November 12, 2020

Prison Society volunteers share stories of life in prison during COVID-19
State prisons and most county jails have barred visitors during the pandemic, making it difficult for family members and loved ones to know what it’s like on the inside during these uncertain times.

State prisons and most county jails have barred visitors during the pandemic, making it difficult for family members and loved ones to know what it’s like on the inside during these uncertain times. The Prison Society’s volunteers are a rare exception.

Pennsylvania law authorizes our volunteers to enter prisons and meet confidentially with people in custody, to discuss problems they’re having and advocate for their welfare. Because there are so few visitors allowed in prisons right now, the pandemic has made the work of the Society’s volunteers more important than ever.

This week, we’re featuring stories of recent visits our staff and volunteers have had with people in custody. Their experiences offer a rare glimpse of what it’s like behind prison walls during COVID-19 and what people in custody are going through.

Andrea Witmer, Mifflinburg, PA
Prison Society Volunteer

Andrea traveled to the State Correctional Institution at Muncy in early October to visit with a woman in custody.

Except for a temperature check and coronavirus screening, her arrival at the prison wasn’t much different from what Andrea had been used to during her four years as a volunteer. But the normality didn’t last for long. Instead of heading to the big open room where she’s always gone for visits, Andrea was escorted to a tiny “cubicle of a room” used for no-contact visits. Inside, there was glass separating her from the woman she was there to see, and a telephone handset she had to use to talk.

The barriers made it difficult to offer comfort. Normally, she might hug the women she visits, but this time, the masks they all had to wear made it impossible to even offer the warmth of a smile. The setting was “very rigid, cold,” Andrea says.

The person Andrea was visiting was a young woman who was struggling with a corrections officer on her unit whom she said was harassing and verbally abusing her. This officer liked to lord his power over her and other women, she told Andrea, and would threaten to search her cell during the brief window of time the inmates were allowed outside their cells. She wanted to be relocated to another housing unit away from the guard, but so far the prison was unwilling to grant her request. Her solution was to never leave her cell whenever the problem guard was on duty, despite how excruciating it was to be confined in the cramped space nearly the entire day.

“What really seemed to bother her--and she said even a lot of the other women—was not moving out of their cells except for a half-hour a day,” Andrea says. “You know, to be in the same cell for 23-and-a-half hours a day... that really, really affected them mentally.”

This young woman was already dealing with mental health challenges, and Andrea could sense her anxiety.

“She was just like tapping her legs, having a hard time telling her story,” Andrea says.

Before they parted, Andrea told her she would advocate for her through the Prison Society to try to resolve her problem with the guard, and was committed to helping.

“I told her, I’m going to come back.’”

Kirstin Cornnell, Philadelphia, PA
Prison Society Social Services Director

The Philadelphia Department of Prisons occupies a large campus in Northeast Philadelphia with multiple jails.  Around the end of August, the Prison Society was flooded with calls from people concerned about women who were transferred, without explanation, from the modern Riverside jail to two disused facilities. The callers, which included an anonymous corrections officer, reported that the facilities—known as “Mod 3” and “ASD”—were in a state of severe neglect and disrepair. They described crumbling walls and rampant mold infestations, among other unclean and unsafe conditions.

Prison Society Social Services Director Kirstin Cornnell went to meet with two women in these facilities who had complained about the situation. Although Kirstin does not usually respond to concerns of individual incarcerated people as part of her job, the Prison Society felt it was important to send a staff member in this case, since we were not familiar with the facilities in question.

Kirstin wouldn’t get to see Mod 3 or ASD for herself, however, because all visits were taking place at a different Department of Prisons facility per COVID-19 protocols. But speaking with the women confirmed what we had heard over the phone and provided needed context.

One of them described showers in Mod 3 that were woefully inadequate, providing just “a trickle of water.”

“You'd have to cup your hands to get enough and then splash it on your body to attempt to be able to get clean,” Kirstin says the woman told her.

They also told her about a wall that was crumbling so badly, you could see into an adjacent cell.

The visiting room where Kirstin met with the women had cubicles with plexiglass barriers separating people in custody from visitors. The prison seemed to be taking appropriate precautions to prevent viral transmission in the visiting area, Kirstin observed. Windows were cracked open and large fans were running to ventilate the space. Nearly all the guards she saw were wearing masks, and generally seemed to appreciate the gravity of the coronavirus threat.

In contrast, the masks the women in custody were wearing looked odd and inadequate: "loose, ill-fitting pieces of tissue paper, essentially, that didn't fit the form of their face,” Kirstin says. The masks wouldn’t stay in place, and the women kept having to readjust them as they talked.

The women were distressed by these circumstances. The transfers to Mod 3 and ASD were “adding a lot more uncertainty and confusion” in an already uncertain time, Kirstin says.

The conditions the women described were consistent with inspections conducted by the PA ACLU and Institutional Law Project as part of their ongoing lawsuit against Philadelphia for failing to sufficiently mitigate viral spread in the city's prisons. We received calls from people in the prison that conditions improved somewhat after Kirstin’s visit, and she says both women appreciated the chance to have their stories heard by a sympathetic ear.

“Even though I couldn't wave a magic wand and fix things for them, they were grateful for an outside face and an opportunity to talk about their experiences."

Jim Foran, South Williamsport, PA
Prison Society Volunteer

Jim met with two people in custody in Lycoming County Prison in October. Their circumstances could not have been more different.

One was a young man who had just a month left before his release. He had financial and social support from friends and loved ones outside of prison, and aspirations to start his own business. The other was a middle-aged woman who was looking at a potentially lengthy sentence, and had little or no support system she could call on.

"Some people there have a great level of support and other people kind of fall between the cracks,” Jim says.

He met with both of them in a no-contact visiting room where they were separated by glass and spoke through telephones. The woman explained that she was trying to get care for a chronic health condition from a specialist outside of the prison. She had had an appointment with one before she entered the jail, but was unable to attend following her arrest. The COVID-19 restrictions in place at the prison may have made it more difficult for her to get that outside care, Jim says.

"There’s a level of isolation already and [the pandemic] adds another layer to things,” Jim says.

The young man Jim visited had just a month left of his sentence to serve, and was excited to begin working back home in Philadelphia. He had requested a visit to discuss a conflict he was having with a guard who he said had called him a racial slur. The prison had already investigated the incident, Jim says, and didn’t resolve the conflict to the young man’s satisfaction. But because he was getting out so soon, Jim advised him to put the problem behind him and focus on his future.

"I'm sure since the pandemic started, he had no visitors,” Jim says. “He appreciated seeing somebody taking an interest in him."

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