The Lives of Women Behind Bars (Part 2): COVID-19 & Doing Time

By Michelle (MN) MCF Shakopee

In part one of The Lives Of Women In Prison, you read J. Fetty’s essay titled How Is 40 Years Not Enough? She wrote about rehabilitation and how one’s positive actions seem blind to the state parole board. Today you’ll read excerpts from personal letters to this writer by women incarcerated in OR, OH, SD, and MN. I have omitted personal identifying informaton, but have left their words unaltered.

I’ve heard from women incarcerated across two dozen states. They’ve shared their day to day challenges and struggles. Several have voiced grievances concerning their facility or about ways the system fails them in their specific needs. I’m continually shocked at how bad conditions are and the treatment of women at many women’s facilities nationwide. It’s almost as if states considered women as an after thought. There is no consistency.

Throughout this series I’ll post Q&A style inquiry and personal essays written by female prisoners. Periodically I’ll also post excerpts from their letters. These are women serving sentences ranging from a few months to life without the possibility of parole.

The following are from letters to this writer and offered with permissions:

“In General, What Is It Like At Your Facility?”

“(The) majority of these women are 2nd and 3rd generation drug charges and been here multiple times and have been raised in this facility. We as a society are doing ourselves wrong. We need better programs and alternative situations outside of prison.

“It is all about money. The phones, canteen and even some medical services.
Also, there are women here who have been permanently damaged from lack of health care.” —Wendy (OR) CCCF

“So this prison has currently more people than its supposed to. People are staying in the gym where we are supposed to be able to have inside rec when its raining, but we can’t because people are staying in the gym. We have a track and a softball field and whenever the main prison is not out for recreation we’re able to go outside and use it.

“We also have a pact house on campus and that’s for women with kids. They pay to have their kids come for the weekend and they get to stay with them in that pact house. That’s cool. But in order for them to stay there they have to be approved and take some parenting classes. But now because of COVID everything is shut down and people don’t get to do that now.

“There’s 4 levels of classification here. Maximum, high-medium, low-medium, and minimum security level. I’m minimum security right now. We have 3 buildings here. The main prison, the trustee unit and another like trustee unit.” —Melissa (SD) South Dakota Women’s Prison—

“We have all levels of custody here: we’re the only prison in the state for women. It’s always been very petty here. A lot like junior high. Especially all the years we didn’t even have a fence. Prison without a fence. Even now the fence is just a black wrought iron fence like you see around a business or home. We’re on a residential block right across the street from an elementary shool.” —Michelle (MN) MCF Shakopee

“What Has It Been Like Since COVID Began?”

“Since the COVID-19 we have endured no visiting, lack of food, our commissary has been reduced, and all programs cancelled. We have no church, AA, AIP treatments is cancelled, and women who have gone thru most of the 6 month intensive treatment now cannot go home early. They lost 3 months of transleave. Families are devastated and kids cannot see their moms. It is scary for alot of women. They still are bringing in inmates with only checking their temperature. Very sad.” —Wendy (OR) CCCF

“So right now with the coronavirus situation things are a little awkward around here. When we’re in H-unit, which is the other trustee like building, we get to go into the community and work but right now there’s no work release, or CTP (Citizen or Correctional Transition program) going on right now.

“We used to have what we call R.E.C. weekend and pow wows, and general population pictures and church services, as well as having actual contact visits too but not now” —Melissa (SD) South Dakota Women’s Prison

“No COVID so far–I feel like I’m on death row just waiting for my COVID number to come up because with my health I don’t stand a chance of making it through COVID.” —Michelle (MN) MCF Shakopee

“Everybody in the world thinks we’re safer (here) but we’re not because we get it just as bad as the outside world, and on top of it all they don’t want to tell us anything about anybody or anything that’s going on. They think that keeping us social distancing is working but it’s really not, because we are still around people who could possibly have it or bring it in. Our chaplain has tested positive and she was [in the units] days earlier…and to find out she had COVID is crazy.

“I think we have a confirmed case. They have the inmate in the infirmary and then we had a staff member (correctional officer) who has it, but you know they really don’t like telling us anything.” —Brandy (OH) Dayton Correctional

“Have You Been Locked Up Before?”

“I myself have been to prison twice here. The first time I did was 8 years and a month and the 2nd and hopefully last time I got sentenced to four years zero suspended…What brought me here this time was my 2nd motion to revoke…” —Melissa (SD) South Dakota Women’s Prison

“I served from ’98 to 2013 and then returned in 2017.” —Michelle (MN) MCF shakopee

Wendy of CCCF in Oregon, and Brandy of Dayton Correctional in Ohio, have never been incarcerated.

“How Are You Handling Your Time Inside?”

“I started AA inside among us since outsiders cannot come in. Bible correspondence. When I get out I plan on starting a non-profit to pay for Oxford Housing and a job service for felons. I know there are grants for felons as well.

“I also will be taking some extra classes in legal to help with common issues. There are no resources in my small town. A very corrupt legal system like the old west.” —Wendy (OR) CCCF

“I spend my time making graphs and beading and drawing. I keep myself busy one-way or another; crafts-music and t.v. I read from time to time, a lot in the past. ” —Michelle (MN) MCF Shakopee

“As for me I don’t have a job anymore cause I got moved to E-unit (and due to COVID haven’t been assigned a community job). I was working in the kitchen serving meals and helping clean the chow hall or whatever you wanna call it. We get paid 25¢ an hour and get paid once a month. So because I’m not working right now I play a lot of pinochle.” —Melissa (SD) South Dakota Women’s Prison

“I work 5 days a week so I really don’t have (much free time). I get up for breakfast, get ready for work, then after 11:30 I go to work til sometimes 11pm. I used to play cards on my days off, but it got boring for 1, and 2, two of the girls live on other ranges (so we can’t play).” —Brandy (OH) Dayton Correctional

Brandy, Melissa, Michelle and Wendy are serving time ranging from substance abuse to murder. Two of them have successfully completed substance abuse rehabilitation programs. All of them were engaged in self-help programs offered at their institutions prior to COVID. Due to COVID restrictions, all but one of their institutions suspended institutional programs until further notice.


*This series is meant to draw attention to the struggles and challenges incarcerated women face in this country. Their voices are seldomly heard, and they are a suffering minority in the picture of American incarceration. Please, share their voices with others.

3 thoughts on “The Lives of Women Behind Bars (Part 2): COVID-19 & Doing Time

  1. NeoOne

    This was a good read and the inside scoop on how COVID has ran through the justice system is interesting at least, but so upsetting and disappointing.

  2. Pingback: #34: Video Fridays in 60 Seconds — Female Voices and A New Female Guest Writer – Letters from Christopher

  3. I enjoyed reading the ladies responses It’s funny how I always think of men in prison and never women. Thanks for opening my closed mind. Keep up posting responses from the different facilities as it is revealing who some are treated and what they say about the place.

    Thanks, keep up the good work.

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