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As COVID-19 Surges, Families Of Inmates Struggle To Contact Loved Ones

Photo by izhar khan from Pexels

As COVID-19 surges through North Carolina’s prison system, families are struggling to make contact with loved ones behind bars.

On March 16, 2020, the North Carolina Division of Prisons suspended visits to all state prison facilities. Since then, communication between family members and their incarcerated relatives has proved more difficult, and several families contacted said they are worried.

Linda Taylor (right) and her son Robert Windsor (left) during a prison visit, a few months before Windsor was diagnosed with ALS.
Photograph courtesy of Linda Taylor
Linda Taylor (right) and her son Robert Windsor (left) during a prison visit, a few months before Windsor was diagnosed with ALS.

Linda Taylor, mother of Robert Lane Windsor, said she has only heard from her son a few times since March 16, through one video call and some phone calls, despite his worsening medical condition.

One year ago, Robert Windsor was diagnosed with ALS, an incurable disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, ultimately paralyzing its victims. He is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2008 of killing his ex-girlfriend in Conover.

Linda Taylor said she asked for “compassionate release” for her son, but it was denied.

“When you have an inmate in prison, you worry every day due to violence in prison, the lack of proper supervision, the poor meals, and especially lack of medical attention,” Linda Taylor said.

Since Windsor’s ALS has progressed, he has been relocated from Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville to Central Prison in Raleigh, the only prison that has a hospital equipped to deal with his condition.

“Right at this moment, I have absolutely no contact with him,” she said. “I can’t see him. I can’t hear from him. I haven’t gotten a letter from him. It is worrisome — we are talking about a man that is very sick.”

People who are incarcerated are more likely than the general public to have a chronic illness, according to Lauren Brinkley-Rubenstein, co-founder of the COVID Prison Project. The project tracks the level of COVID-19 infections in prison institutions across the United States.

Since the pandemic began, at least 46 inmates have died from COVID-19 while imprisoned in North Carolina.

“On average, people in jails and prisons have at least one chronic condition so we knew that they would also be at risk of suffering more severely from COVID,” Brinkley-Rubenstein said.

Other families of inmates with underlying health conditions voiced similar frustrations and concerns about communication.

Jeffrey Davis, a resident of Iron Station, must wait for his brother Robert Eugene Davis to call him from Albemarle Correctional Institute once a week. Jeffrey Davis said his brother has severe arthritis and got COVID-19 last year, but has since recovered. He is concerned about the care he is receiving. His brother was sentenced to five to seven years in prison for a drug conviction.

Caroline Waters, a senior counselor at Rutgers University, said she has tried multiple times to communicate with officials at Mountain View Correctional Institute about her nephew. She asked that he remain anonymous, saying that she feared for his safety in the prison.

Her nephew, she said, has multiple preexisting conditions and she is trying to make sure he is receiving adequate treatment.

Waters said she worked well with a prisons deputy director who had retired several years ago.

"Since he retired, there has been no contact, no service, no questions that could be answered — nothing … so there is nobody,” Waters said.

However, there is someone in North Carolina whose job it is to help families stay in touch with their loved ones. Her name is Mary Ward and her title is the family services administrator. Ward said she is the sole employee assigned to what is known as Offender Family Services. She works across all 56 of North Carolina’s correctional institutions, which house roughly 29,000 prisoners.

It is her job, Ward said, to provide an open line of communication, assisting families with various needs, as well as helping inmates’ with their transition out of prison. She also helps families understand prison policies and procedures.

Ward said she recently updated a “Handbook for Family and Friends of Offenders,” which is intended to help loved ones understand how the system works. It is located on the website of the NC Department of Public Safety.

Since the pandemic, Ward said she has experienced a slight increase in calls from family members and friends of inmates, taking 200 or more inquiries a month. Most are asking about the health and well-being of inmates she said.

However, the families contacted for this story said they did not know about Ward or the services she provides.

“I am not aware of (Offender Family Services), and I have never heard of (Mary Ward),” Linda Taylor said.

Similarly, Waters and Davis said they were unaware of Ward and her office.

When told this, Ward replied that the system is not perfect.

“I mean, you know, anyone can call anyone within the department,” Ward said. “But yeah, I have talked to family members and they have been like ‘I didn’t even know you existed,’ for sure, and that just kind of goes to communication. ... We have so many coming in and out of the system, it’s not going to be perfect that they would know just who to call.”

Brinkley-Rubenstein of the COVID Prison Project said she wants to see prison systems held more accountable. Improving communication between inmates and their families would be a step in the right direction, she said.

“It is imperative that we hold prison systems to those standards because we have to remember that people who are incarcerated deserve humanity,” she said, “and deserve to be able to connect with their family members.”

Mona Dougani of Cary, N.C., is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the Queens University News Service in support of local community news.