My current facility, Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility (MTU), prohibited visits from March 2020 to June 2021. Now, MTU technically allows visits, but few people are able to engage in them.
My housing unit is limited to 48 visits per month even though there are 40 people in the unit. Not only do these visits require masks and a plexiglass barrier that makes it hard to hear, many people cannot figure out how to use the app necessary to sign up for visitation on our tablets.
All of these measures are said to be “necessary” to protect inmates, despite the fact that 62% of of MDOC inmates are fully vaccinated, as of June 23, 2021.
Had Josh been able to visit me anytime between March and September, he might still be here with us today, and I would not be crying my eyes out.
While I am 100% responsible for harming my family, my victims and the community by engaging in criminal behavior, my 22-year minimum sentence contributed significantly to my brother’s mental breakdown. Had I been released sooner, I might have been able to help my brother cope with his mental health issues.
We need to push our governors and legislators to open correctional facilities up for visitation and to improve their phone and mail systems to make prisoner communication easier. Perhaps by doing this, we can prevent the next tragedy.
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.