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Transcript: Into an Outbreak Behind Bars

The full episode transcript for Into an Outbreak Behind Bars.
Peter Kramer / for NBC News


Into America

Into an Outbreak Behind Bars

Trymaine Lee: Would you mind reading some of that email that you sent me?

Mary Golchinsky: Dear Mr. Lee, my name is Mary Golchinsky. And my husband is currently in Sterling Correctional Facility here in Colorado.

Lee: A couple weeks ago, I opened my inbox to find an email from Mary Golchinsky in Colorado Springs. She was trying to figure out what was goin' on with her husband, Jeremy.

Golchinsky: And I recently got a letter from him telling me, "If they get coronavirus, they are going to put them in SEG."

Lee: SEG. She's talkin' about what's called a segregation unit where a person spends most hours of the day in isolation.

Golchinsky: So if they get sick their thought is to let them suffer. But to me, this is my husband, my best friend, and the father of my children. Mr. Lee, I don't know what to do to help my husband. But I do know that I don't want to sit and be quiet.

Lee: I wrote her back. (MUSIC) There are more than two million Americans sitting behind bars right now as coronavirus tears across the country. The majority of them are like Jeremy, in state prisons. We're all being told to keep our distance right now, wash your hands, protect your family. But inside prison walls, people share six by eight foot cells.

(MUSIC) Hand soap can cost several bucks a pop at the commissary. And you're lucky if you have access to hot water. People in prisons are more prone to hepatitis, tuberculosis, and other illnesses than the general population. Things spread fast. Now, there's COVID-19 and inmates are terrified.

Jeremy: This is real. It's coming to people's lives. It doesn't discriminate. And if it gets into an environment like this, it's going to spread like rapid fire. And the casualties can be numerous.

Lee: (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. Today we're going inside prisons as they face a pandemic of monstrous proportions. It's something the modern criminal justice system has never seen before. We'll talk to families on the outside and inmates on the inside and look to the Colorado and New York departments of corrections to understand what's being done to prevent spread of coronavirus behind bars. (MUSIC) In some prisons an outbreak has already started.

Jeremy: (MUSIC) Some people are actually dying. Some people aren't recovering. It doesn't discriminate about who it's coming for. And it doesn't discriminate who it lays down.

Lee: Sterling Correctional is a maximum security prison in northeastern part of Colorado. It's three hours away from Mary's house in Colorado Springs. When Mary wrote to me, it had been a while since her last visit.

Golchinsky: I got an email. And it said, "Until further notice, all visitation is cancelled." And I knew that that was the beginning of something really bad starting.

Lee: And when was your last visit before the Department of Corrections put a halt in the visits?

Golchinsky: I haven't seen him since February. I can tell you. 'Cause I always keep it on my calendar. February 22nd.

Lee: Mary's worried about Jeremy, about his safety, his health. But being apart, that's something Mary's used to. (MUSIC) Jeremy has been locked up for seven of the ten years they've been married. Before things got hard, they were just two people fallin' in love.

Golchinsky: (MUSIC) The biggest thing I love about him is he'll do anything for anybody. And he has a big heart.

Lee: (MUSIC) They got engaged on her birthday, on October 21st, 2011.

Golchinsky: (MUSIC) And he spent all day cooking and had this big surprise birthday party for me. Then he gets down. And I was so shocked, I almost passed out on him. And he asked if I would marry him. And I was just, I was floored.

Lee: So how about your wedding? Tell me about your wedding day.

Golchinsky: So we actually didn't have a traditional wedding. It was just him and I because he was on the run.

Lee: Jeremy has had a long, troubled relationship with the law. He struggled with drugs and alcohol. And before meeting Mary, he spent the better part of ten years in and out of prison. When they got married in the spring of 2012, Jeremy was wanted for multiple felonies and hiding from law enforcement. In November of that same year, police caught up with him. And he's now seven years into a 24 year sentence for burglary. Mary still remembers what a friend said when the judge sentenced Jeremy.

Golchinsky: She told me, "You have to make a choice right now. You either stand by him or you walk away." And I made that choice to stand by him no matter what. And I married him knowing what was ahead of me.

Lee: They developed a routine. Mary began visiting Sterling every month. In between trips they would speak as often as they could.

Golchinsky: Writing every day, getting letters every day, talking on the phone every day, however many times a day as long as the phone was available.

Lee: But last month, (MUSIC) news about coronavirus started to inch closer and closer to home.

Golchinsky: (MUSIC) So whenever first started and we saw things hit here. Like, when they first hit Washington is where I really was like, "I think we may need to be worried."

Lee: (MUSIC) Cases started popping up in Colorado. On March 11th,, the Colorado Department of Corrections cancelled all visits and restricted the movement of staff and vendors in and out of state prisons. Sterling Correctional Facility, which houses 2,400 inmates limited movement inside the prison as well. After learning her upcoming visit was cancelled, Mary got a letter from Jeremy.

Golchinsky: So I get the letter. And it says (RUSTLING), "Mary, I got your letter yesterday. And for now I have to do all I can to keep from getting corona because their treatment for us is to move us to segregation and hope we get better in isolation. Pretty scary to be frank.

"I know you're probably not in a good frame of mind. But maybe you are dedicated to figuring out how to find happiness and harmony with me in this crazy life. Hope you're doing okay. And know that you are loved now and always. All my love, your husband, Jeremy." (RUSTLING)

Lee: That's when Mary wrote to me. I spoke with Dean Williams, executive director of corrections for State of Colorado earlier this week. Williams told me they had implemented a policy of isolation if and when an inmate tests positive. When we talked on Tuesday, four staff members across the state had tested positive for coronavirus.

Three are Sterling employees. At the time, 21 of Colorado's inmates had been tested. That's out of 20,000 adults in the state prison system. Of those 21 tests, 18 were negative. But today, the Colorado DOC announced that one inmate has tested positive. The person was tested after being transferred from the Denver City jail to Buena Vista Correctional Complex. And he is currently in quarantine.

Mary told me that since the outbreak intensified, the Colorado Department of Corrections has been updating its website and its Facebook page to keep families informed. And the Department of Corrections says they rolled out a new video visitation system. It's not enough for Mary.

Golchinsky: It's stressful in the way that I don't know what's going on. I don't know, is he okay? Is he sick? So it's like we're trying to live our lives like we normally would. But how can you?

Lee: Last Monday, Mary got a call from Jeremy. It was the first time she had heard his voice in almost two weeks.

Golchinsky: (MUSIC) I'm recor--

Jeremy: We--

Golchinsky: Hang on, babe.

Jeremy: --seem to--

Golchinsky: I'm gonna record this.

Lee: They had just 15 minutes to talk.

Golchinsy: It'd be nice to see your handsome face.

Jeremy: I'm not very handsome right now.

Golchinsky: You're handsome to me no matter what. (PAUSE) You know what's crazy is he said that virus or no virus, our victims deserve to have us serve our time.

Lee: Is that what you want?

Golchinsky: I would rather him be home. Because I don't want something to happen to me and I never see him again.

Lee: You know, from the outside, there might be a lotta people who would hear your story and say, "You know, this is a wife who is there for her husband till death do us part." But I have to wonder if there are ways where he's there for you, that he's your strength, that he's somehow helping to keep you steady in this time.

Golchinsky: We take turns in lifting each other up and keeping each other going. And that's what you have to do. When one falls, you pick him back up. He tends to pick me back up more than I pick him back up. But he's always there for me. And I'm always there for him no matter what. (LONG PAUSE) (MUSIC) We just gotta make it through this.

Jeremy: (MUSIC) You know what I mean, eventually.

Archival Recording: (MUSIC) You have 60 seconds remaining.

Golchinsky: (MUSIC) It'll get better. Just keep praying.

Jeremy: (MUSIC) I hope so. You know, I mean, it is what it is. Our fate is sealed. (NOISE)

Lee: (MUSIC) After the break, we'll hear from an incarcerated man inside a New York State prison. We'll be right back.

Lee: So what's it like to be incarcerated right now as the virus spreads? Across the country from Mary in New York State, inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility are doing everything they can to avoid getting sick. Dateline NBC producer Dan Slepian has spent a decade and and a half reporting on Sing Sing.

Dan Slepian: It is a maximum security prison. It's about 30 miles north of New York City in a town called Ossining. And it's located on this big hill on the east bank of the Hudson River. And as you drive down the hill, the prison on your left side is sitting in front of this gorgeous view of the Hudson River. So there's this odd beauty to the scene when you drive in to Sing Sing.

Lee: How many times have you been there over the years?

Slepian: Probably too many times to count. I started going there when I started doing stories, specifically about wrongful convictions. But, you know, last month all of that changed, you know, when coronavirus hit. I started hearing a lot from people inside, getting emails, listening to people calling me on the phone with a different kind of sound in their voice.

Really most of what I hear from the inside comes specifically from one guy, one inmate named John Adrian Velasquez. His nickname is JJ. Everybody calls him JJ.

Lee: (MUSIC) So tell us about JJ. How do you actually know him?

Slepian: (MUSIC) The first letter he wrote me actually was dated December 5th, 2002. It was so beautifully written. It was so desperate that I felt like I needed to visit him.

Lee: (MUSIC) JJ is serving a sentence of 25 to life after being convicted of a 1998 murder of a retired police officer in Harlem. Dan has spent years looking into his case. Over time they've gotten to know each other.

Slepian: (MUSIC) He's an earnest guy. He's intelligent. He's thoughtful. He's focused. This is a different kind of relationship that I have with someone because I believe to my own moral certainty that he's actually innocent of the crime that he's convicted of committing.

Lee: (MUSIC) What is he telling you about what's goin' on inside Sing Sing?

Slepian: (MUSIC) You know, he's been in reputation for more than two decades. He's seen a lot in there. There's always been fear and a certain kind of panic in prison. But to be honest with you, I've been speaking to him for 18 years. And I hear something in his voice that's different.

Archival Recording: An inmate at New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. Thank you for using Securus. You may start the conversation now.

Slepian: Hey, man how are you?

Jj Velazquez: I'm surviving day to day, you know.

Slepian: So what's goin' on in there right now?

Velazquez: A lotta fear, a lotta anxiety to have 1,500 or 1,600 prisoners living in fear, not really knowing what's going on. Not knowing what the next moment is about to hold for us in here and what that means for us and how to react to it. There's just so much going on in so many different people's minds. And it doesn't matter what you tell people. It's how people feel.

Slepian: So you've seen a lot of stuff behind bars. How does this moment compare?

Velazquez: I've never seen anything like this in my life. It's really crazy. I think the closest that I've ever seen to a moment like this as far as what I see when I look in the next incarcerated person's eyes was probably 9/11. You know, when people heard that the twin towers had gotten struck and we were in a state of emergency, there was this panic not knowing what's next.

Slepian: 9/11 was a moment that happened, and then it passed. This is something that's ongoing and a direct threat to them inside. And he knows that the world is worried about their families and about their jobs and about the economy and about getting sick. He knows that people are not thinking about people like him which makes it even scarier for them inside. And, you know, they all have reason to be terrified. Last week a prisoner died at Sing Sing.

Lee: And when you talk to JJ, what is he most fearful of? What is he most concerned about?

Slepian: With visits and programs cancelled, there's only one main way for the virus to get in. And that's from the officers who work there. And that's what he's concerned about. And unfortunately the first case that did come in there did come from an officer.

Velazquez: It wasn't born in here. It was born out there. But we know that it's being brought in. We live in an environment where we don't have control over that. People will come by ourselves. And officer will ask me how I'm doing. And the spit out of his mouth when he's speaking to me is coming in my cell.

Slepian: There's about 35 officers who have tested positive and ten inmates. And that includes the one inmate that has already died. Twenty-three other inmates have been quarantined who are symptoms right now.

Lee: And is there an expectation that those numbers will continue to rise?

Slepian: Yes. The superintendent says he expects them to rise dramatically over the next ten days.

Lee: You know, when you think about these corrections officers, these are working class jobs, men and women who are comin' in tryin' to do their job and get their paycheck and go home. But they're not privileged enough to be able to work from home. Is there a real concern at all that if they get sicker, they're not showing up. And that can create a ripple and make an already unsafe environment even more unsafe?

Slepian: You know, I was speaking with the superintendent about this. Some officers are calling in sick. Obviously many of them are scared as are the inmates. But the prison, they have contingency plans that they're working through, going to 12-hour shifts. You know, if they're short-staffed. But, you know, the truth is, is that no one knows what's gonna happen. And like everyone, they are evolving with this as it goes.

Lee: Do you you buy what he's sellin'? Do you think he's doing everything he can to keep the guys safe?

Slepian: What I see happening at Sing Sing, and what I'm hearing from both the inmates and the superintendent is consistent, which is he's doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. What superintendent Capra has made a priority is communication. He believes in being honest with the population. There's an internal channel there just for the inmate populations.

Superintendent Capra: This is Superintendent Capra. I wanted to use channel 22 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility to give you some information about COVID-19 or otherwise known as the coronavirus.

Slepian: And he taped a message similar to how Governor Cuomo speaks to New York State.

Capra: Staff knows that we have done things in the mess hall, like only using one side of the table and have every other seat being utilized. But I need more than that. Don't bunch up all together waiting to get into the mess hall for a run. I need you all to work together with us so that we can minimize this spread.

Slepian: You know, there's problems. They don't have hand sanitizer in there yet. It's actually contraband in many prisons. They're trying to get it in there now. But the superintendent told me he doesn't want to lock down the prison because, you know, this is not a security issue. It's not a punitive issue. It's a health issue.

Lee: When it comes to JJ what is he doing (MUSIC) to protect himself?

Slepian: (MUSIC) You know, he's very worried specifically 'cause there's actually something I didn't know about him that he recently told me, is that he had prior respiratory issues. He told me he's cleaning like crazy. He won't go anywhere out of his cell without his spray bottle of bleach and water. They actually share two bottles on his gallery for 79 people.

Velazquez: Right now before I got on this phone, it probably took me ten minutes to really bleach out this whole booth. And then I had to let it air out. Because if I woulda been here, I'da been chokin' right now.

Slepian: He washes his hands constantly.

Velazquez: I can't even count. But I can say that I wash my hands at least maybe six to eight times an hour. And I'm not--

Lee: Wow.

Velazquez: --exaggerating at all. My hands are discolored. They have these patches that are purple and reddish. The skin doesn't even feel the same anymore. Almost like sandpaper. And I constantly put lotion on. But the lotion only lasts for a few minutes. And it's like every time I touch something, I feel like I have to wash my hands. Because this virus is so unforgiving.

Lee: How is social distancing working for JJ? How is he keepin' some space between himself and those around him?

Slepian: It's like saying, "Don't get wet when you jump into the pool," (LAUGH) you know. Social distancing doesn't really exist in prison. I mean, JJ's space, which I have seen. I have filmed him in his cell. He was in a space where he literally can put his arms out and he can touch both sides of the walls with his hands. That's how big his cell is.

Velazquez: I'm livin' in a cage. I live in what would be like a New York City bathroom. And your tub would be my bed.

Slepian: Overall the condition of confinement in prison is ideal for spreading viruses in general.

Velazquez: I've had people, like, they're taking a step towards me, and I'm taking a step back. And you're taking a step towards me. And now I take another step back. And I got a wall behind me. I can't go back no further. And I'm like, "Excuse me. I don't know if you realize what I've been doin'. You've been steppin' closer to me. I've been steppin' back. I can't step back no more. So it's your turn to step back."

Slepian: JJ told me something actually very interesting.

Velazquez: I've been in prisons where violence is, like, a regular occurrence. Like, you don't get surprised or alarmed when you hear that somebody got cut or somebody got stabbed or somebody went to the hospital. Or even, like, once in a while you'll hear somebody got killed. I've just seen several people die in my time in prison. Some have been murdered.

So that's not taking place right now. And that speaks volumes. Because you've had all kinds of administrators throughout my entire two decades incarcerated trying to figure out how to keep peace in prison and how to bring the rate of violence down. And this corona pandemic has done it hands down.

Lee: You know, that's really saying something when you think about conflict and violence are kind of woven into the fabric of these institutions in that kind of confinement. That's sayin' a lot, that folks are so concerned about getting sick that they're putting (LAUGH) that tension aside.

Slepian: Yeah. And I confirmed that with the superintendent. I was surprised to hear that too, actually. I would think the opposite. I would think that there would be more violence because the tensions are higher. But the fear has caused everyone to relax a little bit in terms of the violent part of it.

Lee: You know, everyone is trying to stay healthy and not get sick. But what happens in Sing Sing if someone does get sick? How does it play out?

Slepian: Sing Sing has its own doctors and nurses on staff. Clearly it's not staffed in a way that expects dozens and dozens and dozens of people to be sick. The superintendent has set up a ward that is specific for coronavirus patients. But they don't have ventilators. It's not a hospital.

So what happens when men get sick there is that immediately they go into a separate area, into a 14-day quarantine. You're stuck in a room without anything with other inmates who are sick. And what's making it more dangerous is that these guys don't wanna be in quarantine and sometimes aren't reporting when they have symptoms because they want to avoid it.

Velazquez: There are guys that we know that have been in their cells fighting off chills, you know, coughing and doing all these other things, but not reporting it. And then there's a dilemma that a lot of people have in prison, right. It's a cultural dilemma. The rule in prison is don't snitch.

So now if you hear somebody coughing and you know that he may potentially need medical attention, but he's not willing to get it. And you can't convince him to get it. You have this cultural aspect that you have to deal with. Don't snitch.

Slepian: He's heard people coughing and stuff. But he won't go to the officers or the administration about that.

Lee: What are some other ways that coronavirus has kind of reshaped the social dynamics behind bars?

Slepian: Yeah, I asked him about that. Mostly I'm interested in the relationships between the officers and the incarcerated population. Because it's always been as far as I understand it, us versus them, you know. JJ says this has changed that a little bit.

Velazquez: And staff is treating men in prison like men. And men in prison are treating staff like men and women. There's a level of respect. You have staff coming around and they're not just asking, "Where are you going?" on a go-around now. They're asking you, "Are you okay? Or Are you all right? How are you doing today?"

And they're actually looking you in your face to see you respond. You know, sometimes you don't get that. There's some people in prison who probably haven't been asked how they were by anybody else but people that know them who are also incarcerated for ten or 15 years or 20 years.

Slepian: He describes it a little bit of more sense of humanity is emerging. Because the officers or the population has never experienced a crisis like this.

Lee: A crisis like this isn't just a challenge for Sing Sing. Across the country, state prisons, federal prisons, they're all preparing for this pandemic to reach inside their walls. And the scale of the problem is hard to capture since most inmates aren't being tested. (MUSIC) At the end of last month, Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the release of some elderly and sick people from federal prisons.

(MUSIC) So far, Sing Sing, a state prison, has not decided to release inmates. But Sterling Correctional Facility where Mary's husband is housed in Colorado is considering early release for some low-risk, non-violent offenders. Colorado has also started to reduce its jail population.

(MUSIC) New Jersey was among the first states to do this. And pressure is growing around the country for state and local governments to do the same and to take action to keep inmates safe. Where you live or where you are incarcerated will largely determine how the criminal justice system responds during this crisis.

(MUSIC) There are concerns about how the pandemic will play out at notoriously dangerous and poorly run prisons, places like the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and Louisiana's Angola Prison. And according to reporting by the New York Times, the Cook County Jail in Chicago is now the largest source of coronavirus infections in the United States. More than 350 known cases have been linked to the jail.

(MUSIC) In many ways, coronavirus has made clear how we treat our most marginalized in this country, especially people who have been convinced of committing crimes. Do JJ and other folks inside Sing Sing especially, do they see that dynamic? Do they see themselves as the forgotten, the throwaways? How do they view themselves in the context of the bigger system?

Slepian: Oh, they know that they are. We've had conversations where he explains how there's no masks. And I said, "Jay, you know, there's not enough masks for the people out here." And he's like, "You know, but we're never gonna get 'em." What his words were exactly, "We all know we're the bottom of the barrel."

Velazquez: There's no ventilators in here. And according to Cuomo, he don't have enough ventilators for people in society. And somebody that's coming from prison with, you know, 25 years for murder's gonna get a ventilator first?

Slepian: I hate to say it. But I think he's right. I believe that there's a moral argument here personally. You know, we all bleed the same blood. We're all human. But even if you don't care about that, even if you think people like JJ and others like him should suffer, (MUSIC) 95% of everybody behind bars is gonna come back out.

And they will be your neighbor. (MUSIC) They'll be walking down the same street you will one day when we can walk down the street again. So we really should for our own good pay attention to how we're treating people.

Velazquez: (MUSIC) There are definitely people who are guilty and deserving of, you know, doing time. But I don't think there is a human life in this world that at this point we should just say, "You know what? Who cares about them? If they catch the virus and if they die, so be it."

(MUSIC) The pandemic right now is about humanity. It doesn't matter if you're incarcerated or if you're not. A person who is alive deserves to be alive. In fact many of the men that are in this prison have been incarcerated for taking people's lives. But that doesn't mean that their life should be taken.

Lee: (MUSIC) Dan Slepian is a Dateline NBC producer who covers criminal justice. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.