Zoom has become a lifeline for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you’re not allowed to use it? Michael Barajas explains in The Texas Observer that the majority of Texas state lockups still don’t have video visitation, and, with in-person visitation suspended, thousands of people have spent nine months in near-total isolation from their families. For the children of inmates, this can be particularly difficult — at a young age not seeing a parent for a long time can render them a stranger: “Justin still tries to communicate by phone with his son but months without seeing each other has made him painfully distant.” Visitation is a lifeline even for those without children, with the social ties it creates vitally important to rehabilitation, especially during frightening times — more people incarcerated in Texas are dying “from COVID-19 than in any other prison system.” Without the comfort of family, even via video, mental health in prisons has faced an inevitable decline.
Even before the pandemic hit, suicides and suicide attempts inside the Texas prison system were already the highest they’d been since the 1990s. By September of this year, more people incarcerated by TDCJ had taken their own lives than in all of 2019. One of them was Ricky Hernandez, 26, who struggled with mental illness throughout his life, according to his family. Treatment records show Ricky was hospitalized for a major depressive disorder and put on multiple psychiatric medications before he entered prison in 2017 on charges of harassment and violating a protective order. Henry, his older brother, says that Ricky struggled in prison because of his illness. To try and cheer him up, a big group of family members used to visit him every other week at the Coffield Unit, the East Texas prison where he lived in solitary confinement.
“It was always me, my mom, some aunts, our brother and sisters, just as many as could make it because we knew he liked seeing us,” Henry says. At the start of most visits, his brother seemed on edge, eyes darting around the room, but usually seemed to relax somewhere in the middle, he says. “I think we helped settle him down.”
Henry says his brother stopped writing as frequently after visitation stopped in March. Prison officials called the family in early May to say Ricky had tried to take his own life. Then, on May 22, Ricky was “discovered unresponsive and hanging in his cell,” according to a report the prison filed with the Texas Attorney General’s Office. After his death, someone housed near Ricky wrote to the family claiming that officers hadn’t checked on him for hours before his death. For months, Henry has called the prison system’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which investigates deaths in custody, asking whether his brother was treated for mental illness or checked on by guards the day he died. They have yet to give him any answers. OIG did not respond to the Observer’s questions about Ricky’s death.