Gov. John Bel Edwards asked Louisiana residents last week not to gather with family outside their immediate households for Thanksgiving to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But for thousands of people in the state prison system, those types of gatherings were already off the table. Because of the pandemic, the Department of Public Safety and Corrections shut down family visits and attorney visits with inmates March 12 — and hasn’t resumed them since.
Now families of people who are incarcerated say they are resigned to the fact that they may have to go an entire year without seeing their loved ones who are behind bars. Not being able to visit at all during the holiday season will be especially hard, they said.
“It’s a very hopeless feeling to know that he has lost a year of the kids’ lives,” said Jessica Peacock of her husband, Shane, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel.
Peacock and her two daughters live in Oklahoma, but they typically visit her husband about five times a year, she said. They haven’t seen him since Dec. 29, 2019. They were scheduled to visit Hunt the second weekend of March, the same weekend the prison system halted visitation, she said.
“He says he gets pictures or videos and they look like completely different kids,” Peacock said in a phone interview last month.
The Department of Corrections agrees that keeping inmates from seeing their families is very bad for morale inside the prison system. The agency had been planning to start limited-contact family visits during the week of Thanksgiving but scrapped plans to do so when Louisiana’s COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations began to climb again.
The governor recently reverted to more stringent statewide restrictions on businesses and public gatherings in an effort to slow the coronavirus spread. That makes families of people who are incarcerated and inmates’ advocates doubt that visitation will resume before a vaccine has been widely distributed — which is not expected until the middle of next year.
When the Department of Corrections called off Thanksgiving visits, it did not say when visitation might resume.
“When they canceled [Thanksgiving visitation], it took the wind out of a lot of sails,” said Cammie Maturin, who is engaged to be married to Sivoris Sutton, an inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Maturin had visited Sutton twice a month for the past 11 years — until the pandemic hit.
“For us, it’s a struggle, especially when you are used to seeing each other and having those conversations that you sometimes can’t have on the phone,” she said.
Most other states aren’t taking as strict of an approach to inmate visitation. Louisiana’s prison system is one of only 12 correctional systems across the country that has ended all visits to inmates, according to The Marshall Project.
Ten states and the federal prison system have resumed some personal visits on a limited basis, and 29 correctional systems are allowing attorneys to visit their incarcerated clients, according to the nonprofit news website. Louisiana is allowing neither.
Lawyers who would typically meet with their incarcerated clients face-to-face are now conducting those meetings mostly over the phone. At a couple of facilities — Hunt and Dixon Correctional Institute — they are also able to use Zoom to see their clients, but it’s a challenging environment for a legal consultation, advocates said.
“It’s been difficult to prepare clients for hearings,” said Kerry Meyers, deputy director of the Parole Project, which provides legal help and coaching to longtime inmates appearing before the state’s parole board for release. “You don’t get the same interaction over the phone as you do sitting across from someone.”
For families, the state has been trying to provide extra accommodations to make staying in contact with inmates easier.
Since the pandemic started, the Department of Corrections has been paying its telephone vendor to provide each inmate with two 10-minute phone calls free of charge each week. Prisoners have also been receiving more electronic stamps free of charge. Those stamps are used to send the prison version of an email.
The prison system has also started allowing inmates to watch without cost livestreams of their family members’ funerals. Prior to the pandemic, some inmates would have been allowed to attend parts of those services in person.
For the first time ever, the Department of Corrections is also offering live video chats to inmates and their families and allowing people to send prisoners 30-second video downloads — though those aren’t offered for free and are more expensive than other forms of communication.
Phone calls — beyond the two 10-minute ones currently offered for free — cost 21 cents per minute. Each electronic stamp costs 40 cents. The 30-second downloadable videos cost $1.20 to send, and the live video chats cost $9.95 for every 30 minutes of air time.
Though the Department of Corrections has been touting the video chat option, all of the families interviewed for this story had complaints about that system. It doesn’t work with mobile phones, so the person using it has to have access to a computer and a stable internet connection, which many families don’t have. Not every prisoner has access to that option either, the families said. Some live in areas of the prison that don’t have video chat kiosks.
Even if the family and the inmate have access to the service, the video often freezes. For the four families interviewed for this story, the video chats had worked less than half the time — and they weren’t given a refund when the service failed.
Maturin said her fiance said she should stop paying for video chats, because they fail so often and are so expensive. Wendy Matherne said she paid to have a 10-minute video conference with her son, Jonathan West, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, but the program froze so much that she only got to talk to him for four of those 10 minutes.
The Department of Corrections said neither the agency nor its vendor — JPay — has the ability to control internet connectivity on the families’ side, which can affect the quality of the call, especially if a family tries to use cellular service for the connection.
“Some of our staff have worked with inmates’ relatives to help alleviate the issues,” said Ken Pastorick, the prison system’s spokesman.
Dominque Jones-Johnson said the strict rules around video visitation can also make it challenging, even when the system is working properly. Jones-Johnson’s father, Charles Brown, is incarcerated at Angola.
The people who appear on the video visitation have to be pre-approved. If someone who wasn’t pre-approved walks through the background during the call, then the call is cut off, Jones-Johnson said. That can make the calls hard to arrange, she said, especially when people are quarantined in a house with extended family who might not be on the pre-approved list.
The Department of Corrections said video calls are only shut down if people who aren’t allow to participate — either on the family side or in the prison — try to talk to folks during the stream.
“If someone who is not on the approved caller list of that inmate steps up to the camera and interacts with the call, it will be shut down. In addition, some inmates have a no minor restriction. In this case, if a minor tries to participate in the call, it will be cut off,” Pastorick said in a written statement.
Many families said their expenses related to their loved ones’ incarceration have gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the prison system offering some free phone calls and stamps. Jones-Johnson wants her father to call more often — at least twice per day — because she fears more for his health and safety than she did before the pandemic. Those extra phone calls add up. She said her family spends about $500 per month keeping in contact with her father.
Peacock said her family is struggling with the expenses because her husband typically earns some money selling crafts he makes in the prison hobby shop. They put that money toward covering the cost of family visits, phone calls and sending photos to each other. But her husband hasn’t been able to sell his crafts because the Angola Rodeo and other events where he sells his woodworking were canceled this year.
But not everybody believes in-person prison visits should resume. Jones-Johnson believes it’s safer for inmates if prisons remain shuttered to outsiders, but she seems to be the only one. Every other family interviewed said they thought prison visits should start again, with extra precautions put in place.
Incarcerated people are at higher risk for catching and spreading COVID-19 because they live, work, eat, sleep and shower in large communal settings. In many Louisiana prison dorms, it’s nearly impossible to stay six feet away from others. Corrections officials have said outside visitors can’t come into Louisiana prisons, in part because inmates are particularly susceptible to catching and spreading COVID-19.
But closing off state prisons to visitors hasn’t kept the pandemic from hitting the correctional system. The prison system has tested about half — 7,138 — of the inmates in state facilities for COVID-19 since the pandemic started. Over 36 percent of those tested — 2,572 people — have tested positive, according to the Department of Corrections’ data. That’s far higher than the percentage of positive tests seen in the general population in months. The weekend after Thanksgiving, Louisiana had a COVID-19 test positivity rate of just over 6 percent.
Peacock and Maturin said that they didn’t think family visits would expose inmates to COVID-19 much more than correctional staff do on a regular basis. Several advocates said it’s also frustrating that family visits and attorney visits are shut down when they are told by loved ones that prison staff aren’t wearing masks.
“If you are going to let the guards go to and from their homes, why not let in the families?” Maturin said.
Prisoners are at a lower risk of dying from COVID-19 than nursing home residents. The governor opened up nursing homes to restricted personal visitation in September, and despite imposing other restrictions last week, has not rescinded those privileges.
According to an Associated Press report, in late October, 43 percent of all of Louisiana’s pandemic deaths — or over 2,400 people — were linked to nursing homes. According to the Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 data, as of Sunday, 31 state prisoners had died.