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Zoom funerals, outdoor classes: Jails are evolving amid Covid, but what happens afterward?

Families of prisoners fear corrections officials will use recently adopted technology to replace in-person interactions even after the pandemic ends.
Image; Illustration shows a prisoner holding a flower inside a jail, while watching his family at a funeral through a digital screen.
The pandemic has pushed the criminal justice system to reimagine itself a bit, delivering cutting-edge changes that have been lifelines for incarcerated people craving contact with their families. Glenn Harvey / for NBC News

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter or follow it on Facebook or Twitter.

When his father died last year of an overdose, Rodney Watson thought he would miss the funeral and his last chance to say goodbye — not because of the pandemic, but because he was in jail. Watson, 36, was awaiting trial in Houston after shooting and wounding his brother during a fight, an act he swears was unintentional.

In the past, Watson’s incarceration could have forced him to miss the elegant church funeral with the white roses and the military burial where they played Smokey Robinson. He wouldn’t have heard his family tell him they loved him and it would be all right.

But under a new practice adopted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, he was able to watch it all in November on a Zoom video call from inside the jail.

“It was beautiful,” he said. “And in a way I got a chance to see it.”

Rodney Watson watches the funeral of his father from inside a jail in Houston.

In Houston and a handful of other cities and states, the pandemic has pushed the criminal legal system to reimagine itself a bit, delivering services in ways that might have seemed unthinkable a year ago, from outdoor vocational programs to art classes via Google Hangouts. These are cutting-edge changes that have been a lifeline for incarcerated people craving contact with their families and opportunities to better themselves. But they come with risk: Families of prisoners fear corrections officials will use the technology to replace in-person interactions even after the pandemic ends.

As someone who’s been through the system and understands its limitations, I know how remarkable some of these changes are. For as long as prisons and jails have existed, living in them has meant coming to terms with loss: the loss of freedom, the loss of chances in life, the loss of friends and family. At a time when you’re hoping to reinvent yourself and your life, the ties that bind you to the free world can feel so tenuous, especially in the face of major milestones — events that keep happening, with or without you.

A few weeks after I was arrested on drug charges in upstate New York in 2010, I remember watching another prisoner get the news that one of her family members had died. She was only a few weeks from going home and seemed almost disoriented by the news. But she was one of the lucky ones: She got to go to one hour of the funeral in person, shackled and under guard. Most of the time that doesn’t happen — the funeral is too far, the prisoner doesn’t qualify, or the facility doesn’t allow it. The rest of us knew we would have to rethink what loss looked like while we were in jail.

Now, amid all the sickness and suffering of the past year, it’s the jails and prisons that are doing the rethinking — or at least some of them are.

Data on Covid-19 in jails is spotty, but we do know that since the start of the pandemic, more than 340,000 people in prison have tested positive for Covid-19 and at least 2,100 have died, a death rate far higher than that of the general public. Because communal living makes social distancing nearly impossible, many facilities tried to stop the spread of disease by cutting off outside visitors — including families, teachers and volunteers — and shutting down programs.

The rest of the world began to move online, but in corrections that was more difficult; while some prisons and jails already had tablets before the pandemic hit, most did not — and getting them wouldn’t be quick or easy. And even in normal times, lockups have typically been slow to embrace new technology or practices.

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are being responsive as a whole,” said Alycia Welch, associate director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Covid, Corrections, and Oversight Project. “But there are a good handful of places still wanting to work with their community partners to deliver programs and services.”

Some of these changes are low-tech. In San Diego, jail officials started moving some classes outdoors, while the California prison system’s state-funded art program converted its in-person classes to correspondence courses and still managed to put together an art show that opens this month.

In New York, the Cornell Prison Education Program switched to a combination of email and teleconferencing. The Pennsylvania prison system started using Zoom for visits just a few weeks into the pandemic, while Texas prisons started recording church services to play on televisions in common areas.

In Colorado, the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative kept up classes throughout the pandemic via Google Hangouts. In November the incarcerated artists showcased their work in a four-hour production streamed on YouTube and on prison cell televisions across the state.

“Nothing good comes from making prisons more harsh and punitive than they already are,” Dean Williams, the corrections department’s director, told the prisoners watching.

But as meaningful as a video connection can be, advocates emphasize that it’s not a replacement for in-person interactions. The idea that state and county lock-ups could try to replace classes, funerals or personal visits with remote alternatives even after the pandemic has been a source of worried chatter among prisoners’ families for months.

Michele Deitch, a prison oversight expert and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs, said it’s a legitimate fear. “When video visitation first started a few years ago, there was definitely a concern that it would replace in-person visitation — and in some places it did,” she said.

Enticed by what seemed like a safer alternative, and drawn to the additional revenue possibilities, several Texas jails axed in-person visits altogether. But that move generated a lawsuit and public outcry, and in 2015 the Texas Legislature passed a bill requiring most jails to allow in-person visits even if they added video alternatives.

“There’s a lot of reasons why agencies could see advantages here, but what they need to understand is what’s lost,” Deitch said. “Nothing replaces human touch.”

The Harris County Jail has dealt with its share of problems in recent months: lawsuits, crowding, a citation for not checking prisoners enough and a major Covid-19 outbreak. But over the years it has also had an eye toward change, embracing harm reduction while expanding literacy and vocational programs. So when a Houston rapper approached Sheriff Ed Gonzalez at a protest last summer, the county’s top cop was ready to listen.

“I had a conversation with Trae Tha Truth,” Gonzalez said, “and we were just chatting about community stuff when he said, ‘Hey, I know somebody who’s going to have a funeral service and his loved one is in your facility — what options are available?’”

Before the pandemic, the jail allowed some prisoners to call relatives who were attending funeral services through the regular video visitation program, which is available in just one of the jail’s buildings. But the new Zoom system — which Gonzalez supported after his conversation with Trae — is so much more accessible that the jail has already used it 38 times.

Sometimes wide-eyed, sometimes crying, people in custody can now go to a private room and peer into a laptop on the other side of security glass, then smile and wave as their loved ones on the outside pass around the phone to say hello and offer condolences.

For Watson, waiting trial in Houston, being allowed to see his youngest son was a highlight of watching his father’s funeral. Though the two have spoken on the phone, they’d never actually met. And so, after saying his goodbyes to his father’s casket, Watson saw his 11-year-old son for the first time.

“It almost brought tears to my eyes,” he said.