Mack Wilson was worried as he read the letter from Lance, the youngest of his seven sons.
“People are really sick in here and they have us all [cooped] up together,” Lance’s letter read. “It’s getting bad in here, I hope I can make it out of this one.”
It was dated April 22 and sent from Terminal Island, a low-security federal prison in Los Angeles County and one of the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, where Lance is two years into an eight-year sentence. At the time, Terminal Island was about to begin a comprehensive COVID-19 testing campaign—but prisoners already knew how bad the outbreak in the facility was.
Eighty-five-year-old Mack had read heart-wrenching letters from his sons before—the criminal legal system has extracted a heavy toll on his family over the years. But this was too much. Another son, Jacque, found Mack on the floor of his Modesto, California, home; he had had a panic attack. “All he could say is I do not want my son to die in there, that he is not a bad person, why is this happening to me,” Jacque wrote in a court declaration.
Mack’s anguish was compounded by the fact that his second youngest son, Neko, is also incarcerated—held in an Arizona county jail on what he and his lawyer say is a bogus probation violation. The jail has reported no confirmed cases of COVID-19, but according to Neko, it hasn’t been testing—even though the county has the state’s second-highest rate of confirmed cases, and much of the county is made up of Navajo Nation territory, which has more infections per capita than any U.S. state.
What’s more, both incarcerated brothers are at an increased risk of complications from the respiratory disease: Lance, 35, has asthma and hypertension, while Neko, 38, has asthma and allergies that often make it difficult for him to breathe. Since sending the letter to his father, Lance has tested positive for COVID-19—as have some 70 percent of his fellow prisoners at Terminal Island. Eight have died.
Jails, prisons, and detention centers in the United States are some of the deadliest hotspots for COVID-19, and the pandemic multiplies the pain and anxiety endured by families involved with the world’s most carceral legal system. The Wilsons are a testament to this. Lance is serving eight years for a drug conviction; if he was sentenced to the 48 months that were originally recommended to the judge in his case, he would be nearly eligible to escape the outbreak at Terminal Island via a standard re-entry program. And before his current predicament, Neko spent nearly a decade fighting for his life in federal court, eventually winning his freedom by helping to overturn a notoriously harsh criminal statute in California—only to be caught up in a probation snafu, for which he has spent an additional 10 months in jail near what is now one of the country’s coronavirus epicenters.
“For African American men like my father, a lot of them die with sons in prison,” said Jacque, Lance and Neko’s older brother. “But my dad’s always on edge because he doesn’t want his sons to die in prison.”
“I need my family back together,” said Mack, his voice raspy with age. “That’s all I have, my family.”