For Children, A Parent In Prison During The Pandemic Heightens Anxiety
“My dad, he’s part of the vulnerable population. If I think about it, it becomes really, really, really scary. So to be completely honest, I’m trying not to think about it.”
Ebony Underwood is the founder of We Got Us Now, an advocacy organization led by the children of incarcerated parents. On March 16, We Got Us Now issued an open letter of four core demands in response to the COVID-19 crisis: immediate clemency to the most vulnerable prison populations; free communications for families and prisoners; regular updates on prison pandemic response plans; and safe and sanitary protection measures. For Underwood herself, this campaign is not only about fighting a pandemic. Her father, Bill Underwood, 66, has been in federal prison for 31 years. “My dad, he’s part of the vulnerable population,” Ebony says. “If I think about it, it becomes really, really, really scary. So to be completely honest, I’m trying not to think about it.”
As a music manager and promoter, Bill Underwood worked with Ray Charles, Wham, and Earth Wind & Fire. He was arrested in 1988, when he was 33 years old. As a teenager, in the seventies, Bill did sell drugs. But when he was prosecuted, it was due to testimony, garnered via plea bargains, portraying him as the leader of a large drug conspiracy. As Truthout has reported, “under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, prosecutors need not prove that someone ever trafficked, sold or even possessed drugs to convict a person for conspiracy; they simply need testimony stating that the person did so.”
Bill was sentenced to three concurrent 20-year sentences by the jury. Then, Ebony explains, in a private meeting between the judge and the attorneys, a fourth count was added, which gave Bill life without parole for a non-violent drug offense. In 2019 the office of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker highlighted Bill’s story as an example of a broken system: “Had Underwood been convicted under the existing federal sentencing guidelines, he would likely be home with his family now.”
Ebony has been fighting for her father’s release for years. “My father has never stopped being a dad,” she says. “He was always an incredible dad.” Earlier this month, I spoke with Ebony to learn about the unique pressures of having a parent in federal prison during the pandemic.
On March 31, the Bureau of Prisons announced a 14-day lockdown to fight the spread of coronavirus. Before the lockdown, the only change at New Jersey’s FCI Fairton, where Bill is currently held, had been what sounds like a dark joke: Bill was told that, in order to be allowed to make a call, he needed to bring his own Lysol wipes to sanitize the phone after its use by the previous prisoner. The commissary then ran out of wipes.
On April 1, the day the lockdown went into effect, Ebony and Bill spoke on the phone, as they do almost every day. Bill hadn’t been informed of any lockdown. “There was just no [communication],” Ebony said. “There was nothing.” For days, Ebony didn’t hear from Bill. “When am I going to talk to him next? I don’t even know. I just have to just wait and see.”
Practically the only insight that Ebony had into the realities of life under coronavirus in federal prison came from a viral video shot by Aaron DeShawn Campbell, a prisoner in Ohio’s FCI Elkton. Campbell filmed his sick cellmates and provided horrifying commentary. Said Campbell, “All of a sudden, out of the blue, everybody just dying and getting sick and shit. Like, they literally leaving us in here to die.” Other than the unsettling video, Ebony was facing a vacuum of information.
At that point, she recalled, “I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know how he’s managing.”
On Wednesday, April 8th, a week since their last conversation, Ebony finally heard from her father again. He told her he gets out one hour every other day for showers and phone calls. “He has this little radio. He told me, ‘I’m listening to 1010WINS, and you might as well have a heart attack in here listening to that. All this information, it’s just so depressing.’”
“I’m like, ‘Do you have a mask?’ And he says, ‘Well, you know, I bought some underwear out of the commissary and we’ve been making masks out of that.’ Then he says, ‘I gotta go, people gotta use the phone.’ And that was it.”
I spoke with Ebony a few days after her April 8th call with her father. As we talked, she said, she fretted about not knowing when Bill would again get to call her. Then, suddenly, she started laughing: “He’s calling me right now! I’ll call you back!”
Back on the phone, she relayed what she heard. “He’s OK. He heard that there were some cases in [FCI Fairton]. Like three or four staff members and nine inmates. So they’ve been cleaning like crazy.”
“Wait, who is cleaning?” I asked. “Professional cleaners?”
“No professionals! It’s just them cleaning. He said he doesn’t know how true that is [about Fairton having COVID-19 cases.] He didn’t get any official word. He said someone found out over Google. He talked to his case manager and [the case manager] said he hasn’t heard anything either. I think these people [working at the prison] really don’t know either.”
When speaking about her advocacy work, Ebony’s voice is brisk and powerful. When speaking about her father, she slows down. It’s a small thing that is painful to observe.
“The amount of stress, and anxiety, and anxiousness, and angst this creates. You know.” She stopped talking. She let the silence hold for a half a minute. “It’s been so long, without knowing. Look at how we’re living right now” — under the uncertainty of indefinite lockdowns. “People are up in arms and it’s only been three weeks. For some of us this has been our lives for thirty years.”
Ebony said that if there is any kind of silver lining, it’s the fleeting responses to the collective pressure. The Bureau of Prisons is providing online updates on their responses to COVID-19. “They’ve actually updated their website!” she said. “This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this. It feels like someone is actually listening.” Also, a new provision to the CARES Act now mandates that calls to federal prisons be free during the crisis, which reflects We Got Us Now’s second demand. It’s a welcome development, marred only by the thought of what took so long; Securus and Global Tel Link, the giants of the billion-dollar telecommunications industry, initially responded to the crisis by offering just a few short free phone calls a week.
In our conversation Ebony projected a well-earned cynicism, which she tempered with some small hope. “In the criminal justice world, I absolutely feel like people are showing up in a really big way. People are more empathic than I’ve ever seen them being. The advocacy world is amplifying this [decarceration push]. To me, that is the most beautiful thing.”
That alone, understandably, wasn’t enough for her. “Now we need to release these elders,” she continued. “We have to let these people out. If we don’t, what about the prison staff? What about the clergy? Those people come from rural communities across the country, and they could be bringing the disease to their families. It is literally life or death. And that’s what I’ve been explaining to people. It’s not just, ‘oh my God, I want my dad home.’ No. In this moment, for all of us — it’s life or death.” She paused. “But I absolutely do want my dad home.”
Before we hung up, we spoke again about her father’s day to day reality.
“He got an N95 mask,” she told me. “They’re no longer sewing up underwear. That is good. But I was hoping that they have no cases in there. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. The worst thing possible is to know that there are cases in there. I pray that’s not true. It’s horrifying. I’m praying it’s still a rumor.”