Losing a loved one twice: first in prison, then in Covid


Calls usually came on Sunday.

Hank Warner of Huntington Beach, Calif., Saw a familiar area code appear on his phone, telling him his younger brother was on the other end of the line.

He picked up the hook to hear a woman’s voice, asking if Mr. Warner would accept a collect call from San Quentin State Prison, Calif. Then the brothers would have 15 minutes to talk about their lives and, if it was football season, the San Francisco 49ers.

When the calls stopped coming in June, Mr Warner, 59, wondered what had happened. But his prison calls continued to be routed to the same dead end voicemail.

“I knew from hearing nothing that something was wrong,” he said.

In July, someone from prison called him back to tell him that his brother, Eric Warner, had been hospitalized. Later that month, another call from San Quentin announced the death of Eric, 57, on July 25, after contracting the coronavirus in the outbreak of infections that swept through the prison last year.

For many of those who have lost someone to Covid-19, grief has been compounded by constant reminders of a pandemic which is still killing people at an record rate. And for those whose loved ones were infected in correctional facilities, the loss has been further complicated by the dehumanizing bureaucracy of incarceration and the stigma surrounding criminal convictions.

Hank Warner cried with mixed feelings for Eric, who had been incarcerated on a manslaughter conviction.

“I know people find it hard to understand people who commit the kinds of crimes my brother committed,” he said. “But I also believe that in all areas of life and in the relationships we have, there is a level of forgiveness that we all should exercise.

Hank and Eric Warner didn’t always get along. The older one had a close bond and the younger one was always in trouble. But they grew closer through regular phone calls while Eric was incarcerated. “I really saw this change in my brother,” Hank said. “He was helping the other prisoners. He was becoming a model.

Adamu Chan, a #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition organizer who was released from prison in October, knew Eric Warner and called him “one of the elders of the community.” His loss, Mr. Chan said, was difficult to manage.

“When you’re inside and going through these things, I’m not sure you have the space to process,” said Mr. Chan, 44. “Since I came out I think a lot of that sadness has come back to me, and I feel a lot of guilt from the survivor.

Anthony Ehlers, 48, was remorseful about the possibility he passed the coronavirus to his best friend and cellmate, James Scott, at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill.

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Mr Scott, 58, had been hospitalized for weeks before Mr Ehlers learned from a correctional officer that his friend had died on April 20. “I remember I was alone in the cell, and I just got into bed, facing the wall and sobbing,” Mr Ehlers said via a monitored courier.

“You have to hide your grief here,” he added. “It’s not a beautiful place.”

Mr. Chan used poetry and film to commemorate the men who lost their lives around him.

“Prison is so much about separation – being separated from your family and separated from society,” he said. “Art and imagination can be very powerful tools to get out of this place.”

Elisabeth Joyner, 37, who is incarcerated at Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, creates pencil portraits of people who have died so they don’t have to remember those photos.

“A rant is one of the most dehumanizing aspects of incarceration,” she said. “This is photo error documentation that you will see for the rest of your life. Isn’t it enough that these people have been dehumanized in life? Should I also dehumanize them in death?

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country. A disproportionate number of them are blacks and Hispanics – two groups that have also been hit hard by the pandemic.

Families at this crossroads of personal loss and structural inequality know the heartache of losing someone twice: once to incarceration, then again, forever, to the virus.

Inez Blue, 65, of Baltimore, lost his brother Anthony Blue, 63, in May. He had been incarcerated at Roxbury Correctional Facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, for a crime he said he did not commit.

Credit…Blue family photo

“It’s difficult for me because I was the closest to him,” Ms. Blue said. “We mostly talked about what we experienced in our childhood. It looks like we have the raw end of the stick.

Mr. Blue had fought to erase his name. His lawyer, Stanley Reed, said his conviction was about to be overturned early last year.

Ms Blue, ready to take care of her little brother, who struggled with mental illness and was blinded while incarcerated, set up a bedroom in her home and bought a new set of quilts and curtains.

But Mr. Blue fell ill in April and was hospitalized. During video chats, Ms. Blue could tell he was in great pain. She felt guilty for asking him to keep fighting.

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He died on May 6.

“I feel like he’s failed so many times,” she said. “He gave up because he felt he was never going to be free.

As overcrowded conditions turned prisons into coronavirus hotspots, many establishments were limiting visiting hours. Families have done their best to stay in touch through monitored messaging services, hazy video chats or dropped phone calls.

The last time Kenosha Hines, 43, kissed her father, Carlos Ridley, was at Pickaway Correctional Facility in Orient, Ohio, in a white-walled visitation room that smelled of sandwiches.

Credit…Kenosha Hines

She used to bring her two sons. Mr. Ridley, 69, entertained them with stories, jokes and martial arts lessons.

He had fought to exonerate himself using TBEN evidence. But his health suddenly deteriorated in April and, during a video call, Ms Hines noticed him.

“He could barely hold his head up,” she said. “We couldn’t talk for long. The video was so jagged that I could barely hear what he was saying. “

On May 5, a correctional officer called to tell him that his father had been taken to the hospital. That night, she watched him take his last breaths during a video chat. She wondered why he hadn’t been hospitalized earlier.

“It was devastating,” she says. “I can’t even put it into words. He’s been there most of my life, and that’s how it happened?

JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said all of Mr. Ridley’s medical needs “have been identified, assessed and addressed promptly.”

She added that “Covid-19 presents unique challenges in a collective environment such as a prison, and the impact – including the loss of eight staff members and over 100 incarcerated adults – has been difficult at times. for staff and the prison population.

Tiffani Fortney, 46, of Prescott, Ariz., Stopped hearing from her father, Scott Cutting, in April.

His repeated calls to Terminal Island federal prison in San Pedro, California, where he was incarcerated, provided very little information. So she opened a Twitter account and composed her first tweet on May 4.

“He is in the hospital dying and no one there wants to help us by giving us information about his condition,” she said. wrote, to no one in particular. “He went for a short time for a petty crime and now he’s paying with his life.

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Five days later, Mr. Cutting, 70, the man who seemed able to befriend anyone, often teases his daughter on daily phone calls, and made it his mission to attending as many of his singing performances as possible, died of Covid-19. .

The pain of losing him like that was terrible, Ms. Fortney said. Mourning swept through the family, and months after her father’s death, Ms Fortney lost her brother, Scott Cutting Jr., 50, to suicide.

“People look down on families like we’ve done something wrong,” she says. “We don’t stop loving our family members just because they did something they shouldn’t have done. I wish more people could see this.

It can be difficult to keep track of deaths from Covid-19 in correctional facilities. Prisons do not document deaths consistently, and obituaries often tiptoe around any mention of incarceration.

This lack of visibility helps the virus to spread, Mr Ehlers said. “More men will die here who shouldn’t,” he added. “And the only thing that will make a difference is if people speak out.”

An online memorial called Mourning Our Losses has collected details of people who died from the virus while in prison. So far, the website has recollections of Eric Warner, Mr. Blue, and around 160 other people.

“There was just no room for the grief of people who had dying loved ones inside,” said Page Dukes, a writer and activist who works on the project. “This heartbreak has been very largely disenfranchised because of this idea that people who were in prison somehow deserved to have Covid – and die of Covid – more than others.

Memorials include officers, healthcare workers and others who worked in correctional facilities – a nod to the fact that overcrowded or unsanitary conditions are also dangerous for employees and can accelerate the spread of the disease. viruses in surrounding communities.

“Crimes and convictions don’t matter to the spread of Covid in this location,” Mr. Ehlers said. “He’s an equal opportunity killer.”

In an effort to honor the humanity of those who have died, the memorials do not mention criminal convictions.

“People who do not have an intimate knowledge of the penal system often forget several things about incarcerated people,” said Ms. Joyner, who draws portraits for the website. “Namely, that we are people, above all.”

Mr Ehlers, who wrote a memorial for Mr Scott, said he knew his tribute could be avoided because the two men had been convicted of murder – “huge and terrible mistakes that affect a lot of people. “. But he was also worried that if he didn’t talk about his grief and his friend, no one else would.

“We are all more than our crimes,” Mr. Ehlers said. “We are fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, cousins ​​and friends. We are also important to people.


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