This is a narrative in the Unheard Voices of the Pandemic series from Voice of Witness, an oral history nonprofit. Interview and editing by Aiyuba Thomas and Tommaso Bardelli. 

Theresa G. is a community organizer with the RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison) Campaign, an advocacy organization led by formerly incarcerated people and family members of people in prison. Theresa’s husband, who is sixty-seven, is serving a forty-year prison sentence in New York. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for Theresa to communicate with her husband, and even to access basic information about his health. At RAPP, Theresa works to advance the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole Bills, which would expand access to parole for incarcerated people in New York. Theresa lives in Washington Heights, New York City, and asked not to use her last name to protect her privacy.

I was 15 when I first met Morris; he was 19. We lived in West Harlem, grew up basically on the same block, on 117th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenue (renamed Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. in 1974). The attraction was there for both of us. I was always watching him, and he was always watching me. He used to wear Kangol hats and alpaca sweaters; he was a handsome man in his day. It took time, but he finally asked me out. I didn’t know that taking me out meant going to Central Park to eat a sandwich, okay? As time passed, we were in and out of it because he was back and forth between juvie and then Rikers Island. One day he told his sister to tell me to come see him, and I was like, “I’m not coming to jail, not me.” But finally, I went to see him, and we talked. He came home, stayed home about two years, and then went right back again. So, I told myself, I can’t be bothered with this. If you want to go in and out of jail systems, I don’t want to deal with that. But lo and behold, here I am today, still around him. I don’t know what it is about my husband and me, but for some reason we can’t leave each other alone. We’ve been together for a total of 48 years. My husband has been in prison 17 years now, of a 40-year bid. We’ve been married for a total of 16 years, almost as long as he’s been in there. We have our ups and downs like any married couple, except I see the ups and downs and the anger on the other side of the prison wall. 

COVID was hard on me. Families were locked out, and I had no communication with my husband other than the phone, and only when the prison administration and the staff felt they should let them have the phone. There was no phone service for a month and a half. So, you didn’t know if they were alive or dead. I was able to get reports on what was going on, not just by looking at the DOCCS (Department of Corrections and Community Services) page online, but because I had a source inside who gave me information: “Oh this one died. That one died.” I was waiting to hear Morris’s name. My husband is diabetic, and he has high blood pressure and kidney problems. 

And I’m sickly as well. I have asthma, diabetes. I suffer with my eyesight and different things than he suffers with, but sometimes I feel like I am doing even worse knowing that he is in there without help. In March 2020, I got sick with COVID. I couldn’t walk. My body stopped functioning on one side. And I couldn’t breathe that well. I had to keep my nebulizer in bed with me. I didn’t want to go to the hospital because Morris was already locked up behind those damn walls, and nobody could seem to get through.

They started allowing him to email us. Then we did get the free phone calls, 15 minutes a day. But 15 minutes went so quick, there was almost no point to even getting on a call because it was just: “Hey, how you doing?” “I’m good”—click

Finally, they let families back in, in early August. But then they shut us right back out around December 18, saying that they had too many COVID cases on the inside. They are quick to lock the family members out. Meanwhile, their whole staff is walking around the prison unmasked. Then, in April, I started hearing that they would let us back in again. It was good, but it was bad too, because now we had to sit six feet from each other. You couldn’t hug no more. You couldn’t kiss no more. You could just sit six feet apart. We no longer could take pictures together. That was very depressing. The officers said, “You can have one moment to hug,” and they meant that. If you held each other too long, your visit was terminated.

To go for a visit, you had to take a COVID test. You had to go out of the car, take a swab, swab your nose, and come back. We had to stand in line in the cold, in all the elements—snow, rain, sleet, heat, all of this. We had nothing, no tent, no trailer. I told them, “I can’t be in this weather like this. I got asthma, this ain’t good for me. I am a diabetic who suffers from neuropathy in my feet. If my feet get frostbitten, my toes are going to come off.”

In December 2020, I got a frightened call that my husband passed out. This wasn’t a corrections officer that called but one of his friends in there. He said, “Listen, you need to really find out what’s going on because Morris passed out two times already, and the prison staff are not saying nothing. He gave me your number so I could call and let you know.”

When I called the prison on Monday, his counselor was like: “I can only tell you that he’s in the infirmary.” What does that say to me? Does that tell me if he’s okay? “Call Albany,” the counselor said. At that point, I am trying to breathe. I can’t even stand up. Frustration set in so bad with me, I had to call my doctor and tell him I needed something because I was having migraines left and right, the bronchitis was climbing on me. And the doctor told me, “You have to stop. You’re going to kill yourself. You’re not going to be any good to him or nobody else because you’re so stressed out right now.” 

Right after Morris’s birthday, in September 2021, he got sick again. He was in the hospital a whole week before they contacted me. The doctor called me, and he was disgusted with the treatment Morris had received. He said, “I don’t know if you know, but your husband is anemic.” I didn’t know nothing about that. He also had a vitamin D deficiency. “They haven’t been treating him for it,” he said, “or giving him his kidney medication properly.” 

When I went to see him, I literally saw my husband go through the shakes. He was cold. When you are anemic, your red blood cell count is very low, so you are cold; you shiver. I watched him sitting with me on a visit, and I am saying, “You alright?” He had on two long-sleeve shirts and sweaters. And he was sitting here shaking, and I’m like, Jesus. That’s why I called Albany, and I said, “Listen, let’s stop killing them. That’s what we need to do, simple stuff like making sure that he gets his medication. That shouldn’t be a hardship on y’all. How about y’all do your job?”

I’m beginning to get sicker too, quietly. The diabetes is beginning to take a serious toll. I have glaucoma in my left eye. And I keep it from Morris because he’s already stressed. I won’t tell him about me getting sicker out here, but a lot of that has come because I ran myself down, running behind him, going back and forth to court, to trial, and waiting for them to sentence him. And once he got sentenced, going to visit him all the way up at Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Those were long-haul bus rides; it would take over six hours to get there. Sometimes I burst into tears because it’s just a lot.

A lot of people say, why you go through it? Why put up with it? But in my defense, you can’t walk out on a marriage just because. This is life. It is not for the weak.

My mental state has been affected by my husband being in the system, too. I had to see a psychiatrist when he first went in, because of the trauma that the police brought to my house looking for him. How in the hell are you going to bring a whole entire precinct to my door? With shields, helmets, and rifles. They tore up my house, destroyed my furniture, broke the gas line in the stove looking for a weapon. Our oldest at the time was 19. Our daughter was around 16. And the youngest one was 12. They couldn’t come back into their own house. I had to send them to my family members.

And I am not going to lie. I blamed Morris for it in the beginning. Those police officers uprooted me, my kids, they uprooted my thoughts. They affected me some kind of bad. I was very depressed, and I just couldn’t get it together. And I’m still reeling back from it today, almost 18 years later. 

I thank God that I have gotten involved with RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison) because the advocacy helps me to move past a lot of things. RAPP gave me an outlet to stop that mental crashing that I was doing, that thinking, This is terrible, he got 40 long years. I saw what RAPP was doing. They presented two bills—the Elder Parole and Fair and Timely Parole Bills—and RAPP staff was like: “We want you to carry those bills. Get out there and speak about them bills, speak about what y’all are going through.” These two bills will give people like Morris an opportunity to go in front of the parole board to present themselves as who they are today—show the board that they are redeemed, that they have transitioned into a better life.

Aiyuba Thomas is a researcher with NYU Center for Disability Studies, and a member of NYU Prison Education Program (PEP) Research Lab, a collaboration between faculty and formerly incarcerated students...

Tommaso Bardelli is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NYU Prison Education Program (PEP), where he coordinates the PEP Research Lab.