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Families and loved ones of incarcerated people feel the collateral damage of incarceration in COVID

Prisoners are not the only people impacted by incarceration — parents, children and other loved ones who committed no crime are also impacted by less visitation.

by Elizabeth Thompson North Carolina Health News

Prisoners are not the only people who are impacted, so are their families, who have committed no crime. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thompson

Prisoners are not the only ones impacted by their incarceration.

A prison or jail sentence affects that person’s family, from parents and siblings to partners and children. It means being separated from the outside world, missing birthdays and weddings, missing funerals. Not being there when they’re needed most.

That absence is also felt by the people who did not commit any crime, the loved ones who become collateral damage.

As the newest variant of the SARS CoV2 virus continues to permeate throughout the state’s prisons, it affects the ability of incarcerated people to communicate with their loved ones. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety has limited visitation as different prisons experience outbreaks in order to limit the spread of the virus both in the facility and outside in the community.

North Carolina prisons first suspended visitation on March 16, 2020.

“This was a difficult decision,” said Commissioner of Prisons Todd Ishee in a press release at the time. “I know this will not be good news to offenders and their families, but this is being done with everyone’s health and safety in mind.”

As the Omicron variant took hold in the state, on Jan. 12, all state prisons returned to non-contact visits. Visitation was suspended at prisons with large outbreaks of COVID-19, as the highly transmissible variant swept through the prison system, sickening thousands.

Even though the North Carolina prison system has a high vaccination rate, sitting at about 80 percent of incarcerated people — most of whom received two doses of an mRNA vaccine — the beginning of the Omicron surge felt like 2020 all over again for some prisoners and their loved ones.

After North Carolina Health News published a story anticipating the high caseload Omicron would bring, family and friends of incarcerated people rushed to contact us. They expressed the need to do “something,” expressing the helplessness they felt around their ability to protect loved ones in the face of the next deadly surge.

“I don’t know what to do,” one person commented.

And as the Omicron variant has spread with a vengeance throughout North Carolina’s prisons, it has also impacted incarcerated peoples’ mental health.

Loved ones are left to pick up the pieces.

Unpredictable visitation

When many people currently incarcerated in North Carolina’s prison system were sentenced or took plea deals, life looked different. There was no pandemic, they could more or less rely on visits from family to maintain connections and their sense of hope.

DeMorris Tucker reads with his son at Parents Day at the Orange Co