Inmates' Families Struggle With COVID-19 Suspension Of Jail Visits

Left to right: Diana Zuniga, her grandmother Antonieta Zuniga, Carlos Zuniga Jr., and Carlos Zuniga Sr. (Courtesy of Diana Zuniga)

As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, jails across California are suspending public visitations in an effort to protect inmates, guards and other staff.

L.A. and Orange counties - with two of the largest jail systems in the country - both closed their doors to public visits last week.

Whether it's sitting around a table or talking on the phone through a glass wall, families and friends of incarcerated people say the time spent face-to-face is often the highlight of an inmate's week.

Every two months, Margaret and David make the 230-mile drive from Costa Mesa to Avenal State Prison in the Central Valley to see their 43-year-old son, Chris.

Chris has been incarcerated there since 2012. Margaret declined to say what landed him in prison. The family asked us not to use their last name to protect their privacy.

The prison food is expensive — "seven dollars for three tacos!" Margaret exclaimed — and the drive is exhausting, but the time with their son is "priceless," she said.

"We play cribbage. We just usually talk and laugh. It's always very positive," Margaret told us by phone from her home, where she and her husband are staying to protect themselves from COVID-19.

They'd planned to visit Chris again next month, but it's not clear visitations will have resumed by then.

'HE'S CONCERNED. HE'S POWERLESS.'

Chris has been calling his parents more frequently, Margaret said, adding that he sounds anxious.

"He's seeing what's on television," she said. "He's concerned. He's powerless."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recently announced that in lieu of public visitation, inmates in state facilities could make free phone calls, but only on March 19 and March 26.

Kids in the juvenile justice system already receive free phone calls.

After a visit late last year, the couple had to go three months without seeing Chris, instead of two. "You could tell that took a toll on him," Margaret said.

She doesn't like being unable to visit him now, but she agrees with the ban.

"I just can't even imagine if the virus would get into a prison or a jail, what that can do to that population of people," Margaret said.

Taking away visitation is one of "the most egregious things to do," said Patrisse Cullors, chair of Reform L.A. Jails.

"We're all over here in our own homes self quarantining and the level of depression and sadness and disconnection from our communities is so difficult - and we're in our home," she said.

"So imagine being locked up in a facility where you already feel isolated, where you already are isolated, and then you're being told that your family can't see you?"

This just "adds to a demoralization of a population that's already demoralized," Cullors said.

DEALING WITH SCHIZOPHRENIA IN MEN'S CENTRAL JAIL

The situation is even more trying when an inmate is dealing with mental health issues.

That's the situation facing Diana Zuniga's cousin, Carlos Zuniga Jr., who has schizophrenia and is currently incarcerated in L.A. County's Twin Towers jail. She declined to say what he was arrested for.

Carlos' father is unable to visit because he has a felony on his record, Diana said. So Diana and her grandmother have tried to visit as much as possible, and the suspension hits hard.

"Of course we want to see him, of course we want to know how he's doing," she said. "It's pretty devastating."

On top of that, Carlos Jr.'s court date to see if he can be placed in a mental health diversion program has been delayed.

"When I last saw him, I felt the urgency in his voice of wanting to be out of there and wanting to be in a program that was actually going to help him," Zuniga said.

Last week the criminal justice reform group Justice L.A. wrote a letter to county officials — which was signed by numerous other advocacy organizations — demanding more action to protect inmates and staff from COVID-19.

The list of demands included free phone calls for county jail inmates.

When we inquired with the Sheriff's Department about that, the agency said that each inmate can now receive two free five-minute phone calls per week.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Reform L.A. Jails wrote the letter to county officials. We regret the error.


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