The calls usually came on Sundays.
Hank Warner of Huntington Beach, Calif. Saw a familiar area code on his phone that told him his younger brother was on the other end of the line.
He picked up the phone to hear a woman’s voice and asked if Mr. Warner would take a call to collect from San Quentin State Prison, California. 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, Warner, 59, wondered what had happened. But his calls to prison kept coming back to the same voicemail in a dead end.
“I knew when I didn’t hear anything that something was wrong,” he said.
In July, someone in prison called him back and said his brother Eric Warner had been hospitalized. Later that month, another phone call from San Quentin brought news that Eric, 57, had died on July 25 after contracting the coronavirus during the year Increase in infections that cut through the prison last year.
For many who lost someone to Covid-19 the heartache has been composed by constant memories a pandemic that is still on Take life at record pace. And for those whose loved ones were infected in correctional facilities, the loss was compounded by the dehumanizing bureaucracy of incarceration and the stigma surrounding criminal convictions.
Hank Warner mourned Eric, who was jailed for voluntary manslaughter, with mixed feelings.
“I know that it is difficult for people to empathize with people who are committing the kind of crimes my brother committed,” he said. “But I also believe that in all walks of life and in the relationships we have, there is a level of forgiveness that we should all exercise.”
“Much guilt of the survivors”
Hank and Eric Warner didn’t always get along. The older one was tight and the younger one got into trouble forever. But they grew closer through regular phone calls during Eric’s detention. “I really saw this change in my brother,” said Hank. “He helped the other prisoners. He became a role model. “
Adamu Chan, an organizer of the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition who was released from prison in October, knew Eric Warner and called him “one of the elders in the ward”. His loss, said Mr. Chan, was difficult to manage.
“When you’re inside and experiencing these things, I’m not sure you have the space to process,” said 44-year-old Chan. “Since I’ve been out, I think a lot of that sadness has returned to me, and I feel a lot of guilt from survivors.”
Anthony Ehlers, 48, felt regretful about the possibility he passed the coronavirus on to his best friend and cellmate, James Scott, at the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois.
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 that I was alone in the cell and just got into my bed wall and sobbed,” said Mr. Ehlers via a monitored intelligence service.
“You have to hide your grief here,” he added. “This is not a pretty place.”
Mr. Chan used poetry and films to remember the men who lost their lives around him.
“Prison is so much about separation – separation of families and separation from society,” he said. “Art and imagination can be such powerful tools that you can leave this place.”
37-year-old Elisabeth Joyner, incarcerated in Arrendale State Prison in Georgia, creates pencil portraits of people who have died so that they do not have to be remembered by mug shots.
“A mug shot is one of the most dehumanizing aspects of imprisonment,” she said. “It’s a photo documentation of the bug that you will see for the rest of your life. Isn’t it enough that these people have been dehumanized in life? Do I have to dehumanize them even in death? “
“The raw end of the stick”
The United States is incarcerating more people per capita than any other country. A disproportionately large number of them are blacks and Hispanics – two groups that were too hit hard by the pandemic.
Families at this crossroads of personal loss and structural inequality know the grief of losing someone twice: once to imprisonment and then again forever to the virus.
Inez Blue (65) from Baltimore lost her brother Anthony Blue (63) in May. He had been detained at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, Md., For a crime he allegedly did not commit.
“It’s hard for me because I was closest to him,” said Ms. Blue. “We mostly talked about the things we went through as children. It seems we have the raw end of the stick. “
Mr. Blue had struggled to clear his name. His attorney Stanley Reed said his conviction was about to be cleared early last year.
Ready to take care of her little brother, who was battling mental illness and blinded in prison, Ms. Blue set up a room in her house and bought a new quilt and curtain set.
But Mr. Blue got sick and hospitalized in April. In video chats, Ms. Blue found that he was in severe pain. She felt guilty for asking him to keep fighting.
He died on May 6th.
“I have a feeling he failed so many times,” she said. “He gave up on himself because he felt he would never be free.”
“We couldn’t talk for long”
As crowded conditions turned prisons into Coronavirus hotspotsMany facilities only have limited opening times. Families have done their best to keep in touch through monitored messaging services, blurry video chats, or cut phone calls.
The last time Kenosha Hines, 43, hugged her father Carlos Ridley, it was at the Pickaway Correctional Institution in Orient, Ohio, in a white-walled visiting room that smelled like sandwiches.
She brought her two sons with her. Mr. Ridley, 69, kept her entertained with stories, jokes, and martial arts lessons.
He had fought to get rid of DNA evidence. But his health suddenly deteriorated in April, and on a video call, Ms. Hines noticed.
“He could barely hold his head up,” she said. “We couldn’t talk for long. The video was so ragged that I could hardly hear what he was saying.”
On May 5, a correction officer called to tell her that her father had been taken to a hospital. That night she watched him take his last breaths while video chatting. She wondered why he wasn’t hospitalized earlier.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I can’t even put it into words. He’s been in this place almost all my life, and that’s how it went?”
JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said that any medical needs Mr. Ridley had “were immediately identified, assessed, and addressed”.
She added that “Covid-19 presents unique challenges in a community like a prison and the impact – including the loss of eight staff and over 100 adults incarcerated – has been difficult for both staff and the inmate population.”
Tiffani Fortney, 46, of Prescott, Arizona, stopped hearing from her father, Scott Cutting, in April.
Her repeated calls to the Federal Penitentiary on Terminal Island in San Pedro, California, where he was incarcerated, provided frustratingly little information. So she opened a Twitter account and wrote her first tweet on May 4th.
“He is dying in the hospital and no one there wants to help us by giving us information about his condition,” she said wrotefor no one special. “He committed a small crime for a short time and now he pays with his life.”
Five days later, 70-year-old Mr. Cutting, who appeared to be friends with everyone, his daughter often died on daily phone calls and made it his business to attend as many of her singing performances as possible. He died of Covid-19.
The pain of losing him like this was terrible, said Mrs. Fortney. Grief spread through the family, and a few months after her father died, Ms. Fortney lost her brother Scott Cutting Jr., 50, to suicide.
“People look down on families like we’ve done something wrong,” she said. “We don’t stop loving our family members just because they did something they shouldn’t have. I wish more people could see that.”
“Equal Opportunities Killer”
It can be difficult to keep track of Covid-19 deaths in correctional facilities. Prisons do not consistently record deaths, and obituaries often tip toe when it comes to incarceration.
This lack of visibility helps spread the virus, Ehlers said. “There will be more men dying in here who shouldn’t,” he added. “And the only thing that will change things is when people get in touch.”
“There was just no place for the grief of people who let their loved ones die inside,” said Page Dukes, a writer and activist working on the project. “This grief came from the idea that people who were in prison somehow deserved to have Covid – and to die of Covid – more than other people.”
The monuments include Officers, Health care workers and others who have worked in correctional facilities – a nod to the fact that crowded or unsanitary conditions are also dangerous to staff and can accelerate the spread of the virus in surrounding communities.
“Crimes and convictions play no role in the spread of Covid in this place,” said Ehlers. “It’s an equal opportunity killer.”
In order to honor the humanity of the deceased, no criminal convictions are mentioned in the memorials.
“People unfamiliar with the prison system often forget a few things about people in prison,” said Ms. Joyner, who paints portraits for the website. “That means that we are primarily human.”
Mr. Ehlers, who wrote a memorial to Mr. Scottsaid he knew his toll could be avoided because both men were convicted of murder – “great and terrible mistakes that affect many people”. But he also worried that no one would be different if he didn’t talk about his grief and his friend.
“We are all more than our crimes,” said Mr. Ehlers. “We are fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, cousins and friends. We are also important to people. “