Kelly Halverson, 48, doesn’t know the next time she’ll see her fiancé, Mike Stevens. He’s serving 17 years on a drug conviction at FCI Sandstone, a low-security federal prison in Minnesota. In normal times, she sees him once or twice a month, far less than she’d like. Sandstone is a four-hour drive from her home in Port Edwards, Wisconsin, and with bad weather it can take even longer. “Seeing him in person is what keeps me sane,” she said. “It’s the place where our dreams, hopes, and plans are laid out. It’s the place where we have our deepest connection.”
Halverson last saw Stevens on February 22. Since then, overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions have placed the US incarceration system on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing is often impossible, and many inmates reportedly lack access to hand sanitizer and protective gear. Cases of Covid-19 are increasing rapidly. As of April 8, The New York Times had identified at least 1,324 confirmed Covid-19 infections inside in prisons and jails, numbers it said were “most likely a vast undercount”; according to data compiled by the Marshall Project, there had been at least 63 deaths by April 16. Although thousands have been released early to slow the outbreak, about 2 million people remain incarcerated.
In order to insulate facilities from outside infections, prisons and jails have suspended in-person visits. But for people with incarcerated loved ones, that measure carries a devastating emotional toll. The physical contact that Halverson looks forward to has been reduced to rushed phone calls, brief e-mail exchanges, and days of solitude and uncertainty.
Without the chance to interact face to face, inmates’ friends and relatives—including some 2.7 million children—are forced to speculate from afar. For them, mounting evidence of Covid-19’s spread inside prisons hits particularly close to home. They hear reports of dire conditions and rumors that some facilities quarantine healthy inmates in the same units as sick ones. They read harrowing stories, like a mother whose 36-year-old son called from a New Jersey jail, complaining of flu-like symptoms, and passed away two days later. It’s those nightmare scenarios that terrify Halverson and so many others.
When Sandstone suspended visits, Halverson, an engineering specialist at a telecom company, tried to make the best of the situation. She recognized that seeing her fiancé in person could spread the virus to him and other inmates, and she understood the stakes: After surviving two bouts of bladder cancer, Stevens has a compromised immune system; if he catches Covid-19, it’s more likely to kill him.