Jennifer Brooks
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Signs went up outside the prison walls this summer, asking Minnesotans to spare a thought for thousands of their neighbors imprisoned in a pandemic.

“He’s scared. I don’t want my son to die.” Those words, from John Carlos’ mother about her incarcerated son, stretched across a billboard near the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault in August. “When you die of COVID, you die alone.”

At least 2 million Americans live in prisons and jails, out of sight, out of mind. The coronavirus killed at least 1,200 of them this year, including two deaths in Minnesota.

JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit dedicated to ending mass incarceration, sponsored these billboards across the country as COVID-19 spread through jails and prisons that were never built for social distancing.

That was the thought that kept Michele Livingston awake nights in the spring, after the Stillwater prison went into lockdown, locking her away from her son.

“If you would have talked to me then, you would have thought I was an emotional basket case. I didn’t sleep for three weeks,” said Livingston, who was desperately worried for her son, Jeffrey Young, who is serving a life sentence for homicide.

As the virus spread, several other members of her family tested positive. She lost an aunt to COVID-19. If people were suffering and dying in the community, what were conditions like at the prison?

And if people were suffering and dying in prison, would her community care?

Many people, she knew, look at the criminal justice system the way they might look at the city dump. The end of the road.

“Prisons are dumps. We dump people in them and we don’t know where they go and we don’t care because it’s garbage,” she said, fighting back tears. “And sadly, that’s what we’ve been doing to people for so many years. We’ve been just throwing them away like garbage.”

Then the phone rang. Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell was calling to explain what had been happening at Stillwater since the facility cut off family visitation. The masks and new hand-washing stations. The two free 5-minute phone calls each inmate could now get each week to stay connected to family who couldn’t visit. The facility-by-facility COVID tally the department now updates weekly online.

“He just wanted to let me know that he knows that I’m worried and I have grave concerns and he does too,” she said. “It really meant a lot to me.”

In prison in a pandemic, “the world becomes very, very small,” Schnell said. Inmates pass the days isolated in their units, eating meals delivered from the canteen. Testing and retesting for COVID-19. The work, classes, counseling, recreation and visits with family that used to break up the days are canceled, cut back or moved online.

Some Minnesotans are furious that so many people remain incarcerated during the pandemic. Others shrug and say criminals deserve what they get and Minnesota’s shrinking prison budget would be better spent on victims of crime rather than on free phone calls for inmates.

But 95% of the people in Minnesota prisons will come home someday to your neighborhoods, your schools, your workplaces.

“These people are people nonetheless, who are loved,” said Schnell, who is also facing a mid-pandemic budget shortfall that led to layoffs and the closure of two prisons. “Their success is our community’s safety.”

At Stillwater, Jeffrey Young is serving life and looking for ways to be of service.

“We’re like a brotherhood in there. We keep each other positive and are able to do something constructive with our time in here,” said Young, who serves in the prison’s restorative justice program. “We feel like we’re in some way repairing some harm, or giving back by helping some other guys in here.” Everyone in here, he said, “has done something harmful to somebody out in society.”

“But at the end of the day, every human being has a soul,” he added. “We can always have some chance of redemption.”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com

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