In February, Tomiekia Johnson’s mother, father, sister, and daughter came to Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), a state prison in the small city of Chowchilla, for their monthly visit. Tomiekia had been reading the news about the spread of the coronavirus and told her family to prepare for catastrophe. “They were…unmoved,” she wrote to me in August. “They gave me the side eye. Now here we are.”
On March 16, visits to the facility were paused. Tomiekia, who is forty-one, and her thirteen-year-old daughter had to make do with phone calls, punctuating their brief, monitored conversations with expressions of reassurance and affection: “You know I love you, right?” “Yeah, mama, I know.” In early April, a prison nurse tested positive, Tomiekia told me, which resulted in a brief quarantine of certain units. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray were made available on demand, but the CCWF population, which tops two thousand, still mingled on the parched grass yards of the sprawling compound.
When COVID hit women’s prisons in the United States, Justine van der Leun started reaching out. During the first half-year of the crisis, she corresponded with 88 people in 26 prisons in 19 states. She received more than 600 e-mails and 25 letters, and conducted 21 interviews.
Then, Tomiekia wrote, “people started to realize they could die here before making it home.” Panic set in. Women inside began to talk about lawsuits, anarchy, and escape plans. Tomiekia counseled others and thumped her Bible. She saw the virus, she told me, as yet another challenge—after the domestic violence she had suffered, the killing of her husband that she maintained was an accident, the loss of her career and every material possession, the trial during which she saw her character demolished, the separation from her child. “We’re being tested to the ends of our being,” she told me. “To the last threads of our might.”
The letters tell the story of rising panic, and of deeply insufficient health protocols and care in the prisons. Women wrote of trying their best to avoid getting sick. “I am living my worst fear,” one wrote. “To die in prison."
Joe Vanderford, a transgender man at Minnesota’s Shakopee Prison for women in the southeastern city of Shakopee, was accustomed to feeling unmoored, a self-described “castaway.” Joe, now fifty-three, had been abused and neglected as a child. Over his thirty-three years in prison for murder, he has spent a total of eight in solitary confinement, including one five-year stretch. During his time in “the hole,” he caught and trained a baby mouse, which slept by his head in an empty Folgers jar, until one night he accidentally squished it. “I guess surviving loneliness and punishment is my great accomplishment and shame,” he wrote. When the coronavirus began to circulate, Joe advocated for masks. “We have zero death row inmates,” he wrote me, but with Covid spreading, “each prison is death row.”
The letters also show how neglect during the COVID crisis is compounding multiple other ways incarcerated women have been failed by the system: often abused earlier in life; often uncared-for by social services; sometimes incarcerated for killing their abusers.
Nicole “Nikki” Addimando, a thirty-one-year-old former preschool teacher, was a new arrival at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s only maximum-security women’s prison. “Being in here during this pandemic is bizarre,” she wrote me in late March. As in California, visits had been suspended, and Nikki did not know when she would see her five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son again. When she was in county jail, they had seen one another every week for an hour. But once Nikki was transferred to Bedford Hills in February, she hoped for longer visits: the prison had a playroom, and children were allowed to stay for an entire day. Instead, everything shut down. “More isolation,” Nikki wrote. “Further removed from the world and what’s going on outside of these barbed wire fences.” Some mornings, she looked up at the moon as she walked across the grounds, and it reminded her that she was “still on this earth. But I feel a million miles away.”
Continue reading on the New York Review of Books' website.
More from our series COVID-19: Inside the Crisis
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