Sharon Murchinson’s brother Donnell is in prison and may soon be transferred to a new facility, but Murchinson says it’s hard to get more than half an answer from correctional staff.
“I was told they put him in restrictive housing, but under administrative custody because it appears someone threatened to harm my brother,” Murchinson said. “We have no proof of this claim.”
As the pandemic lingers on, family members are still struggling to communicate with and obtain information about their incarcerated loved ones. Where there was already a struggle for communication, the pandemic hit correctional facilities hard, limiting visitation and increasing costly phone calls and delaying responses to grievances.
Murchinson said other guards that know her brother, as well as his counsellor, are skeptical of the administrative hold, as he typically reports a calm demeanor. She has tried contacting the state facility in which her brother resides, but has not been able to obtain information about the supposed threat, or when her brother will be transferred.
“Communication has always been a problem,” said John Eckenrode, the President of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association. “I think for us as a unit, there have been so many changes so constantly. Sometimes it’s every hour or every day.”
A representative from the Pennsylvania Prison Society said the organization “definitely” noticed an increase in communication troubles over the past year, relative to before the pandemic.
“Just a lot of miscommunication, whether that’s getting an information sheet from the jail that says one thing, but they’re doing another, or it’s being reported out that restrictions are supposed to be lifted but they’re not,” said Naya Blue, the customer service representative of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Blue said the organization receives letters and calls daily detailing experiences of family members struggling to obtain medical information or transfer updates.
Over the course of the pandemic, Pennsylvania prisons and jails have replaced in-person visitation with faulty video calls. In March 2020, state facilities offered incarcerated individuals five free phone calls a week. By September, it was down to one. In many state facilities and county jails, incarcerated people have reported having to choose between a 15 minute phone call or 15 minute shower.
“They used to talk to them on a daily basis and now they only hear from them once a month and that’s due to the facility being on lockdown, but the facilities are not communicating that out,” Blue said.
Communication flows are disrupted in both directions. Blue said there is a dearth of accurate information about the pandemic and vaccination efforts, which has led to rumors and misinformation circulating among inmates. This has led to some inmates being reluctant to receive the vaccine.