Counting the Days Amid the Pandemic
By: Angela Hall
It’s 3 a.m. and once again I can’t sleep. I am restless and filled with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Living with COVID-19 is mentally and physically exhausting. Like everyone else I long for the day we can return to some form of normalcy. On nights like tonight, I can’t help but feel like that day might never manifest.
When I listen to the latest news concerning the rising numbers and the ever-growing list of variants currently putting a major strain on healthcare workers in Alaska, it’s difficult to remain optimistic. My thoughts immediately turn to my husband and I wonder if he is safe and if he will be able to phone home.
My husband Brian is one of approximately 4600 individuals incarcerated in the State of Alaska. He is also one of the nearly 400 individuals serving a virtual life sentence (50 years or more) according to a 2021 report from the Sentencing Project. I was aware of this fact when we met and despite the circumstances of his imprisonment and all it entails, we fell in love and made the decision to honor our commitment to one another through marriage. This summer we celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary from a distance as I reside in Arizona. My heart however remains in Alaska.
For incarcerated Alaskans and their loved ones, COVID-19 has created many additional hardships; one of which is the ongoing suspension of contact visitation. I am experiencing this firsthand as I have not seen my husband since October of 2019. Prior to the pandemic we enjoyed planned time together throughout the year. We structured our daily lives and budget so that we might have the pleasure of spending those precious moments together. COVID has changed our life in so many ways.
Secured visitation resumed in July and I have agonized daily over the decision of whether to risk travel to his facility to spend 40 minutes with glass between us, and with a phone that would record the most intimate details of our lives.
The trip would require two separate plane tickets each way, risking breakthrough COVID contamination, a costly hotel stay and ZERO guarantee that visitation will take place on the days that I’m in town because a facility lockdown can take place without notice at any given time. There are three secure visitation booths at my husband's facility and at the time of writing this only one booth has a functioning phone, further reducing the likelihood of visitation. Staff cannot say with any certainty when they will be repaired. This scenario is not uncommon.
I ask myself if I’m mentally prepared to see my husband through a barrier, while we struggle to understand one another through our masks as we attempt to share two years’ worth of family matters, in an awkward attempt to maintain some semblance of intimate connection. I honestly don’t know.
I am conflicted.
For my husband and I -- like thousands of other families connected to the prison system -- I know it’s our only option, and soon, we may not even have that, as other facilities have gone back to no visits because of rising COVID cases. If I don’t go now, it may not be an option next week or at all for the rest of this year; or worst-case scenario, our lives, if either of us were to succumb to the virus. It pains me that I must weigh the pros and cons of such a decision because I love my husband. I know how vital in-person connection is to both of us, but as a mature adult trying to navigate the ongoing effects of the pandemic, every decision I make takes careful consideration.
Now imagine how much harder it is for those with children. According to a 2018 report from the Sentencing Project, one of every 12 American children have experienced parental incarceration during their lives – the impacts of which range from depression to delinquency.
Having an incarcerated loved one requires juggling a myriad of emotions which if left unchecked can lead to depression and isolation. Despite the emotional and financial burden, we choose to remain supportive of our incarcerated loved ones because they are capable of change and deserving of love despite their worst past actions.
The man I married does not embody the lost and troubled teenager convicted of homicide 28 years ago. He’s a caring partner with a great sense of humor and we have found fulfillment through our shared life together. Those who have spent time with Brian, however brief, are pleasantly surprised by his candor and strength of character. He is a man that takes pride in his work as a Dog Obedience Trainer and has a soft spot for Pugs. He likes musicals and ice cream and living according to the tenets of his native spirituality. I adore these things about him, but most of all, I love that he readily acknowledges he still has a lot to learn. If we're honest with ourselves, we would agree we all do, and it is that acknowledgment of our imperfections that aids our growth as human beings.
I am not naïve, or desperate for attention or any of the other misconceptions floating around about individuals in this type of relationship. I am fully cognizant of his past. I found a partner worthy of my love and respect and know without a doubt that someone’s past does not dictate their future.
When we openly advocate in favor of improved prison conditions, we risk public condemnation and ridicule by the very community we look to for support. We’ve broken no laws, we’ve harmed no one, but we are vilified for having the audacity to show love, compassion, and support because it seems to be a popular misconception that loving the sinner means you most assuredly condone the sinful act that led to their incarceration.
Positive family support plays a major role in successful rehabilitation and reentry, something the Department of Corrections and members of the Legislature openly acknowledge. This past session, legislation was introduced that would have opened the way for access to newer technology, (secured video calling, email, Zoom), similar to programs implemented in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Virginia and Colorado. This would have provided alternative means of communication for incarcerated persons and their loved ones. Unfortunately, due to COVID there was not enough time for the bill to successfully make it through the entire legislative process. So, for now, we rely on costly 15-minute phone calls and mail to stay connected.
As a wife, mother and grandmother, I am desperately trying to keep our family together in a time of great turmoil like so many of you. Brian is an integral part of our family. He is my best friend and the voice of reason when my mind wanders into despair about the future. Our marriage is the foundation for which we have built our life for the last decade and despite the obstacles, we will continue to hold on to the hope that one day soon we will be reunited.
Our story is just one of the many stories that deserve to be told and heard.
*Angela Hall is the founder and President of Supporting Our Loved Ones Group (solog.org) a volunteer led Non-profit that provides support and advocacy for the families and friends of incarcerated Alaskans as well as their incarcerated loved ones.