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With Prison Visits On Hold, Inmates' Families Struggle To Stay Connected During Pandemic

Latoy Williams, right, spends time with her family at the state prison in Vandalia on February 23, 2020. In mid-March, the Missouri Department of Corrections suspended all visitation due to the pandemic.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio
Latoy Williams, right, spends time with her family at the state prison in Vandalia in February. In mid-March, the Missouri Department of Corrections suspended all visitation due to the pandemic.

Tina Merriweather carries her phone with her everywhere, just in case her daughter calls.

“I can be in a prayer service and she'll call me, but I always answer,” Merriweather said.

Her daughter, Latoy Williams, is an inmate at Women’s Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. She is among the tens of thousands in Missouri prisons unable to see their relatives in person due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Like most other state prison systems, the Missouri Department of Corrections suspended visitation in March in an effort to keep the virus from spreading. But without a clear idea of when visits will resume, some families are feeling anxious about their incarcerated loved ones and wondering when they’ll see them again.

When word of a deadly new virus first reached Williams at the prison, she said she didn’t really take it seriously. But then, all visitation was suspended — and she panicked.  

“I was just really frantic, like calling home, making sure my grandbaby was wearing her mask, making sure she's staying safe,” Williams remembered. 

Soon afterward, she said, there was a suspected case of COVID-19 in her housing unit and everyone was moved into a separate quarantine wing. 

“They came over immediately like, ‘Come on, just go leave your things,’” Williams said. “When we get over there, they in the white suits like something out of a movie. It was scary, like if they wearing all this, what about us?”

Latoy Williams greets her 7-year-old granddaughter, Dariana Williams, in the visiting room of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center on February 23, 2020.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

A total of 58 Missouri inmates and 49 employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March 23 — mostly at Southeast Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison south of Cape Girardeau. An inmate at the prison in St. Joseph died in early April while being treated for COVID-19 at a Kansas City-area hospital.

Of the more than 28,000 inmates in Missouri prisons, 6,134 had been tested for the coronavirus as of June 16. The department is currently testing all inmates and employees, a process that began in late May.

They plan to gradually resume visiting “with multiple safety restrictions, at facilities that have completed mass COVID-19 testing with no positives,” a spokesperson said by email. 

Safety restrictions could include limiting the number of visitors, health screenings prior to entry and mandatory face masks, according to a June 12 bulletin from DOC Director Anne Precythe. 

‘There’s nothing you can do’

Michelle Hickman’s family has visited her at the women’s prison in Vandalia every month for the past seven years.

In February, she sat in a sunny corner of the visiting room with her husband and three kids, playing checkers and eating vending machine snacks. Hickman didn’t know it at the time, but it would be her last family visit for months.

Michelle Hickman hugs her son James during a visit at the prison in Vandalia on February 23, 2020.

Now, she waits in line — sometimes for over an hour each day — to talk to her family on the phone for 15 minutes. 

“Sometimes it's just to say hi and I love you and I hope you had a good day,” said Hickman, adding that she tries to stay upbeat so her family doesn’t worry. “It's just so I can hear their voice.”

Tensions are “through the roof” inside the prison, she said, in part because some inmates are feeling frustrated that they can’t see their families and are worried about them. 

“It’s not easy being in here alone and knowing there’s nothing you can do for them out there,” Hickman said.

Families with incarcerated loved ones tend to be lower income and as a result, they may be managing many other challenges during the pandemic, said Joyce Arditti, a professor of human development at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Tina Merriweather, left, and her daughter Latoy Williams during their last family visit on February 23, 2020. A few weeks later, the Missouri Department of Corrections suspended all visits due to the pandemic.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

“These are families that also might be dealing with hardships around employment, income loss, health risks, access to health resources, testing,” Arditti said. “So you've kind of got a perfect storm here.” 

Maintaining relationships with relatives in prison is already difficult for families, she said, and these added pressures from the pandemic could cause some to “fall by the wayside.”

In St. Louis, Tina Merriweather is eagerly awaiting the day when she can get back on the bus and visit her daughter. Seeing her in person, even for a few hours, feels like being “right at home,” she said.

But even more importantly, Merriweather added, the visits help keep Williams’ spirits up. 

“It strengthens her, it encourages her to keep on trying, to look forward to doing something more positive with herself,” Merriweather said. “Lord knows the mothers need it. They need all the visits they can get.” 

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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