One Year of COVID19

Screen shot taken during first video visit 12/26/20

Februrary 28, 2021

It has been one year since I was allowed to see my husband, Sean, due to the global pandemic that has completely changed our lives. One year ago as I prepared to depart Family Visit at Corcoran State Prison, we had no way of knowing it would be our last goodbye for over a year. In March 2020, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shut down all in-person visitation due to the deadly virus COVID-19 Corona Virus, shutting out families from being able to see their loved ones, and they have not reopened their doors since. The only communication available for an entire year has been letters and infrequent phone calls, which are sometimes cut off for months due to constant lockdowns and arbitrary so-called “Quarantines”. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s response to COVID has been ineffective and they have done little to protect the health and satefy of the incarcerated individuals who are trapped inside. CDCR’s staff have acted with deliberate indifference towards COVID from the beginning. The staff are reluctant to social distance and wear masks, even after being ordered to do so. They have punished the incarcerated population for getting sick, shuffled them around in an effort to spread the virus, and denied access to proper cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, masks, and have made social distancing impossible. The quality of life in any CDCR facility was poor prior to COVID, prisons are unsanitary unhealthy places to life, and since COVID the environment has only gotten much worse.

In June 2020, my husband Sean tested positive for COVID19 and was more sick than he has ever been in his life. During this time his yard went on lockdown due to the virus and we lost all communication for 55 days. There were over 800 positive cases of covid in June 2020 at Corcoran State Prison due to a botched transfer of inmates from California Men’s Institution; the same transfer that caused the massive outbreak at San Quentin. My husband was placed on medical isolation and not allowed to leave his cell 24 hours a day for over 40 days. To date, 211 incarcerated individuals have passed away due to complications from COVID 19 inside California’s prison walls*. These were completely preventable deaths and CDCR should be held responsible for every one of them. Corcoran State Prison’s main response to COVID has been mass lockdowns that last weeks to months, discontinuing rehabilitative programs, yard, dayroom, and denying hard earned privileges.

In December 2020, CDCR instated free online video visitation for all incarcerated individuals for 30 minutes once every 30 days, but their system has made it next to impossible to actually receive this and those on “quarantine” do not have access to video visits. On December 26, 2020 my husband and I received our first and so far only video visit, which lasted 25 minutes.  We have not been allowed to have one since, due to his yard going on Quarantine for over 2 months. My husband and I have only been allowed to see each other on a computer screen once for 25 minutes in this entire year. This needless suffering is unjustified, as California has both the technology and the resources for increased access to our incarcerated loved ones.

The emotional, physical and mental toll this has had on incarcerated individuals and their families is devastating. The daily anguish and fear is akin to torture, as the incarcerated population has had their privileges taken from them due to no fault of their own, and have been kept from the one thing that keeps them going; their family. I  know families whose children have been denied access to their incarcerated parent for over a year, for a child this has a detriment effect. The damage has been done, but there seems to be few plans to make changes, apart from slowly vaccinating the incarcerated population and CDCR staff members in hopes that it will someday be safe enough to open visiting once again. There is also a plan to distribute free tablets sometime in 2021 that will allow incarcerated individuals to send and receive emails to their loved ones as well as receive video messages and possibly have video calls, but as with everything CDCR promises we are highly skeptical. These tablets were desperately needed one year ago when all this began, a fact that is critical to the families that have suffered, those who have lost their lives and lost family members.

In April 2020, I had COVID and was sick for four weeks with what felt like flu and pneumonia at the same time. For 4 weeks I did not leave my one bedroom apartment and I spent my days in bed, using the internet to watch the world being drastically affected by the virus. It was absolutely terrifying. I was told to stay home, do not go to the hospital because you could end up dying alone surrounded by strangers so I decided to take my chances in the comfort of my own home with my beloved pets. On his only phone call, Sean and I left nothing unsaid on one particular day, fearing how difficult it had become for me to breathe and knowing we would not want to regret leaving anything unfinished. Luckily I recovered from COVID, although it took months for my lungs to build back up their strength. But the emotional toll this took on Sean was enormous, knowing his wife was sick and there was absolutely nothing he could do to help. It is this feeling of powerlessness that can break down the average person but is strategically used as a tactic by CDCR to control the incarcerated population. Throughout the year there were countless other unprecedented events  which added to the high level of fear and unrest in our communities. In Summer 2020 there were massive wildfires in California that caused thick smoke to blanket our sky for over a month, blocking out the sun and forcing everyone inside for several weeks. There was increased police violence towards peaceful protesters, lightning storms, state-wide power outages, heat waves, and deaths. The world had suddenly become something unrecognizable, the future was terrifyingly uncertain. And the entire time my husband and I have been forcibly kept apart.

Second video visit March 2021

When Sean got sick in June 2020 I feared the worst. I was hearing of other incarcerated individuals dropping dead from COVID. As soon as Sean got sick, his phone calls were taken away. I called the prison daily, getting almost no response back from them. I had to fight for basic information about my husband’s health and safety, and I knew this was the case for the other families I had communication with. The lack of transparency between the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and families of incarcerated individuals was staggering and inhumane. CDCR put up a huge wall to keep sick and dying inmates in, and to keep concerned families from finding out. Sean tested positive for COVID on June 4, 2020 and was confined to his cell 24 hours per day while sick with symptomatic COVID with no access to anything that could help alleviate his symptoms. He was offered no help or medical care whatsoever other than having his vitals checked daily. He wrote to me in a letter that he simply needed cold water, but since it was well over 100 degrees in June, he had none. I was terrified that I was never going to see my husband again and I am angry over the way he and countless other incarcerated individuals were neglected and mistreated during this pandemic. It is never their fault when they test positive for COVID, as the only people coming in and out of any facility are the staff. It is not fair for them to be repeatedly punished for something that is out of their control. It is no way to live, it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Yet, over a year later not much has changed or improved.

2020 is a year we will never forget. It has permanently shaped our lives and the lives of many others. Now in 2021 we have some hope, a new President, COVID vaccines, and hope for Sean’s rightful freedom. However, it is still painful, it is still difficult, but we have somehow survived the rollercoaster ride from hell that was 2020. We continue to fight for much needed prison reform, juvenile justice reform, and we stand with Governor Gascon as he paves the way for a new future in justice. We fight for what we know is right even when it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. While it is tempting to wrap up such an emotional blog post with a tidy little bow, we do not know what the future will bring or if we will ever get in-person visits back. All we can really do is tell our story, hope that something like this will never happen again and stay strong until we are hopefully reunited.

*Covid statistics pulled from Population COVID-19 Tracking – COVID-19 Information (ca.gov)

Written by Sean O’Brien March 2021

About Sean & Emelia

Sean O'Brien was wrongfully convicted in adult court in El Dorado County, California and sentenced to Life Without Parole at the age of 16 without a shred of physical evidence tying him to the crime for which he was convicted. Sean and I have been friends since grade school and we were married in 2017. We live and grow together in love with the knowledge of his innocence, our faith, and hope for our future. We embrace this journey, wherever it may take us, cherishing each moment we have together and staying true to our hearts. This blog is about the past we share, our life together and our fight for justice. Thank you for reading. God bless.
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