Pandemic and prison policies combine to stress families of Nevada’s incarcerated

inmate testing
Inmates at Florence McClure Women's Correctional Center are tested for COVID-19. (Photo: Nevada Department of Corrections via Twitter)

Across the U.S., cases of the novel coronavirus inside correctional facilities are a growing concern. The Equal Justice Initiative has found the COVID-19 infection rate in jails and prisons is about 2.5 times higher than in the general population. The relatively few tests that are available have identified more than 72,473 incarcerated people and corrections workers have tested positive. Thus far, 663 incarcerated people and 40 staff have died from the disease

While the effects of COVID-19 on incarcerated individuals is being documented, far less is known about the impacts related to familial incarceration. The potential consequences are vast as 1 in 2 adults in the U.S. has had a family member incarceratedFamilies already face distinct financial, emotional and mental health consequences when a relative is incarcerated. These effects are undoubtedly heightened during a global pandemic given the increased risk of infection and decreased access to communication in correctional facilities. 

We are conducting a nationwide survey and follow-up interviews with families of incarcerated persons. Over 300 family members from 40 states across the U.S. have filled out the survey and 35 have completed in-depth interviews thus far. One of our preliminary findings is that the response to the pandemic has varied greatly across states. Of our 300 participants, 27 had family members incarcerated in Nevada, three of which completed in-depth interviews.

The majority of survey participants were unsatisfied with Nevada Department of Corrections’ (NDOC) response to the pandemic (70%). Some of the reasons in open-ended comments included a lack of adequate preventative measures (i.e, no PPE for their loved ones, staff not wearing masks, no cleaning supplies) and lack of testing for COVID-19. Respondents also noted a lack of transparent information and resources for families provided by NDOC.

As of mid-June 2020, no participants in the study indicated their incarcerated loved ones had been tested for COVID-19. However, the state recently began widespread testing of those incarcerated with a testing rate of 86-90 percent

Also, all 27 family members in our study indicated their loved one in Nevada had not been given PPE as of mid-June 2020. This reflects Nevada Department of Corrections’ (NDOC) previous policy (accessed 6/19/20) prohibiting incarcerated individuals from wearing masks due to “safety and security reasons” as “staff must be able to identify offenders by face at all times, especially during an incident” or because “offenders wearing masks can more easily blend in with staff wearing masks, which increases the risk of escape.” This policy directly contradicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for correctional agencies. 

The policy has since been revised, with a recent distribution of 22,000 masks. However, families reported that although staff had access to masks since March, they have not been consistently wearing them. 

Families also reported decreased communication during the pandemic. Understandably NDOC is limiting movement in facilities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This includes increased lockdowns and the suspension of in-person visits. However, families describe anxiety and worry when they do not know when their loved one will be able to call home. Two family members indicated their loved one is let out of their cell for an hour every three days and must choose between calling home or showering. Virtual visits, which are being used more by other states during the pandemic to keep families connected, are currently not an option in Nevada.

Additionally, families reported programming has been halted during the pandemic. Limiting external contractors into facilities is a safety precaution. However, families note that time is added onto their incarcerated loved ones’ release date each month they are not in programming.

As a result of the pandemic, families indicate increased mental health symptoms related to anxiety and depression, worry, and fear. Families noted that these adverse effects could be mitigated if NDOC takes the appropriate steps to follow the CDC guidelines and communicate with the public. “Treat us like human beings. We have loved ones inside and we’re worried they might die,” said one family member. Family members noted difficulties trying to contact NDOC to obtain updates. One interviewee indicated the Family Liaison’s line was always busy every time she called. 

NDOC must strengthen communication with the public, and families more specifically. Relatives on the outside should be updated often on safety conditions, changing protocols and steps they can take to stay in regular contact. NDOC should also freeze fees associated with family communications, to ease the financial burden.

Communication with families can be improved through tablet devices, which are allowed in other states. Other states allow for virtual visits, email, and phone calls through the tablets. Also, access to programming through tablets would prevent disruptions in rehabilitation and extended release dates.  

We’ve noticed throughout our study that families’ anxiety and level of satisfaction is dependent on how correctional agencies respond to the pandemic. While Nevada has missed opportunities for early prevention measures, it is not too late for NDOC to implement steps to detect and prevent further cases while increasing transparency to the public. 

Breanna Boppre
Breanna Boppre is an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Wichita State University.
Meghan Novisky
Meghan Novisky is an assistant professor in Criminology, Anthropology & Sociology at Cleveland State University.