Love Makes Us Resilient Despite Poor Pandemic Response

The following essay is by AFJ member Kenya D. Thorpe about her marriage to the love of her life and their resilient love during the inhumane Covid-19 response in New York’s prison system.

There are times when I sit down to write a letter and as a heading I use the phrase “To Whom It May Concern.” For this I would prefer to use the heading “To Whomever Thinks This Doesn’t Concern Them.”

It may not seem like it to those who just met me or know me professionally, but I have been serving time since August 1, 2016. That is the day I met my now husband and best friend. He is currently incarcerated in Green Haven Correctional Facility. He has been incarcerated since he was 18 years old, every minute plus of 24 years. For the amount of time he has been behind the walls, it makes my sentence of over 4 years seem like small fries, but let me tell you it is anything but. My sentence is as someone who loves someone who is incarcerated. I’d like to tell you what this means — and how New York’s response to Covid-19 in prisons has made our separation so much worse.

I remember the first time I told someone my future husband was incarcerated. She had a lot of questions, and I knew they were coming from a place of love. Not every encounter has been so pleasant. I have lost most of the people that I called friends. I used to wonder how I finally — finally — met the man who I feel was created specifically for me, and how that process of falling in love meant that I also had to lose most of my friends. My support system disappeared because I fell in love. What happened to my life? What happened to them?

The first time it really hit me hard was on our Wedding Night: November 22, 2017. After I traveled back from Green Haven (about 5 hours away), I took off my Wedding Dress, shoes, and jewelry, then took a shower and got ready for bed. I laid down and listened to the silence of my house. I was overjoyed when my husband finally called. We talked for our allotted time about how wonderful our “wedding” was and all the interesting things that happened during our visit, but once our time was over and he hung up the phone, I realized I was all alone. I was all alone on my Wedding Night.

Even though that was three years ago it hurts just as much now as it did then. My husband and I are extremely close. We share our separate experiences with one another and confide in each other about everything both good and bad. We are each other’s best friend, and in spite of him not physically living in the house he is still very much a part of this household and we make all decisions together.

Because I live so far away and work a full time job, a part time job, and have started my own small business we are unable to see each other as much as we would like. We were actually scheduled to go on our 9th FRP Visit (Family Reunion Program) in March when the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees New York state’s 52 prison facilities that “house” 35,000 people, shut down the facility as part of its failed and inhumane response to Covid-19. I was completely heartbroken. I look forward to every conversation during every regular daytime visit, but to have an FRP visit is an extra special occasion. During the FRP, which is an overnight visit with spouse and immediate family, we are able to spend that extra time together, cook together, and really get those quiet moments alone together to peel back the layers that allow you to give depth to the bond that you share. At this point all of that has been taken away from us. At one point the whole prison was locked down and we didn’t even have the privilege of a conversation. The Family Reunion Program remains closed since March 2020, and now regular visits have again been suspended since December (they were open from August through December with some painful limitations). Our bond will remain strong, but separation and the “not knowing” hurts deeply.

During times like this I feel completely broken. I am madly in love with my husband. He is one of the “Beautiful People.” He has a loving kind and gentle heart. He breathes life into me, and I can only hope and pray that I am doing the same for him. When I don’t have the opportunity to speak with him and hear his voice so I can feel his energy, I am no good to anyone. When I don’t hear from him I worry myself into sickness. When I speak to our family from Jamaica and those in New York (I communicate with them every day) it is difficult for me to say to them “I haven’t heard from him today because I believe the prison is locked down.” I often just keep that information to myself because it is too heavy of a burden for me to place on our family. It is bad enough that I am not able to see his face, but then not being able to speak to him either is too much. It is life altering. My husband is a part of every aspect of my life and the lock out of family members is inhumane. When I can not speak to him I truly feel alone, unprotected, nervous, anxious, uncertain, and honestly I feel frustrated and angry. It pains me to imagine what he is feeling. I speak to Mommy G (my mother) every day and she can always tell by the vibe of my energy if I haven’t spoken to my husband. I chat with Mommy M (his mother) every day and she breathes strength into our relationship because she knows when my spirit is broken because of the lack of communication with my husband during these times.

My husband and I have both been tested for Covid with our results coming back negative. We both fully understand the importance of protecting one another and would never want to harm each other in any way. Of course we take precautions to protect one another but not being permitted to see one another can cause just as much harm. The depression that I have been experiencing has taken over. It is truly a fight most days to keep going.

So here we are again suffering yet another lock out. To date I have only seen my husband twice since March. When I heard that they will again be locking us out my heart completely sank. That meant no New Year’s Day visit to start the year off with our loved ones. That means no reinstating FRP visits any time soon, and parents can not see nor bond with their children. That means none of the people waiting to vow their love to one another can move any closer to their goal of being married — the state has suspended all processing of licenses for incarcerated people since March, as well, despite making accommodation for the rest of the population during the pandemic. While I know my union is strong, this total lockout has brought harm and torn families apart.

DOCCS’ approach is to keep people from nourishing the bonds that they have taken time to create and nurture. As if it isn’t hard enough to create and nurture a positive, loving, healthy, and productive relationship with someone who is behind the walls, they take away the little bit of contact that most of us have with the very people who need those types of relationships the most. Do you understand or care that the men, women, and children behind the walls need us just as much as we need them! All too often the contact with loved ones is what keeps us going.

Take just a few hours out of your day to imagine what we must feel like. Take time to think about what we must be going through. Now when you are at your lowest point and think you can’t get any lower muster up the strength somehow to put on a fake smile and go to work, make business calls, go to the store, cook dinner, deal with parents, kids, and all of the everyday life obstacles that one goes through while not being able to see the person who you lean on to get you through the hard times. How do you make it through the day when your loved one is away from you hurting and you can’t go see them to comfort them. Imagine a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or child dying and you having to relay that sensitive and delicate information to someone over the phone. You can’t even be there to look them in their eyes or to comfort or console them.

What is being done to us and our loved ones is brutal. We are made to follow rules and guidelines that they are not making even the guards follow. But of course the families are being made to suffer. I’d like to ask the DOCCS Commissioner and Governor Cuomo this: If the families have been locked out of the prisons for most of the past year since March and the families visiting are the ones who supposedly brought it into the jails, then how is it that so many of the guards are Covid positive and so few of those incarcerated are? Maybe you should address the fact that many of the guards do not use proper PPE, nor do they follow the proper social distancing guidelines. Instead of always looking to punish the inmate population and their families let’s look to correct the things that have been a constant oversight by DOCCS. The reason they do not have enough Corrections Officers there to work their assigned shifts is not at all due to the families that are currently being locked out from seeing their loved ones, however, it is in direct correlation to their lack of respect for the rules that have been put in place to protect everyone involved. The CO’s are the ones who put our loved ones at risk but yet again the people behind the walls and their families will be the ones who will suffer from it.

When will enough be enough? This is a matter that concerns EVERYONE! Not only incarcerated people and their families. It concerns all of DOCCS and the communities in which the prisons are placed, as well as the communities in which the CO’s live. This is an issue for EVERYONE! DOCCS leadership and Governor Cuomo: If you think for one minute that the fact that incarcerated people have once again had their families locked out from being able to see them is something that doesn’t affect everyone then you should spend some of your time alone and not communicating with your loved ones and take an honest look at not only how that affects you but also how you begin to affect all things around you.

I have always been a woman who can tap into her own power, but with my husband by my side I feel unstoppable. We are strong and our love makes us resilient. We will continue to fight for what is right until the injustices against us are reconciled.

AFJ is powered by and for the families of incarcerated New Yorkers and allies across the state. www.afj-ny.org