Pandemic in Prison: Renee Benavidez, California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi

As the COVID-19 pandemic is surging inside California’s prisons, jails and ICE detention facilities, we hear from people incarcerated inside and their family members. Renee Benavidez is the founder of We Are Their Voices, a group of family members fighting for better conditions for their incarcerated loved ones during the pandemic. Her husband Jason is incarcerated inside California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi in Kern County. Our reporter Lucy Kang spoke to Renee and her daughter Mia. Since this was recorded, Renee has found out that her husband did in fact contract COVID-19. The following interview has been edited.

Mia: “Hi, my name is Mia, and I am nine years old. Jason is amazing. I love him very much. And even though he’s not my blood, I still think of him as my blood and my first dad. I’m worried that he has COVID and if he does like that, that hurts my heart. I feel like he shouldn’t be in there. And sometimes I take the pictures off the walls and hug them. It’s hard without him, and I miss him very much.”

Renee: “I’m Renee Benevidez. And my husband’s name is Jason, and he is currently at CCI.

He is very outgoing, goofy, always cracking jokes, like giving me and our daughter nicknames, like the “stinkies” and just silly things. We pick up the phone, he’s like, y’all, haven’t brushed your teeth, I can smell it on the phone! Like always trying to make us laugh. 

He’s very intuitive to me. If he even hears the slightest tone difference, he’s like, talk to me, are you okay? And it’s just amazing to have that. The connection is so different when you don’t get to see somebody every day. He’s got to try to learn to shut off who he has to be in there when he gets on the phone with me because life is so different in there.

So we’re able to be goofy. And we talk all the time about what we’re going to do when he gets home. And that gives us all hope because we have this future to look forward to. And he’s just kind, And I’m in love. I’m so in love with this man.

When you’re dealing with someone inside and in prison, you have to get to the core of a lot of things because you’re limited on your phone time. Everything is mainly done through letters and trying to build this communication. And it’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it. And he’s worth all of it. I’ll wait forever for him. Like that’s not even a question in my mind.

And so it’s heartbreaking. There’s this void like you’re trying so hard to keep the bond the best way you can. And now since the pandemic, even phone calls, you’re not getting every day anymore.

It’s so stressful. It’s stressful. It’s overwhelming. It feels like it’s never going to end. We refer to it as a never ending nightmare. Like that’s how it feels. We don’t know when we’re going to see them again. We still don’t know.

You have a lot of them that are getting sick obviously don’t want to tell anybody they’re sick because of everything is stripped of them when they’re put in isolation. So you just think of it as a room with a bed and a toilet. And none of their pictures, none of their belongings, none of their letters, none of anything is able to go with them.

Nobody wanted to see that happen to them because that’s torture. Fourteen days in isolation is torture.

And then they’re getting scared because when they find out their building is okay, and then they start seeing that there’s transfers. And they know that who they’re getting are sick.

For the transfers, they’re keeping that very quiet. The only reason we know the transfers are happening is when they let us know on the inside, they just brought 20 guys in 30 guys in. Or families are saying my husband’s getting transferred. The only other time we’re catching them is honestly at these protests at the prison when we’re seeing the transfer vehicles, and they’re bringing them in or taking them out.

So now they’re like we went from trying to not get sick to, you’re literally bringing people in our building that are infected. So that’s scary. And then he’s saying like even his friends that have health conditions, they’re terrified. They’re absolutely terrified, not knowing what to expect.

What they’re doing on the ones that are on quarantine is they’re have they’re doubling up their mask. That’s the only thing that they have been able to come up with that they think will help them or save them. So they’re making it out of their clothing, their blankets, whatever they can find to try to double up, which is making it harder for them to breathe. But they don’t know what else to do because they’re not given anything to protect themselves there. They don’t have any other way.

My husband has not seen any sanitizer. They’re using water to wipe down their walls and their own shirts or whatever they have to clean them. They’re not given any cleaning supplies. So they’re using water from their sink to try to wipe down their cell and that’s sanitizing, unless they use their little bar of soap or bodywash to put on there to try to wipe it down.

They’re terrified. They’re absolutely terrified.

And these are grown men. These are grown men who have handled every kind of brutality imaginable inside a prison, whether it’s from a CO [correctional officer] or someone else. But they’re like legit scared. We have heard their tone. I cannot express to you the tone in their voice.

When we talked to him, when I talked to my husband, there’ve been times, it’s like all hope is gone. And mind you, this is the man I told you earlier is so optimistic and outgoing and upbeat, and we’re going to get through this, and all of this with his day. To where he had no hope. He was just like, this is it.

It’s just all a mess. And it’s just all they see around them is death or infections.

They know when they see an ambulance come in or they’re taken out on a stretcher, they’re probably not going to see that person again. And they’re seeing their friends that they do care about just dropping. Like my husband said, dropping like flies. And so as much as the pandemic is scaring everybody, they cannot escape it.

I’m terrified. I’m terrified right now that he may have it, and he’s not telling me. He does not sound good at all. And I know he doesn’t like me to worry. He tries to keep everything in there as far from me as he can.

But he doesn’t sound good. And I’ve been asking him, I asked him today like, are you sure you’re okay? And he’s just real quick, like, I’m fine and goes onto the next subject. But I hear him like clearing his throat a lot and like what sounds like a dry cough. And it’s like throughout our whole conversation, like the majority of the conversation is him trying to clear his throat or cough every time he talks. And it’s been like that for a few days. I could be wrong, but that’s just what I feel.

But yes, I’m absolutely terrified.

I can’t be there to help him. Or take care of him. Is he gonna make it? It’s just scary. It’s scary cause he has nobody. I know they won’t tell us if they’re quarantined. They don’t give us any information at all, no matter who you are to them. I fear for him all the time and I feel helpless, completely helpless.

There’s nothing I can do. I just have to wait and see if he makes it, if he’s one of the ones that’s able to get COVID and survive.”


Lucy Kang is a features reporter with KPFA Radio. Follow her on Twitter at @ThisIsLucyKang