Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with a woman whose partner is in a New York prison. Slate granted her anonymity to protect against retaliation. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Aviva Shen.
We’ve been together for three years, and he’s been locked up for two. He’s way upstate in a maximum-security prison right now. It’s the farthest away he’s been from me. Before this crisis, I used to go visit him every week, but now visits are suspended for at least the next month.
Normally, I board the bus in New York City at 10 p.m. the night before the visit and get to the prison by 8 a.m.. They’ll let me in to see him around 10 a.m. I’m usually exhausted from the trip so I’ll just lay on him and take a nap. Some people are like, why would you spend all the time you have together just napping? And honestly, for me, I need that intimacy. So we just kind of spend a lot of time in each other’s presence, not necessarily feeling the need to say anything. It’s important to be able to just put my head on his shoulder, joke around, and have fun. The visit ends around 3. I get on a bus back to the city at 3:15.
It’s a long trip, but I can’t really go too long without seeing him. If I do take a break, it’s only for one week. He’s never pressured me. He used to tell me to take breaks if I needed them, but, I don’t know, I just missed him by the end of the week. Even on a week when I would tell him, I need a break this weekend, I’m not coming to see you, by Thursday, I’d book my trip up already.
It’s been really important to be able to just be with him on those trips. People talk about love languages; mine is quality time. So I have a really hard time when I go extended periods of time without seeing him or hearing from him. Now it’s been a week since I last saw him. [Editor’s note: This conversation took place on Saturday.] I didn’t know they were going to suspend visits, but I had a feeling. I kept telling him, but he was in denial. He was like, “I don’t really want to talk about that. I just want to spend time with you.”
He comforted me because I was crying a little. I was just really afraid that they were going to suspend visits. And I was right. When I walked out of the prison, the officers told us they suspended them. They didn’t have the decency to come into the visitation room and let us know before we left. I probably would have told him, “I miss you, I love you, I’ll see you in a month or so.” He was still talking about me coming next week. I’m just glad I brought him a ton of soap the last time I saw him.
On the one hand, I know that this is probably for the best, that I’m not cooped up with 12 people in a van right now. I could be carrying it and be asymptomatic and be in contact with somebody who’s immunocompromised. There are a lot of parents and grandparents on these vans. And there are people who could give it to me. I could end up on a visit and then he’d get sick, which means everybody else around gets sick, and it could just escalate.
The thing about the visit suspension that really gets to me, though, is that the prison doesn’t seem to be doing anything else to make sure it doesn’t get inside. It’s one thing to suspend visitation, it’s another thing to suspend visitation without doing anything else. They don’t have any adequate supplies, and even if they did I honestly don’t think they would care to actually make sure somebody was OK. I know if folks are really badly hurt or really sick, then they send them to an outside hospital with a prison ward in it. But I don’t know if they would do that for COVID. I don’t believe there are any adequate preventive measures that are being taken. If it gets into that facility, it will spread like wildfire, and a lot of the older, more vulnerable people will really be at risk.
I’m most afraid they will go on a full lockdown, which would mean he couldn’t call me. If he can still call me every day or write me, that’s all right. I’ve never gone without seeing him or hearing his voice for more than a week. I have friends who are going through the same thing right now, people I met on the van, so it helps to talk to them about it.
Now we talk on the phone for a few minutes every day. It seems like things are changing up day by day. They’re not allowed to go outside in the yard anymore, and they’re separating people a bit farther apart when they go to eat in the mess hall. But in general, I haven’t heard that they’re switching up the routine, which is concerning.
I worry about him on many levels. He is generally super fit and healthy, but as a kid, he had asthma, so who knows what could happen if he tests positive. I’m also hearing from other people with loved ones in other facilities that the risk of retaliation is extra high right now. I also heard from a friend that the facility that her husband is at will just cut off the phone if he even mentioned what’s going on in response to COVID. They’ll terminate their call. Those are rumors, but people are obviously trying to avoid talking about this so they don’t get cut off from their calls. So I’m worried about him getting in trouble for no reason. That happens anyway, but obviously the risk is even higher right now for folks to be sent into solitary confinement.
I’m also just generally worried, as somebody in a romantic relationship, what this does to a relationship, if you don’t really have consistent contact for one or two months. Nowadays if I go 24 hours without hearing from him, I just start to panic. I’m almost at that point now. Hopefully I hear something from him soon.