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  • Doug Tjapkes

How prison families identify with COVID victims

There's no greater misfortune than dying alone. Gabriel Garcia Marquez Day after day, during this past year of COVID horror, we have been bombarded with tragic stories about being alone. Time and again we heard tearful reports of family members unable to visit ailing and dying loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals. Thousands upon thousands of COVID patients died one at their bedside to hold hands, say last goodbyes, offer final prayers. Heartbreaking! Experiences like that were new to many of us. We’ve never had a pandemic like this before. But, surprise, surprise. This is nothing new for anyone who has a family member in prison! No, it’s not a virus that causes similar problems. It’s the cold, heartless, impersonal system that’s to blame...and it’s not nice. Our home phone rang the other night. Old feller called me and introduced himself. He had gotten my name and telephone number from a friend of a friend. In this business, the calls, the pleas for help, don’t come just during office hours on weekdays. Anyway, I quickly identified with Mr. D because he was exactly my age. He has a son nearly 60 years of age in prison, and lately he and his wife had been unable to connect with him. Trying to pry information from prison staff members is a daunting task, but thanks to his persistence he finally learned that his son is in the hospital. No one had bothered to tell his parents. The man called us, wondering how to work through the red tape of arranging a hospital visit. I’m proud to say that HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS did what it does best, and was able to pave the way for a parental hospital visit to their son. Sadly, it may be too little too late. And that leads me to this: I don’t know what it’s going to take to introduce a tiny measure of compassion into this system, but that’s what must happen. Our files are filled with horror stories. Stories of wives or parents who suddenly lose contact with a son or daughter behind bars, only to learn later that they’ve been transferred to the prison health center or a private hospital. Stories of loved ones unable to communicate final goodbyes to sick and dying prisoners. Stories of lonely incarcerated individuals who simply died alone in a cold prison infirmary. Yes, because of COVID, the rest of the world is finding out what families of prisoners have known for a long time. There is no greater misfortune than dying alone. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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