Robert Parker’s birthday is May 8. His wife, Holly Hein Parker, doesn’t know if she’ll be able to talk to him, much less celebrate with him on that day.

He’s only 47, but she’s scared he won’t even be alive then.

“My fear is that he will die in prison,” Holly, 40, said.

Robert is serving a five-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance at the Charles T. Terrell Unit, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison in Rosharon, Texas. He’s one of 45,210 prisoners in a precautionary lockdown because of the coronavirus.

(Courtesy of Holly Hein Parker)
(Courtesy of Holly Hein Parker)

As someone serving time on a drug possession charge, Robert is the kind of nonviolent offender advocates say should be released to flatten the curve in these facilities. Their release would give more space to the inmates who remain and provide safer working conditions for employees of the prison.

As of Thursday night, there were three disclosed covid-19 cases at the Terrell Unit. The precautionary lockdowns last for 14 days after the latest positive test.

There have been 693 positive tests out of 1,191 that have been administered across the prison system as of Thursday, TDCJ director of communications Jeremy Desel said. There are about 140,000 inmates in the state’s prison system.

Holly used to speak with her husband daily, but she hasn’t been able to speak to him since Tuesday. She was drifting off to sleep around 9 p.m. and remembers one of the last things he said to her, invoking her nickname: “Hollymonster, go to sleep.”

When she tries to call the prison, she is told calls are now considered a safety risk because the phones are shared.

“Now that I can’t even speak to him it feels more frantic and pressing and dire and yet nothing is moving quickly. People don’t seem to really be doing much of anything in terms of flattening the curve,” Holly said. “It’s cruel.”

Civil rights advocates, public health experts and some lawmakers contend that prisons are hot spots for the virus, and are urging the early release of nonviolent, elderly or high-risk offenders. On Sunday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed an executive order allowing for the early release of hundreds of inmates to reduce spread of the virus.

In the meantime, Holly says her waking hours are “panic-driven,” alternating between working as an artist and advocating for her husband’s swift release. She’s unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time.

“Now I’ll be completely in the dark and really have no idea what’s going on — if he’s really okay, if he’s alive. I don’t know many people who are in the same position and I don’t think this is the way to do things,” Parker said. “We still have a lot of things we plan on doing in this lifetime together.”

A woman who answered the phone at Terrell would not identify herself but confirmed that phone calls stopped earlier this week to “try to protect your family.” She would not comment on the number of positive cases at the prison.

A new system is being implemented to allow eligible prisoners on precautionary lockdown to make phone calls for up to five minutes as they are being escorted to and from their showers, which is the only time they are currently allowed outside of their cells, Desel, the TDCJ communications director, said. He added there are other ways for prisoners and loved ones to communicate — chaplains, for example, deliver messages from prisoners to families.

All of this comes on the heels of what the couple thought was good news — they found out that Robert would be eligible for parole if he successfully completed a six-month rehabilitation course that was scheduled to start in June, Holly said. She’s consulting with advocacy organizations and lawyers and remains hopeful

“We're not trying to beat the system, we really are trying to work with in it. I know they’re not going to just release him because I pitch a fit,” Parker said.

Holly fears that cases like Robert’s will be lost in the black hole between public attention and action.

As a child and grandchild of the state of Texas — her paternal great grandfather Alva Pearl “AP” Barrett served as a state Senator in the early 1900s — she wants to believe in government.

She met Robert, who she calls Bobby, in 2012 and married him two years later. Now Robert, who has high blood pressure and has tested positive for Hepatitis C, is in a high-risk category for covid-19.

She said she felt shame about her situation until very recently, when her husband’s status in prison became a matter of life and death.

“We fight for what we love and he’s the human being that I care about. What else am I going to do?”

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