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 exacted 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.”
On July 22, 2009, two men entered the home of Gary and Sandra DeBartolo in Fresno County, California. Their alleged plan was to simply rob the couple’s marijuana-growing operation, but within minutes, the Debartolos were dead—their throats cut.
Neko Wilson was neither of the two men who entered the house. Nor was he in the getaway car. But prosecutors asserted that he helped plan the robbery. And under California’s “felony murder” rule, they had the power to hold any party to a felony crime liable if the crime resulted in someone’s death—even if the person didn’t kill anyone, and even if they didn’t plan for anyone to get hurt. So the prosecution charged Neko with murder, and he was facing the death penalty.
Neko was locked away in pretrial detention as his case dragged on for more than nine years—during which time Jacque, a San Francisco public defender, worked tirelessly to fight the draconian charge. In working on Neko’s case, Jacque also advocated for legislation aimed at striking down the felony murder rule. With a broad reform coalition pushing for its passage, that legislation, Senate Bill 1437, was made law in September 2018.
With 1437’s enactment, prosecutors dropped the murder charges against Neko, and he eventually pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to time served. “He walked out of jail on October 18, 2018—it was the best day of my life,” said Jacque. And in a matter of months, Neko assembled a whole new life for himself, opening a used car lot, spending time with his brothers, friends, church, and fiancé, and helping his father.
In a video about Neko made by an advocacy organization last spring, he reflected on his post-release fulfillment. “Everybody’s fought so hard, and I’m doing so good,” he said, fighting back tears. “If I had to go back in, it’s gonna devastate a lot of people.”
That devastation was looming.
In 2003, while Neko was driving on a highway in Arizona, a cop pulled him over and found marijuana in his car. Neko was charged with transporting marijuana, and, in 2006, was sentenced to four years probation, which he was able to serve while living in California. Then, in 2009, when Neko was arrested for the robbery, Arizona filed a petition to revoke his probation and ordered a warrant for his arrest.
Now, if Arizona had filed an “interstate” warrant—one that alerts jurisdictions in other states—Jacque and Neko’s current lawyer, Lee Phillips, argue that they could have sorted things out during the trial; Neko would have most likely been sentenced to a few years of incarceration, which could have run concurrently with his pretrial detention. Instead, Arizona officials issued a statewide warrant. It didn’t make it to authorities in California, where Neko was being put on trial, effectively burying the matter. But then, in October 2018—the day after Neko was released from jail in Fresno—the Arizona county revived the case, then filed an interstate warrant, thus opening the possibility of reincarceration just 24 hours after Neko finally achieved freedom.
Phillips decried the situation as “the worst case of vindictive prosecution I have ever seen.” “Arizona wants their pound of flesh,” said Jacque.
In July 2019, Jacque drove Neko to Arizona, and a judge ordered him jailed pending the outcome of the case. He’s been incarcerated at the Navajo County Detention Center since—his case moving at snail’s pace. The Arizona Supreme Court has had a petition from Phillips since January. Meanwhile, a county judge has so far refused bail. Probation officers have suggested a nearly nine-year sentence for Neko’s probation violation; Neko’s team says the case shouldn’t even exist.
“It’s the nightmare that I can’t wake up from,” Neko said.
In the Navajo County Detention Center, prisoners are told little about COVID-19. Neko claims that, in mid-March, when the seriousness of the pandemic began to set in, a nurse told a detainee that the only way anyone was leaving the jail early was “in a body bag.” That thought seemed more and more realistic as the weeks went on and, according to Neko, it became clear that the jail was doing less than the bare minimum to ensure cleanliness and social distancing. Jail officials canceled visitation, routinely checked people’s temperatures, reduced the hours during which detainees could move around their units, and reduced the amount of people per cell—from three mattresses, including one on the floor, in what Neko estimates to be an 8-by-12 room, to two. But Neko says that no one who has asked for a test has gotten one, and it’s unclear to him whether any testing has been conducted at all—a significant concern considering the outbreak in the county. Furthermore, while some guards and nurses wear masks in certain areas of the jail, Neko said, his unit hasn’t been given masks or hand sanitizer, and guards wouldn’t allow family members to send any.
The Navajo County sheriff’s office, which runs the detention center, did not respond to multiple emails from The Appeal.
On May 15, the jail resumed visitation, and, according to Neko, the facility went back to “business as usual”—three-person cells, freer movement. New arrivals are once again being sent straight to the general population units. If someone infected with COVID-19 came to the jail, there would be next to nothing to prevent a widespread outbreak.
Lance and Neko’s mother died when they were 8 and 11 years old. Mack described both of the boys as wonderful, smart kids, but “it was hard raising them sons—I raised both sons alone.” They involved themselves in church and their father’s community advocacy, according to Mack. But they both left home around age 15, according to Jacque, and eventually got involved with drugs—“just young Black men caught up, trying to get rich quick.”
During the early years of Neko’s felony murder trial, Lance became the primary caregiver for his father—a two-tour veteran of the Vietnam War who has a hard time functioning because of his half dozen service-related surgeries, previous prostate cancer linked to Agent Orange exposure, severe depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But then, in 2015, Lance got into trouble of his own. A prescription opioid operation in which he was involved got busted, and he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute. A pre-sentence report recommended a reduced prison sentence of 48 months since Lance was a “minimal participant” in the operation, and his lawyers convinced a judge to delay sentencing pending Lance’s successful completion of an inpatient rehabilitation program. But when Lance got kicked out of the program for possessing contraband cellphones—a charge he denied—the judge came down hard and sentenced him to eight years.
While incarcerated, Lance has tried to take advantage of every possible opportunity. He says he’s received no write-ups, taken dozens of classes, earned dozens of certificates, and in 2019 he completed his GED. According to Jacque, Lance has spent most of his time laser focused on establishing a good life for himself when he’s released—a life taking care of his father and rekindling a relationship with his high school age daughter.
Since COVID-19, however, Lance has had to focus on staying alive. On April 17, Terminal Island cut off phone and email service, so he kept Jacque updated on conditions in the prison via handwritten letters. On April 18, with 33 confirmed cases and one announced death, he wrote that “we are confined in these units and people are sick.” On April 21: “People are getting taken out of here on the daily because they are sick.” April 23: “It doesn’t seem like it’s getting any better. I sleep only 2 feet away from my celly.” April 29, with 570 prisoners testing positive: “They are giving us a death sentence.”
Finally, in a letter Jacque received on the afternoon of May 6, Lance wrote that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Jacque felt shock and terror. The letter was written days earlier, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to hear from Lance again until three days later, when the prison was scheduled to resume phone service. “I didn’t know if he was dead or not,” Jacque said.
When he finally heard from Lance, the prison only allowed a five minute phone call—just enough time to confirm that Lance was alive, and hear about the chills and severe headaches he was experiencing. Since then, Lance has only been able to call at random times—always for five minutes—to tell his brother that his symptoms are persisting.
Lance is desperate to leave Terminal Island. He submitted an application for compassionate release to the warden on April 20 but never received a response. So on May 5, his lawyer submitted a similar application to the District Court for the Eastern District of California, which is pending. On May 16, Lance also became the lead named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which asks a district court to order Terminal Island to enact a slew of new sanitation and social distancing measures and release medically vulnerable prisoners.
In its complaint, the ACLU invoked Scott Cutting and James Lino, the latest Terminal Island prisoners confirmed to have died of COVID-19. “This petition is not brought by Mr. Cutting or Mr. Lino,” it read. “This petition is brought by [plaintiffs] who are still alive and incarcerated at Terminal Island and seek to avoid Mr. Cutting and Mr. Lino’s fate.”
With both Lance and Neko incarcerated, Mack is filled with anxiety, and having trouble living on his own. Jacque and his twin brother, who is also a lawyer, make the long commute from the Bay Area to help him out as often as possible, and keep him updated about their brothers’ conditions.
Jacque laments what other people with relatives on the inside must be going through.
“Neko and Lance both have family, both have jobs that we could hook them up with when they get out, both have supportive community, both can be the caretaker for my father … 90 percent of people don’t have that,” he said. “And if this can happen to a family with two sons who are attorneys, imagine what it is for folks who don’t have that.”