all in the family

‘I Told Her I’ll Wear Two Masks’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos courtesy of the subjects.

All in the Family is a series on kith and kin during a year like no other.

The pandemic has interfered with all kinds of family plans this year, but those with incarcerated relatives face particularly acute obstacles. Most facilities suspended in-person visits in March, and as it became clear that prisons were hotbeds of the coronavirus, many are still closed to anyone but the staff.

The distance is devastating for families who rely on face time together as a lifeline. They can’t comfort themselves with the thought of postponed gatherings — a wedding moved to 2021 or a vacation put on pause. For many incarcerated people, familial visits are their only contact with the outside world. Relatives who want to comfort their family members have to instead picture them stuck in a place where it’s impossible to socially distance or properly sanitize, where “quarantining” can mean solitary confinement, and where subpar medical care has led to deaths. Their only salve is a phone or video call, often limited to 15 minutes before the line cuts off.

The Cut spoke with three mothers who have no idea when they’ll be allowed to hug their incarcerated adult children again.

Donna Robinson, 65, Buffalo, New York
Her 45-year-old daughter, Al-Shariyfa “Missy” Robinson, was sentenced to 15 years to life in 2016. 

Missy and I have always had a strong bond. We used to do stand-up comedy at an open-mic night. Even though we talk twice on the phone every day, I miss holding her. She’s got a little mole behind her left ear, and I always feel for that mole to make sure she’s not a clone. [Laughs] I want to see her face, I want to look in her eyes. She can be on the phone talking to me and say “Oh, I’m fine.” But looking at her, I can tell if she’s eating. She’s always been petite, and I don’t want her to lose any more weight.

These past seven months have really taken a toll on me. The last time I physically saw Missy was on February 28. I used to see her every month, sometimes twice, even though it’s at least a 400-mile trip. I don’t drive, because I’m going blind in my right eye, so I have to get the bus or train from Buffalo into New York City, which is a good nine hours, and then take Metro-North up to Westchester.

Half an hour on the phone does not compare with hours of sitting with someone. Visiting goes from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and I get there early to be the first one. When I visit, Missy’s attached to me. The only time we separate is to go to the bathroom. We hold hands and we pray before we eat hamburgers and candy from the vending machine. We play Uno for almost eight hours. We joke about beating each other, but I always say “It’s a tie.” I stay there for so long I sometimes doze off. Missy is such a vivacious personality that officers come over and joke with her. She’s introduced me to women in the prison who don’t have money for food or toiletries, so I send them stuff. I call them my “bonus daughters.”

Missy says I can come in January, but I think maybe I could visit in November if the cases are low and the prison is taking precautions. She told me she’ll deny the visit if it’s not safe, and I don’t think she’s being facetious. I told her I’ll wear two masks since I miss her so much.

Michelle Rothwell, 52, St. Petersburg, Florida
Her son, 29-year-old Danny Wright, was sentenced to 40 years in an adult prison when he was 17.

If I don’t hear from him every day, I freak out. I’m a worrier, and I was always one of those overprotective moms. Since the pandemic started, I’ve worried: Am I ever gonna get to see my son again? Am I gonna get that call from the warden that Dan passed away and then I know nothing? 

He’s been working in the medical unit as one of the orderlies. When he got COVID-19 in August, I didn’t hear from him for nine days. I had no idea what was going on until one of his friends told me he was sick and in quarantine. I was crying and waking up every few hours, praying, “God, please put your hands on Danny, don’t let this take him.” He passed it on to an elderly man he was taking care of who then died from the disease. That was hard on him.

The last time I saw him was on his birthday in January. I miss him like crazy. I used to drive five hours to see him every month, and I always went before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now they’re saying we won’t be able to come until next year.

For the first few years, he was in a county jail that only allowed video visits. For the last ten years, I’ve been able to hug and touch him and see that he’s okay. Now I feel like I’m back to square one. This might be the first birthday I don’t spend with him. It’s just devastating. He’s been incarcerated since he was 17, so to me he’s still my baby.

Sandra Hill, 75, Darby, Pennsylvania
The man she calls her son, 51-year-old Robert Williams, has been serving a life sentence since he was 19. 

Robert’s not my biological son, but he calls me his mother. I met him when he was a teenager at a juvenile facility. He comes from a dysfunctional family — his dad is dead, and he’s not in touch with his mom. I started visiting him, and I adopted him in my heart. Whatever he needed, I got. Whenever he needed me, I went to where he was at. I visited him in prisons all over the state of Pennsylvania. He’s only had me. My five other children became his family.

Since the pandemic started, it’s been a rough ride. I worry about him being able to stay sane without having a meltdown. He’s worried about me being out here and catching COVID-19. One of my sons got sick and had to quarantine in the house with me. He couldn’t come out of his room, and I was cooking every meal for him. You have to remember my age — I’m not a young woman. [Laughs] Robert would call and say, “Did you wear your mask? Wash your hands? Make sure you keep wipes and clean everything down.” He always checks up on me. Throughout my problems, he’s always stuck with me.

We had a Zoom call on July 4, but later that month he was put into solitary confinement. He doesn’t have much phone access, and I’ve only heard from him once. Robert says he’s been having problems with a particular guard and filed a bunch of grievances about being harassed. I’m hoping he’ll get out of the hole soon. He says he’s not been able to shower or been given clean underwear.

The last time I saw him was during the Christmas holidays, and I physically felt sick. It was the first time I’d seen him shackled. He had a chain around his waist going to his wrist with the cuff — he can’t even scratch — and a chain around his legs.

He’s 51, but the law thinks he’s the same person that he was at 19. At 16 years old, when I first saw him, I saw me. I was told I’d never be nothing and all these things. And I always say, “If you look at him hard enough, you might see you.”

I don’t believe they’re bringing back in-person visits for quite some time. I set up another virtual one for November. I always tear up when I see him. It always takes me about a few minutes before I can even say anything. But I try to keep things as light as I can. I told him about the masks I sewed for the little preschoolers. On our video call, I took my laptop outside so he could see the houses, somebody cutting grass and somebody walking their dog.

‘I Told Her I’ll Wear Two Masks’