'In fear of my life': Loved ones send money to help protect inmates during pandemic

Dhara Singh

Every month, Gigi West deposits up to $100 in her husband’s electronic cash reserve at the William P. Clements Unit in Amarillo, Texas, where he’s serving for attempted burglary. 

He uses the funds to buy toilet paper, deodorant and other sanitation items from the commissary, the prison store. The shopping runs for hygiene supplies – limited to $25 twice a month – have become even more crucial for West’s husband whose cellmate last week died from COVID-19.

“They can buy up to seven bars of soap, but they don’t even get regular soap. The bars they get are the size of hotel soaps,” West, 50, said. “They have to use that for everything from washing their hands to washing their cells.”

Gigi West's incarcerated spouse describes the conditions at William P. Clements Unit in Amarillo, Texas. (Photo credit: Gigi West)

‘No possibility of social distancing’

As coronavirus cases spread like wildfire across prisons, friends and families are sending their own money, so their incarcerated loved ones can buy supplies and medicine to protect themselves from the pandemic. 

But limits on cash transfers, a lack of transparency, and delayed medical care and supplies all hinder their well-intentioned efforts.

Signs made by prisoners pleading for help are seen on a window of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., April 7, 2020, amid the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: REUTERS/Jim Vondruska)

For the past month and a half, Americans have been told to shelter-in-place to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. But for the 2.2 million incarcerated, staying put has instead placed their lives in danger. 

“We are told to be in our house to stay safe, but for those in prison and jail, their house is going to kill them,” said Amy Fettig, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project. “Their house is lethal because there’s no possibility of social distancing. They don’t have access to cleaning supplies or soap.”

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‘I am in fear of my life’

Erica Hashman used to send $50 every month to her close friend, Nicholas Carter, who has three months left until he’s released from Lindsey State Jail in Jacksboro, Texas. Typically, friends and family can send up to $300 per month.

The 47-year-old Carter is diabetic and used some of that money on the $14 insulin shots that he needs. But Lindsey State Jail recently shut down both money transfers and the commissary itself, Hashman said.

Carter, who has diabetes writes that he is in fear of his life. (Photo credit: Erica Hashman)

Carter hasn’t been receiving the amount of insulin he needs, and there isn’t a dietician to monitor his meals, Hashman said.

“The blood vessels in his eyes are rupturing from his diabetes,” Hashman said, noting the most recent letter from Carter. “He said everyone in the jail is freaking out about the coronavirus.”

The facility didn’t respond to requests for comment from Yahoo Money.

Because of his health, Carter himself is at particular risk of developing a severe illness from the COVID-19 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carter is well aware of his own vulnerability.

“I’m a middle aged man who is Type 1 insulin dependent diabetic and have previously battled cancer,” he wrote in a letter to Hashman that he wanted shared publicly. “Whenever the coronavirus hits our unit like it already has hit several Texas prisons I will especially be in danger of contracting the virus and dying from it.”

“I am in fear of my life,” he wrote.

‘No one is wearing gloves’

Like hospitals, prisons are also short-staffed and lacking necessary protective equipment such as masks because of the dearth of supplies nationwide, Fettig said.

That’s what worries Abby Long whose 16-year-old son is at the Camino Nuevo Youth Center, a correctional facility, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“He’s told me it’s possible for everyone to stay six feet away, but no one is wearing gloves,” said Long, who is allowed two 10-minute phone calls a week from her son.

Abby Long whose 16-year-old son is at the Camino Nuevo Youth Center, a correctional facility, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo: Abby Long)

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, which oversees the facility, acknowledged the shortage of safety equipment across the state.

“We had distributed [three] education sewing machines and have been gathering supplies so they can make masks,”Charlie Moore-Pabste, a spokesman for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, told Yahoo Money. The department recently received 900 donated masks, too.

For now, Long resorts to weekly phone calls and sending her son care packages with snacks and hygienic supplies such as body wash, shampoo, and deodorant.

“I can buy and send him a hygiene and snacks package but it’s been very difficult to find things,” Long said. “I use Amazon and it ended up costing me $80.”

‘Does anyone around you have a fever?’

Back in the William P. Clements Unit, Gigi West’s husband could take up to three showers a day before the pandemic. Now, he’s allowed only one a week.

“They can’t practice hygiene, because in that whole prison, they are doing literally one shower a week,” said West, who noted that many inmates plunge water from the toilet to wash their clothes and sheets, because there is no set schedule for laundry.

The facility didn’t respond to requests for comment from Yahoo Money.

Gigi West's husband said he spends 23 hours locked in his prison cell. (Photo credit: Gigi West)

“No one asks them what they need,” she said. “It just makes me insane and I’m so scared because every time I get a letter I want to ask: ‘Are you okay? Does anyone around you have a fever?’”

Fortunately, West’s husband hasn’t contracted the coronavirus, even though his cellmate did and exposed much of the prison population to the disease.

“I’m terrified. He’s terrified,” she said. “I got a letter yesterday or the day before and he just kept talking about his cellmate...about him dying.”

Dhara Singh is a reporter at Cashay and Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter at @Dsinghx.

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