When Six Feet Isn't An Option
Lawrence Bartley: I remember I used to always tell Ronnine that when, when I couldn't see, when I, when I was incarcerated, I couldn't see the outside world at all. All I could do is hear it from the phone conversation. And it felt like my sense of hearing would heighten because I could tell what room she was in based upon the, the kind of ear I hear. I can tell when she's in the car, I could tell when she's outside, when she's walking, I could tell by her breath that she's doing something different and, and I still have that extra sense, like that heightened sense of hearing. So now that we're, we're sheltering in place, everyone is forced to pick up uh, uh, another sense or enhance what other senses they have.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
In many communities in the country right now, people are having to decide how close they feel comfortable being with people they live near… as rules keeping us apart have started to shift.
But some people have not had the option of distance, including the 2.3 million people in America’s jails and prisons, and coronavirus is inside those walls with them. More than 46,000 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, and at least 548 have died from it according to The Marshall Project and the Associated Press.
Lawrence Bartley: They say that, you know, listen, I have my bunk is three feet away from someone else's bunk and, and, you know, I'm afraid I can't social distance in a time like this. You know, I need help.
That’s Lawrence Bartley. He’s been on the show several times before, starting in 2014, when I interviewed him at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. In 2018, he was released on parole after 27 years.
Lawrence now works for the Marshall Project, a news organization that covers criminal justice. He’s started a print publication for them, called News Inside, whose readers are incarcerated people around the country.
LB: I get the most mail out of everyone.
Anna Sale: Oh really?
LB: You know, they... Absolutely.
AS: Huh! Cause they you know you know. That's interesting, huh?
LB: Exactly. They know I know. And their letters, their letters tell me that they know. And just saying it to me, they know it's not falling on deaf ears.
Lawrence is now working from home, but prior to the pandemic, he commuted to the office in New York City from Connecticut, where he lives now with his wife Ronnine and their two boys. They bought a house there last year.
LB: It's, uh, the kind of place that Ronnine and I have always wanted with, uh, uh, a decent sized backyard or front yard, and space between ourselves and our neighbors, so the kids can run, play, ride their bikes. We've been here for about nine months. Uh, the wife and I are blessed to be working remotely. And my wife is a teacher, and she can home school the kids without, without it, um, taking her out of her comfort zone.
AS: Um, I want to ask you about an essay you wrote, about this time of isolation and quarantine, about how your time in prison prepared you for this. Um, and I want to ask you, when was that, when in the process of everything shutting down and you beginning to shelter in place with your family, when did you have that first sense of, oh, this feels familiar?
LB: During the initial two weeks I was adjusting, so I didn't, I didn't really think about my own personal space and how it made me feel and how it was reminiscent of, of being incarcerated until that first two weeks kind of went by. But then as we began to settle in a bit, and I started realizing that I couldn't go anywhere, I remember looking through my window and I would see the occasional car pass by. And um, it remind me of being on keep lock, which is being locked in, in a cell 23 hours a day, but you would have your personal property, like your underwear, your clothing, the radio, you had your books. You had those things, but you couldn't go out. And I will look out my window and here and I would have that feeling like, wow, there's so many places I can't go.
AS: What were the circumstances, when would you be on keep lock?
LB: Well, I remember one time in particular I was, I, um, I used to, you know, being incarcerated, you could make it as little as 10 cents an hour in New York State. You know, I had a family that would send me money now, now again, but I didn't like to be a burden on them nonetheless, they have bills to pay. Now I could purchase like seasoning, you know, it costs a couple of uh, say 60 something cents, but someone in the mess hall black market would steal some seasoning, and they would sell it to me in bulk at a cheaper cost. So that's what I did. I, I purchased it and so I, I had it in my cell. I would take a little bit out, I would use it to flavor my food, and my food would taste pretty decent. And, um, until one day, an officer searched my cell and he found the seasoning. And, um, he
AS: Seasoning. Was it like salt and pepper or, or what kind of seasoning was it?
LB: This particularly, this was garlic powder.
AS: Oh, yeah.
LB: This was garlic powder, and when he found it, I mean, he treated me like it was a big drug bust. I was like, come on, man, I'm seasoning my food. But he looked at me like, he looked at me like I had three heads. Like, what do you mean you're seasoning your food? Get on the wall! What are you doing? Like he's going crazy. I'm like, I guess I'm keep locked, and I'm in my cell. I'm like, aw man! So, um, then I had to deal with those feelings of, uh, being isolated, you know? And, and when your first time being keep locked is it begins to weigh on your mental health. You can't see anybody, touch anybody, you can't go out. And, and that was heavy on me and it really hurt, and I learned how to survive and adapt under those conditions. So, these conditions seemed like not much to me.
AS: So, tell me how you learned to adapt. Like what were the things that you learned you had to do when you were physically isolated in order to move through those feelings of anxiety.
LB: One thing I would mention, like, um, like right now... like, sometimes I have meetings, I have meeting on Zoom, maybe an interview or something on behalf the Marshall Project I would do it, people would have to see me. And, I'm cutting my hair every day with clippers, I'm cutting it, you know, I make sure I look presentable on my Zoom meetings, whatever presentations I have to give. You know, I'm putting on a shirt, you know, uh, button down shirts. I'm looking presentable. And it reminds me of, I learned how to do all these things like when I was in, in solitary confinement, and you don't have anything. You don't have any, you don't have any of your hygiene products. You only have two pairs of shirts and pants that they give you, so it was really a headache and it's super stressful. You know, at this time I had long hair. And for, for, for Black Americans, like, we like to braid our hair sometimes. We braid our hair in cornrows, you know, to look presentable. And when Ronnine would come visit me on the weekends, I like to, I had long hair, if I didn't braid it... so, so, so what I did was I would, um, I would, I had to learn how to braid my own hair, which is super difficult. And usually, you know, we will put like, like hair grease in order to make our hair look, look, look nice and, and, and, you know, so it won't look dry while you braid your hair. I didn't have hair grease, but I had butter, I had little pieces of butter. So I would use butter to put it in my hair, and I smelled like Jiffy Pop popcorn every time I went on a visit. Ronnine would say, your hair looks nice, but you smell like popcorn!
AS: So I hear you saying like doing your hair when you were, when you were alone, it both like gave you something to do and to focus on and also was a way for you to take care of yourself so you didn't feel like you were like falling apart, um, while you were on your own.
LB: Absolutely. That’s another skill, gaining another skill.
AS: You know, something that I wonder that if it feels unfamiliar to you, like when you were dealing with isolation before it was you. It was you and, and you had this, this time to go inward and to work on how you managed your thoughts and took care of yourself. I mean, now you're in a household with your wife, and with your two boys who want your attention. Um, I know as a parent right now with kids at home trying to work, like you don't have a lot of time to go inward, and I wonder if that feels really different. Like do you know how to take care of yourself when it's, when it's isolation, but you, you're constantly distracted by other people?
LB: Well, this is a dream come true!
LB: I mean, I used to be in solitary, I used to fantasize about like having my family with me. You know, I, many times throughout the week, I find myself looking at my family and saying how thankful I am that they are here with me. You know, this is like, I get a chance to know them better. I'm, I'm watching my six year old grow. My, um, my 12 year old, he's doing his music now. He's playing music, writing music, composing music, I'm watching him grow as an artist. You know, I'm, I'm here with Ronnine, you know, so I have... my mental health is super stable. It's being fed with love every day. And, and I'm growing myself in that way, because I've been deprived of it for 27 years.
AS: Mmm. I wonder like have you been either through work or just by reaching out in your personal time, have you been in touch with inmates at Sing Sing right now and what are you hearing from them about how they're experiencing the pandemic?
LB: Well, yeah, I get letters from them all the time. The letters are, are desperate. And, you know, I would get letters before, but these letters are more frantic. You don't have to, they don't have to, um, present themselves because I understand a lot of things they don't have to explain. And a lot of them, they say things, like, yo, listen, man, you know they don't care about us. You know they want to leave us to die. You know, I gotta get out of here, man! I got a daughter I gotta get to. My granddaughter was just born, I'm 60 years old. I got hypertension, you know, can I get out of here and all, I got us a drug crime, you know, drugs messed me up but I've been off the drugs for 16 years. Can I have the chance to live? I mean, what's going to be happening? You know? It's just, it's crazy. You know? Some of them say things like, um, you know, there's an order for officers to wear masks, but some officers aren't wearing masks, they're gonna give it to me. I mean, what's going on, man?
AS: I'm struck by that word frantic that you said there, the letters you're getting are more frantic than you're used to.
LB: Especially when you get it from someone that you knew for years, and that person is always in control. But just to, to hear like a frantic letter or a call from his family or email from his grandmother. It's just so desperate and I feel sad that I can't help people like I wish I could.
Coming up, a story from one of the people who reached out to Lawrence: a woman worried about her husband’s safety in Sing Sing.
Dana: I feel like this is a death sentence for him. I feel like... what if he dies in there? We've waited so long and have gone through so much.
Many of our colleagues here at WNYC have been doing some excellent reporting in the last few months about prisons in America during this pandemic.
The podcasts The United States of Anxiety and The New Yorker Radio Hour have worked on a few episodes together about early releases from jails and prisons because of COVID-19, including about how some people are being let out without much reentry assistance.
Like a man named Jermaine, who was recently released from jail in Cleveland. He has schizoaffective disorder.
Jermaine: I was supposed to go to the treatment center, but they just let me out. They just scrapped all that, and this, it was just me.
The United States of Anxiety also looked at COVID-19 in ICE detention centers in New York and New Jersey. We have links to that reporting in our show notes. And there’s one more podcast I think you should check out if you haven't: Ear Hustle from Radiotopia, which is stories all about people in prison and post-incarceration. They just wrapped their fifth season, which was produced almost entirely during shelter-in-place, and it’s phenomenal. I especially recommend the episode called "Hold that Space," about four women in relationships with men in prison.
On our next episode, the first of our collaboration with the podcast Love + Radio, about touch… and what you’ve been missing during this time of isolation.
Billy Flood: Good God. The other day at CVS, the cashier, their finger brushed my hand and I thought I was going to pass out.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Lawrence Bartley spent his last years in prison at Sing Sing, where, as of last weekend, 43 people have tested positive for coronavirus, and 4 people have died.
Lawrence connected me with a woman we’re calling Dana, who lives in Queens, New York. Her husband is currently at Sing Sing. We’re calling him John, and he’s been incarcerated for more than 18 years. He was convicted of burglary in the second degree and robbery in the third degree, and won’t be eligible for parole for another seven years.
Since Sing Sing is closed to visitors, Dana told me she and John talk on the phone almost every day. During one of their calls back in late March, John told Dana that he wasn’t feeling well.
Dana: He, he said he was feverish and he was tired. That the headaches were, you know, like, he never had a headache like this before. Um, at night he would feel worse, during the day, he will feel a little better, and this is still going on. He doesn't have a fever anymore, but, um, he still feels ill. He knows something is wrong, but he can't really tell if it's the coronavirus. So he feels like it is because of the symptoms that he is having.
Dana: He gasps, when he talks, he, I feel like he's winded and he, he runs out of air and then he takes a breath and I'm like, were you rushing? And he goes, no, I'm here, I've been waiting for the phone.
AS: He has not been tested.
Dana: No, he has not been tested.
AS: Is that alarming to you?
Dana: It is, because he's sick for such a long time and it's scary. After putting in all this time, my husband is, can have the coronavirus and, it could be life threatening and there's no medical attention.
AS: Do you have someone at the prison that you can call or talk to that's not your husband to understand what's happening there?
Dana: Uh, no. Not really. When, um, when I have reached out to the facility, they usually ask for the inmate's number, ID number, and that's all they're concerned about. Who are you talking about, instead of trying to give information of what is happening at the prison. And I try never to identify my husband because there's retaliation when a phone call doesn't go right, or you want too much information. Um, so I try to be vague and general.
AS: So you're afraid to express specific concern about your husband because you're afraid then that he will, he'll face some kind of consequence inside.
AS: How do you know to be afraid of that?
Dana: Um, in the past when I have called and I did freely give my husband's ID, then he couldn't get on the phone. Um, he was running into problems. Even when I go there to visit, I walk in with absolutely hardly any jewelry, just my wedding bands. Um, I follow the rules to the T because if you're flagged for anything, um, other than following the rules, they, the process is delayed. Um, they kind of bully you around, if you, you are too loud, if you are too noticed, if you are, you know, I, I kind of wear the same outfit all the time. Because I know that there's no buttons that ring, I know that, uh, the shirt is not revealing and... it's best, it's best to do it that way because it's a smoother process when your head is down.
AS: Before coronavirus, how often would you see each other?
Dana: I would go every week or every other week because I work, so I would go on the days that I could visit him.
AS: When did those visits stop?
Dana: They stopped in late February.
AS: Hmm. Is this the longest you've gone without seeing him in 18 and a half years?
Dana: Absolutely. But now it's just words, words, words, words. Um, so I try to express as much as I can to him. Good, positive, everything's gonna be okay, kind of wording. And, um, even though we don't know, we, we are there for each other and we try to support each other and try to lift, I try to lift him up and, um, do the best I can that way.
Dana: He served so much time for the crime and it was because he had no representation, but we have no money. And it's just the anxiety level, Anna, that I've reached has me physically ill because I don't know if he's really okay.
AS: How do you get phone calls from John? Do you know when they're coming, or do you just hold your phone close because it could be at any moment.
Dana: Oh, I don't let go of my phone. It could be at any moment. There's no set time. There are no rules. There are no, uh, the set times are actually in the morning, afternoon, and evening, those are when they're allowed to call, but anywhere in those three times of the day, I don't know when he's gonna call.
AS: I see.
Dana: So I live for, I live with my phone. Everywhere I go.
AS: Have you talked to yet today?
Dana: No, not today. Not yet.
AS: What'd you talk about yesterday?
Dana: Um, we talked about how it was raining and there was sort of a storm. And we spoke about TV shows and the kids. We spoke about what he's eaten. Um, this is our daily conversations, just what has gone on the day before, what's coming, how I'm working still from home. He tells me to try to be careful, to exercise as much as I could, to stay active even inside. Um, he asked me, you know, what I cook and things of that sort. Just we try to be as normal as possible.
AS: I see, I see. And what'd you tell him you were cooking?
Dana: Um, I made chicken, and rice and beans. And I try to diffuse the, the meal conversation, Anna, because he loves to eat. And he loves my cooking! So I feel sad because if I say something that's too yummy, that sounds too good, I feel like he, he's wishing and wanting to have that.
Dana: And it makes me sad.
AS: Yeah. You said you've noticed some physical, some physical anxiety coming up. What have you noticed in how you're, you're carrying this worry?
Dana: I feel like a weight in my chest. And sometimes I think, well, maybe I have the coronavirus, but I am not sick. I don't have a fever, and I'm not symptomatic. So I don't think I have the coronavirus. I've been in place for a long time. If I've been out of my house five times for food since March 25th was, which was the last time I worked, um, I had hardly have been out of the house. And, um. I don't feel like I'm, I have the Coronavirus, but I do feel a weight on my chest, I can't sleep. And it's a combination of everything that's going on around us, and a combination of worrying about John, who did feel sick, and who hasn't had a lot of help there.
Dana: So the anxiety level is real.
AS: Mhmm. And Dana, I'm wondering, do you have any, do you have any friends [00:41:00] who also have incarcerated spouses? Do you have anybody to talk to about what this is like?
Dana: No. I don't.
AS: That's a lot for you to hold all by yourself.
Dana: It is. It is, and I try not to talk too much here at home. My daughter is a college student who is studying pharmacy and she's very busy and her work is very intense, very hard. It's not an easy career, so I try not to worry her, or his mother, she's sick and old. Um, so I, I take in a lot. You have to be strong.
AS: What are you going to do this afternoon?
Dana: Work. I still have to work. And wait for his call!
Dana: Wait for John to call and... and work.
That’s a woman we’re calling Dana in Queens, New York. Since we talked, she’s started back at the office where she works. Her husband still has not been tested for coronavirus, and she still doesn’t know when she’ll be able to visit him again.
There’s a link in our show notes to Lawrence Bartley’s essay, "How 27 Years In Prison Prepared Me For Coronavirus," along with links to my previous interviews with him and his wife Ronnine.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
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I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.