As COVID surged inside California’s prisons, jails and ICE detention facilities, we hear from people incarcerated inside and their family members.
Michelle Hoyt’s partner Lyle Crook, 54 is incarcerated at the Substance Abuse Treatment prison in Corcoran CA, and she’s been regularly communicating with him and others inside throughout the outbreak. In mid December, Lyle contracted COVID-19. Michelle spoke with our reporter Lucy Kang. The letter has been copy and pasted from a copy received by KPFA. The interview has been edited.
“He is one of the most mentally strong people that I have ever seen. He will express his worry. And then he, just like the Taylor Swift song, shake it off. He has this mental strength that’s allowed him to be where he is for 31 years and still be the caring, kind, loving person that he is.
He told me back when he was first incarcerated, he did seven years in the hole, in solitary. And he said he saw people lose their minds, like daily in there. And he just had to keep his mind strong and focused on things. And so he did a lot of reading, mental exercises, like he’s very mentally strong.
There’s always the fear like that he’s going to be harmed by someone else. And then, right now the fear that, he’ll get sick and there’s no medical care. There’s no 9-1-1. So that worries me a lot.
Out of 144 people in his building, 137 had tested positive. So they were keeping him in an area with people who were negative. And he was sick. He was having symptoms. They just did not have a test result for him. He made a barrier out of his sheets so he wouldn’t expose people. He kept his mask on 24 hours a day
Suddenly I got the email, like at 10 o’clock at night. You know, I’m sorry, this is bad news. My celly [cellmate] tested positive. They’re taking us tonight, they’re taking him somewhere to isolate him. I’m having to go to quarantine for 14 days. And so then the fear started, you know, is he going to be sick? Is he going to be one of the people that passes away from this? How is he going to be treated? I can’t be there. I can’t even see him right now because they don’t allow us in there.
Oh my gosh, my heart just drops, you know.
And so now he is sick. He’s having multiple symptoms of COVID. He’s got no energy. And then, just discomfort, like him being so cold. They limit the number of blankets they can have. He’s fortunate that he’s able to go to commissary, and he gets packages. But the food that they get is not enough to sustain you, especially when you’re ill. And even with the COVID, they’ve even reduced, they’re like not doing hot meals for them. They’re just doing a little cracker packs and cheese and that kind of thing.
My emotional responses is anger, outrage. I even feel a little bit of panic for these people, you know, putting myself in their shoes, frustration that, how do these people not care because these are human beings?
Just not knowing how your loved one is on a daily basis, especially when emails don’t come through, and you don’t know, oh my gosh, did they get it? Are they taken somewhere that they can’t communicate? But they’re humans and our relationship and our love is just as real as someone who sees their loved one every single day
So before the pandemic, I was there every weekend. I would get up and I would leave my house about 5:00 AM. Get to Corcoran about 8:30. Be the first one in line to go see him. Spend the whole day together. I’d go home, and then come back and see him on Sunday. So I spent every weekend with him.
Families can actually visit their loved ones in prison on holidays. There’s a couple of holidays. So Christmas is one and New Year’s is one, and those are very special to Lyle. In the past I always would do my family Christmas in the morning, like really early with my kids and my grandkids, and then get on the freeway and gothe two hours to Corcoran, and be there and then be able to spend it with Lyle. And that that was really special.
Every New Year’s, we do resolutions. And basically we both sit and write down a list of the things that we want to accomplish that year. We had been hoping that 2020 was going to be a good one. But 2021 is definitely going to be our year.
You gave me some letters that Lyle had prepared. We wanted you guys to hear his voice, and with him being isolated, he’s not getting the phones at all. So that was not going to be an opportunity, but he wrote some words. So this one is talking about what his life really has been like since he’s been found COVID positive and what happened to him upon his diagnosis:
My first night in the building I was forced into a cell with a guy who did not want to accept me as his cellmate. I was threatened by staff, that, “If I didnt go in there I would be written up!”. A “write-up” would be an automatic denial of five years at my next Board. All of this created a tense situation for me and my cellmate, but I want to go home so I definitely moved into the cell. Please know the conditions here are horrible! I’m in a building designated for all of us who have tested positive for Covid. It is cold outside and they have cold air blowing through the vents, leaving the cells frigid. We are given showers every 72 hours and they’re suppose to be running phone calls but are not. I have lost my sense of smell and taste. I feel a little weak, as if I have a cold, but all of this is made worse by sitting in this cold cell. They take our vitals twice daily. The Nurse was so surprised at how cold my skin was. I expressed that I sit in a cold cell all day. During our vitals. they do ask, “How we’re doing,” but no one tells them they have symptoms for fear our stay will be extended. It’s that miserable in here. As I type this message to you I’m in my thermals, under the blankets and it’s still cold.
Another thing that makes no sense to me is we stay here for ten to fourteen days, then we’re released. No test, no questions, nothing and are returned to a population, amongst those who have never tested positive. My neighbor was cleared and felt really bad, couldn’t smell or taste a thing, was sick as can be and returned him to the masses, without testing him, to infect others. I cannot believe it. Everyone that’s in here, wants out of here because the conditions are really bad. In every other building we’re allowed showers every other day. However, once every three days feels more like disciplinary action, as opposed to an attempt to help us get well.
Am I fearful? A little, because it’s obvious they have no clue what they’re doing. However, I’m a man of faith and I choose to lean on my faith instead of their wrongdoing. I’ve gotten worse since I’ve been back here and I will feel really guilty going back and becoming a spreader of this virus. Most of us will. Unfortunately, my days are spent in survival mode.
Since this interview, Lyle’s condition has improved, and he has since been moved from quarantine. Lyle’s family have started a petition to overturn the rescindment of Lyle’s parole, which you can find here.
Lucy Kang is a features reporter with KPFA Radio. Follow her on Twitter at @ThisIsLucyKang