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Incarcerated people are bracing for COVID-19: Q&A with a woman whose brother is on the inside

Patrisse Cullors March 20th, 2020
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Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, people around the globe are being forced to shift the way we relate to work, school, and nightlife. In California, the virus has impacted the entire state, and Gov. Gavin Newsom and city governments are taking drastic measures to ensure citizens are able to stay healthy—but some communities are more vulnerable than others. Incarcerated people are at high risk of getting the disease due to the unsanitary conditions in jails and prisons, their inability to practice social distancing, and the lack of access to quality medical care, all while the families who love them are being locked out from visiting them. Some incarcerated people are unable to make any contact with their loved ones at all.

Carla Gonzalez’s brother, Fidel Wilfredo “Willy” Gonzalez, is currently serving a 28-year sentence in Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California, and Fidel has heard rumors of an incarcerated person there contracting the virus after a visit with a loved one. Fidel has also told Carla that he and the rest of the population are on 24/7 lockdown with no yard time, no socialization inside of the prison, and no contact with their loved ones outside. I spoke with Carla this week, and she shared with me her firsthand experience of how the coronavirus outbreak is impacting her family and her brother on the inside. The last time Carla had contact with her brother was through a phone call on Friday, Mar. 13. Some of our conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Carla, how did you feel when you heard about COVID-19?

Carla: The first worry I had was around my brother when I first heard about the virus. Because people are in such close quarters [in prisons], I was worried about the impact it would have on my brother and other incarcerated community members. When H1N1 happened, it hit the prison hard and it was really hard for incarcerated people to get medical attention, especially people who are on levels four and five [higher and maximum security] yards.

Tell us more about the medical response inside for incarcerated people.

It usually takes about a month for my brother to get medical attention from the infirmary inside of the multiple prisons he has been placed in. My brother currently has a broken thumb, and they told him because it wasn’t life or death that he was fine. He is in chronic pain, and he is unable to live a quality life inside. He is on no medication and he has been seen for his injury, but he has never received the medical attention he deserves.

Wow, I have known you for 20-something years and I had no idea your brother was living with a broken finger and hasn’t received the medical attention he deserves. I am really sorry. 

Willy rationalizes and undermines his own [need for] medical care because there are people inside with much more dire needs. He often says to me, “I don’t want to take anyone else’s spot for medical care.”

Has your brother talked to you about how he feels about the COVID-19 virus and what’s happening inside of his prison?

His general sentiment is that if there is a confirmed case in his prison, [the virus] will go around. He feels like it's not going to impact him because he is young and healthy, [but] he has talked about the people inside with compromised immune systems who will end up dying because they are all in close quarters.

As much as people are panicking about food out here, the people inside prisons are even more scared about their ability to have food. They have no control over their basic necessities, medication, and food. We are all stressing about things we can pick up at a store, but my brother and the people he is inside with can’t fend for themselves if something really bad happens.

[Also,] many people inside, since they are unable to talk to their families on the outside, are very concerned about their loved ones.

If you could talk to the warden of Kern Valley State Prison or Gov. Newsom, what would you want them to know about your family and what you’re experiencing during this crisis?

I want them to know that [even] without a virus, our family is constantly in fear of what our loved ones are dealing with inside. The lack of medical attention, lack of nutritional food, and the weather [due to poor temperature regulation in the prison] are always things we are most worried about. When we have consistent communication with my brother it eases that stress. Now adding a global pandemic, and having no contact with my brother, our entire family is feeling hopeless and scared.

I would ask the warden and the governor to start releasing people from California prisons who are no longer a threat to society. My brother has been in since he was 18 years old. He goes up to the parole board this year. He has been inside now for 15 years. I think he is ready to come home, and I think many California prisoners can be released now. Otherwise, our prisons will be ground zero for the worst of COVID-19 and its impact on communities.

Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.

Prism is a nonprofit affiliate of Daily Kos. Our mission is to make visible the people, places, and issues currently underrepresented in our democracy. By amplifying the voices and leadership of people closest to the problems, Prism tells the stories no one else is telling. Follow us on Twitter @ourprisms and on Facebook 

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